Few games use pure joy as a central design choice. Fewer still manage to make a world of very little real threat compelling. Indie dev Monomi Park’s cartoonish farming sim Slime Rancher manages to do both. A fine entry into the often neglected feelgood genre, it's good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as Katamari Damacy and LocoRoco

Sentient balls of goo bouncing around with smiles on their faces, this is what the game has to offer. Its world is bright primary colours and a harmonious soundscape. At its core, there’s a surprisingly deep management game with some easy to learn yet occasionally fiddly systems. But generally, it’s an uplifting experience about caring for strange creatures. 

The story (what little there is of it) puts you in the shoes of Beatrix LeBeau. A mysterious traveller granted a role as custodian of an alien ranch by the 7zee Corporation. Initially, she’s tasked with basic maintenance and collecting the indigenous population. Her only tool is the trusty 7zee Vacpac.

Silent protagonist Beatrix becomes progressively more engaging as the days roll by. As she receives messages from friends and family, we learn more and more about her personality. Slowly uncovering what might have led her to pursue this strange vocation. Messages from the previous rancher are also scattered about the environments. These offer hints and insights into the rancher's life. It’s an engaging way of telling a story in a game that doesn't have much of a narrative. Further characters are introduced as trading partners, seen only on the monitor of your material exchange console. Here you'll carry out fetch quests for extra money. Each of your colleagues is distinct and charming. Except for the chicken guy – he’s creepy.

Much like the excellent Stardew Valley, there are no real obligations in Beatrix’s life. Information on what to do comes via emails from 7zee and other slime ranchers. The Slimeopedia, which updates with each new discovery, provides tips on how to manage your ranch and nurture your bouncing charges. But overall there are no objectives or timers.

Starting out you’ll be hoovering up some of the basic slimes and shoving them into a pen, feeding them their favoured diet so they can produce ‘plorts’, which can be exchanged for varying denominations of ‘newbucks’, the game's currency. Feeding slimes alternate foodstuffs can create hybrids that produce two kinds of plorts, but these are harder to keep due to their size and temperament. 

The game’s opening hours are unfortunately it’s most repetitive, as you grind plorts to buy upgrades for both Beatrix and your slime pens. Outside of the starting area, there are a number of other sections of the map that require credits to unlock. There’s a real temptation to make a beeline for a new place to explore, but managing your slimes can be tricky with the starting equipment. All slimes can easily escape their pen at random and those pesky tabby slimes (kitty cat shaped blobs) can and will sneak into the chicken coup and steal your supply when left unattended. Upgrades to pens and automated systems for feeding and collecting plorts should be prioritized over unlocking new areas. So get used to that starting area. 

Once the game opens up a bit and you have several species happily producing plorts for you, map expansion starts to unlock the mysteries of your strange new home. Some sections are locked off by mysterious, ancient looking doors, while distant structures and land masses hint at something much greater than your little homestead. It takes a while to fully explore the map and areas like the docks and slime lab unlock new features and game-changing systems. 

There is a mild element of danger in the presence of feral and tarr slimes, which attack you and the friendly wildlife. They mostly come out at night and are never really much of a bother. 

If there is a major gripe here it’s that the relaxed approach to storytelling doesn’t actively encourage you to make it past those first few hours. It’s easy to assume that the core game loop of material exchange and exploration is all Slime Rancher has to offer. Even after unlocking a decent crafting system and some genuinely fun ranch upgrades, the end game goal isn’t immediately obvious. New areas are distinct enough to entice the curious, but most introduce little to the overall experience. But things do lead to a conclusion and rest assured the final stages of your journey are heartfelt. It eventually feels worth the grind, and going back to start it all over again is an easy ask.

Conclusion

A charming world that’s worth getting lost in, Slime Rancher places you in a brightly coloured sandbox and gives you the freedom to make your own way. There are many plates to spin and no real motivation to progress beyond your own curiosity, but this is a journey well worth exploring.