Have you ever zoned out and gotten lost in a game as the hours bled away? Fossil Hunters is the latest indie title to achieve a gameplay zen reminiscent of recent hits like Slime Rancher, Botanicula, Proteus, and Abzu. The debut from the Toronto-based Reptoid Games blends the atmosphere of Journey with the simple yet complex mechanics of a game like Minecraft, washing away your bad feelings in an ambient sea of good vibes.
In Fossil Hunters, you play as one of four archeologists unearthing dinosaur bones while dealing with obstacles like cave ins, fossil eating critters, and flaming Axolotl that bulldoze everything at the dig. There is a light story – you’re looking for clues about missing fossil hunters – but the main appeal is the gameplay. You move horizontally to expose the fossil parts hidden under rocks and debris, then you drag them together to assemble a skeleton and submit that skeleton for big bucks. The levels are handcrafted in a way that makes pathfinding easy, allowing you to zone out as you dig your way across the map.
You can build whatever you like, but every level has a pre-arranged dinosaur pattern that you have to assemble to progress. You’ll also have the opportunity to complete additional challenges you receive from your radio operator. Each level has you going deeper into the earth to discover more fossils, building more elaborate dinosaur skeletons that will allow you to collect more money to spend at the stores you discover throughout the world (a la Spelunky). Each shopkeeper will appear back at your main base after you speak to them, offering perks that range from bridges to lamps to explosives.
That’s the basic pattern. You dig, and buy upgrades to assist with the digging. For instance, an improved pickaxe requires fewer swings to break apart debris, while lamps light up darkened areas and keep away spider buggers that destroy fossils. In general, your character is extremely mobile and can get out of most bad spots as long as you’re attentive. Even when you can’t deal with a problem, death is not a huge concern. You only lose a small amount of money that gets taxed when you die, and can soon continue without any major gameplay interruptions. It lends to the game’s rhythmic zen because no matter what, you are always moving forward.
Though the story is sparse, you will find pages from previous fossil hunters scattered throughout the world. They offer an interesting glimpse at some of the mechanics, and give a little colour to the world’s lore. It’s clean and succinct and it makes you wish that other developers would be more discerning with their massive lore dumps. The lost pages will often make you smile, though they also lead to some dark moments whenever you end up reading the last letter that a previous fossil hunter tried to send to their loved ones. It’s a bold and admirable choice, even if the tone occasionally feels a little off.
Beyond that, the game is built to keep the good vibes rolling. Fossil Hunters features some amazing music from Toronto savant Robby Duguay, who composed and produced all the music for the game. His work has been featured in Graceful Explosion Machine, Lovers in a Dangerous Space Time, and A Mortician’s Tale (amongst other games). The music in Fossil Hunters is reminiscent of the SNES, with catchy puzzle tunes and operatic chords that compliment the relaxed gameplay and enhances the chill and laid back atmosphere as the hours melt away.
In addition to the single player campaign, Fossil Hunters supports local multiplayer for up to four players, an added component that leads to some creative chaos. You can work with or against your friends and it’s a lot of fun, but you do need to be able to get four people together in one room to get the most out of the feature. That’s why I haven’t spent too much time with it, though it was a hit at the recent EGLX gaming convention in Toronto, where many kids were enthralled by the game as their parents begged them to leave and try something else. Fossil Hunters might be the new digital catnip for the next generation of young players, especially once it makes it to the Nintendo Switch.
My only major grumble is that some of the levels near the end feel less like challenges and more like busy work, eating up time as you drag fossils all over the map. One bad movement can ruin five minutes of work, which can be frustrating so close to the end of the game.
Fortunately, the negatives are outweighed by the massive positives. Fossil Hunters is fun, simple, and approachable. I can’t wait for the Switch version that will make it easier to play with friends.
Fossil Hunters is available now for $15 on PC. It will be coming to Xbox One, PS4, and Nintendo Switch in late May.
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