Preview: Big Farm Story

21 Aug 2020

Big Farm Story is something I would… hesitate to call a game. Despite being released to the public as a playable early access game, it’s devoid of content and feels more like a prototype than anything. I’ve done previews of games that were still in Early Access before, and I’m no stranger to the idea that a game may change considerably after my preview in the on-going dev cycles that is modern game development. I’ve often noted planned updates, noted that certain things may be patched later, and so on… but at the end of the day I can only preview what I can play. I cannot preview the eventual maybes and promises of a possible future. To that end, I can definitively say this is not a game you should pick up now, and looking at where it’s going, you may not want to pick it up ever.

So, a bit of context. Big Farm Story is a farm sim in the vein of Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley. You grow crops to earn money, talk to villagers, etc. All tried and true basics in a genre that is beloved by millions. Where it loses me is in the execution.

First off, the villagers. There’s a main quest of sorts, but I managed to hit the content boundary in maybe 45 minutes, with time spent screwing around. There’s a small handful of sidequests with not much to them, and some tutorial quests about unlocking various features and guiding me to do things. Outside of these, however, the villagers have nothing to say. They’ll say hi, and you just have an option to end the conversation. So, this aspect of the farm sim is fairly nonexistent. We still have growing stuff on the farm though, right?

Well, here is where we get into the real nasty part of the game. There are two unfortunate mechanics in this game, time and XP, that are at best handled incompetently, and at worst are unethical. These two elements are the key to unlocking most of the features. You get XP from doing just about anything, from picking flowers, to cutting wood, and planting and growing crops. Leveling up then provides you with three stickers to choose from that allow for things such as growing a greater variety of crops or unlocking new harvesting methods like mining rocks or picking mushrooms.

However, you start with an absolutely dismal list of things you can perform (pick up wildflower seeds, pick flowers, plant carrots and wildflowers, and chopping wood) and these stickers are not just required for unlocking new content, but also for upgrading important facilities, such as having more than four spots to plant things or upgrading your well’s water production.

Which leads me into the other issue: Time. Everything in this game is gated based on time, and not in a good way. Crops take time to grow, such as two minutes for carrots or twenty for potatoes, but there are also timers around how often your well generates water, a day cycle that regenerates stuff you can pick up like rocks and mushrooms, refreshing the market board to clear out one for items you don’t have takes time… there are all sorts of little timers here and there. Towards the end of my time with Big Farm Story, I would spend a few minutes doing my content for the day, and then put the game down for about half an hour while I waited to have things to do again.

Now, these are both features that other games do well, and can enhance a game in some ways, but both are handled poorly here. I love RPGs, and almost always have at least one MMO I’m engrossed in. XP can be a fine way to slowly introduce a player to mechanics, or to guide players to tackle problems in a certain order. In good games, players typically either follow a good leveling curve just from doing the tasks the game asks of them or there’s plenty to explore and make the leveling process itself enjoyable. In either case, the base gameplay, even at a low level, is engaging enough to be fun.

In Big Farm Story, there’s an extremely small pool of actions you can do at the beginning, and once the initial pool of quests dry up you’ll find yourself needing around 700 XP to level while actions give 1 XP a pop. This isn’t even getting into how a lot of the stickers, mainly the ones to upgrade facilities, also require a large gold investment to do. With both XP and gold coming in at a trickle, even playing properly by using the market contracts, the core loop is largely just an immense amount of grinding, waiting to get enough XP and gold to finally unlock something new to do. A new thing that will become dull long before you get something else to do.

As for time, Big Farm Story is a game that clearly does not respect yours. Again, there are a lot of games that use timers well: I love Animal Crossing, a game that encourages putting it down for a day, and I play a number of mobile games with stamina I need to wait for. In both cases however, I play for a little bit and then I set the game down for most of the day, if not an entire day, before doing it again the next day. This allows me to go off and do things, play something else, and otherwise use my time as I see fit between play sessions.

Big Farm Story has a wait of about 30 minutes most of the time, and waiting longer doesn’t give you more to do. This is a time that’s long enough to be annoying, but not long enough to simply put the game down and do something else while you wait. It’s the absolute worst way to pad out game length and engagement metrics. It somewhat works for mobile titles, because it’s easy to check on your phone every few minutes, but even then I find it distasteful. This preview was for a Steam copy, where it’s even more inexcusable.

Now, I do have my theories about why this game was made the way it was. The first, and most likely, is to support a cash shop. There were no options for microtransactions while I was playing my preview copy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the first new features is a way to pay real money to get in-game coins or XP. Making a game exceptionally grindy and time consuming is usually there to encourage players to shell out a few dollars for an XP booster or an allotment of coins.

The other theory is that the developers have seen this style of gameplay work in their prior free-to-play mobile titles and adopted it to this purchased PC title without any real consideration for WHY it works there and not here. In either case, there needs to be enough to the game to hook players so they’ll put up with either shelling out cash for microtransactions or grinding basic actions for ages, and at least for now that hook just isn’t there.

Preview copy provided by Goodgame Studios. Screenshots taken by writer.