TAG’s answer to Animal Crossing is finally here. But does life on this galactic farm leave you skipping through lush green craters… or waste high in alien swill?
Astro Ranch is a life simulator which sees you play as one of two characters, Sindy or Max. While on a trip through space looking for a ranch settlement, these two members of the Farming Federation accidentally set their ship on a crash course for a strange planet. One makes it off the ship in an escape pod, while the other crash lands. This is where your adventure begins.
Luckily, you happen to be space-wrecked on a fertile planet, rich in plant and animal life. You are greeted by the local mayor, a three eyed green humanoid, who sets you up with land, complete with a barn, farm house and a well. From here the object of the game is to earn money by selling your wares, be it through farming various vegetables, rearing livestock, a spot of fishing or running the odd errand for the locals. Anyone familiar with either Harvest Moon or Nintendo’s Animal Crossing will be right at home. But it is the latter that Astro Ranch has the most similarities too, particularly in it’s graphical style. From the bright environments to the cute characters, and from the music to the touch interface, it has a real Nintendo feel to it, and this of course is a good thing.
The world of Astro Ranch is a compact one, everything you need is within a few taps reach. The immediate land around your barn is where you’ll spend most of your time, planting crops and rearing animals to expand your agricultural empire. Using an easy to use touch interface you can access your knapsack, in which you will find a shovel, a watering can and a scythe to begin with. Your knapsack can hold up to eight items, as well as a ninth which you can hold. Each item is represented by a small round icon, and activating it for use is a simple task of dragging it from your knapsack to a circle at the top right of the screen, which represents the active item. From here you can use the item by either dragging and dropping it to the area of the environment, or tapping it to highlight it, and then dragging your finger across the area you wish to apply the object too. Drag and drop is best if you want to affect a single part of the environment… so for example digging a single hole, planting one seed, or watering one plant. If on the other hand you wish to dig up a large area of soil, plant multiple seeds, or water a selection of plants, then it’s best to do the latter. This touch based inventory system works incredibly well, much like organising files and documents on a computer with a mouse.
Of course you can’t do any farming without first getting money to purchase seeds and livestock. On starting the game you find a lone cob of corn, ready to harvest. Using the scythe you turn the crop into a box of corn ready to sell. A pod near your barn allows you to beam crops and other items directly to market, and this is the main way of earning money in the game. You will be paid based on the stock price of your item which is dependant on the in-game seasons. So for example, fruit may be worth more in the winter, but may be harder to grow in the cold climate. So the game does require a little strategy if you want to earn the big bucks, and choosing the right crops and livestock is a key part to the game. This is where the shop comes in…
South of your ranch you will find the shop, but you have to get there first. To walk in the game you simply tap or drag where you want to go, and your character will follow. Tapping on the shopkeeper will give you two options, buying or selling. Selling is really only for selling back items you don’t want or non-farm items you find or catch, as only the market pod allows you to sell your produce. Hitting the buy option opens up a menu of items ready for purchase. Here you can browse by crops, livestock, and utility items. Utility items are items that you’ll need to successfully rear livestock and grow crops. Crops for example may fall fowl to insects, so you’ll want to pick up some pesticide spray. Some crops also require different methods for harvest, for example gloves for picking root vegetables. Livestock need pens, food and medicine to thrive, as well as basics such as broom for clearing up their mess.
From the get go though you can’t buy everything, not only do the more exotic items require a lot of cash, but some items are locked, instead requiring you to reach a certain level of experience before allowing purchase. Everything you do in the game earns you experience, some tasks more than others, and is represented by a star level in the top left of the screen.
Soon you’ll find you have a thriving business. With crops growing out of your ears and livestock skipping around your land. It is hard work though balancing the various tasks. One minute you’ll be tending to your crops when thirsty, or overrun by pests. Or you’ll be feeding hungry pigs, collecting and selling eggs from your alien chicken’s… or sheering the wool from your three eyed sheep. And you don’t have infinite time to do this! The game has an in-game clock, but unlike Animal Crossing’s real-time day and night cycles, Astro Ranch days are over in around 10 minutes, with 15 minutes of game time equalling around 10 seconds of real time. This of course speeds up the growth of both plants and live stock, which in turn has both upsides and downsides. The upside is that you won’t be waiting for day upon day (real-time) for crops to be ready for harvesting, or the chickens to lay eggs… the downside is that if you take your eye off things for a short while then your crops may have wilted in the summer heat, or your pigs have swine flu! The main advantage of this kind of speed clock though, is that when you save and quit the game the ranch life is frozen in time, allowing you to pick up right from where you left off… unlike that which bugged me about animal Crossing’s real-time clock, and returning to the game weeks later only to find the entire land overrun by weeds!
All this work is very addictive however, and you can easily loose track of time doing, what are on the face of it, quite menial tasks. But it’s not all about the hard graft… there are other things to do in Astro Ranch that don’t require being covered in soil and animal muck.
If there is one thing that screams Animal Crossing more than anything, even the art style and the interface, it’s FISHING! Fishing in Animal Crossing was without doubt the best part of the game, and so on noticing the similar silhouettes of fish in the surrounding rivers of Astro Ranch, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a rod. To start fishing you need to first buy a rod from Exi the alien octopus character. There are three rods to choose from, each allowing you to catch bigger and better fish but costing more each time. Once bought you can head to one of three fishing spots in the game. Basically wherever you can see the fish. This is where I was surprised to how well fishing translated in this game using both touch and tilt actions. Casting off requires you to first tap the direction you want to fish, then to cast you simply flick the iPhone towards you… with the distance of the cast affected by how hard you flicked the device. A fish will eventually (sometimes instantly) swim towards your lure. To hook it on you must wait for it to bite and when it does, you flick the device away from you quickly… if you are successful the fish will now be on the hook and a graphic representation of a reel will appear on screen, as well as a bar at the top of the screen with a scale from green to red. The object here is to reel in the fish without entering the red part of the bar, doing so will lose the fish. But you can’t be too slow either as the same will happen. If you are successful you will pull it out of the water, and the fish will be added to your inventory. Depending on it’s weight and type you can sell it for various amounts of cash at the shop. It’s great fun… and to be honest, if it wasn’t for having to sample all the game had to offer for the purpose of this review, I’d hang up my farming hat and spend all my time fishing!
Other tasks around the ranch include panning for gold in the river near the mine, a fun but, more often that not, unrewarding tilt based mini-game, as well as running errands and interacting with the local folk. There are five characters in the game, the mayor as mentioned before mainly gives you advise, though he may ask you to hide his moonshine from the local sheriff. The sheriff is in love with Exi, and so you’ll run many love notes between them, as well as partake in the odd clue hunt complete with a magnifying glass. Then there’s the shop keeper; a grumpy old alien who lives in a lighthouse; and finally a crazy scientist who has more than a touch of the megalomaniac about him. More often than not they are simply there to offer lighthearted anecdotes to you, many which will become annoyingly repetitive, however, occasionally they will give you a task to do which can up your experience level and give you a cash injection… so it’s worth visiting them from time to time.
As well as tasks around the ranch, you an also visit your house for a spot of R&R. Here you can change your clothes in the wardrobe, or check out your best catches in your fishing scrap book. More important of note is your computer. Using this you can access stock information about crops and livestock, and see which is selling well and worth harvesting. You can also access the online shop to buy downloadable content such as clothes for your character, or customise your living space with new furniture…. you can even exchange real cash for game credits to expand your farm quicker (or cheat). A bed is also available, this will take you to the next day, should you want to speed the clock along even quicker. And finally, for a bit of social networking, you can send and receive mail from the outside world by visiting the mailbox to the left of your house. Here you can compose messages for others playing the game, as well as send objects, including even money.
I had a great time visiting Astro Ranch, and came away extremely impressed with what TAG have achieved on the platform. Yes it borrows heavily from both Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon, but not only does it scratch an itch for that kind of game on the Appstore, it does the job equally as well, and in many instances it does them better. The game looks great, with an almost RARE-like cartoon look to it, it runs silky smooth on a 3GS, and the interface for the most part works a treat. There’s some fun little space themed details too, such as the flying saucer that descends from the sky to collect your animals when sold, as well as many tongue-in-cheek references to popular sci-fi culture.
There are a few things that stop it getting a perfect score; occasionally you’ll find problems with your characters interaction with parts of the environment, as well as the repetitive chat and missions from the locals. But, for the main objective it set out to achieve, which is to deliver an on-the-go virtual farming experience, then I think Astro Ranch does a stellar (or inter-stellar) job at doing just that. TAG plan to add to the game with more content, including characters and sub missions, and so like a fine wine it can only get better with age.