Ooblets starts out with your player character arriving on the island of Oob, wanting a change of pace after living a life that was “a bit of a toot.” There, they meet a self-absorbed mayor who looks to be around 14, an antisocial boy with a space helmet, and its titular Ooblets, plantlike creatures who communicate through dance battles.
If what you’ve heard so far sounds delightful, then Ooblets is probably the game for you. If you’re left scratching your head at what exactly you’re supposed to do in this setting, the answer is less clear.
It’s hard to describe Ooblets without making lots of comparisons to other titles it almost certainly takes inspiration from. The creature battling and collecting feature seems ripped straight from Pokémon, but the gardening and house-building aspect seems like they took a leaf out of Harvest Moon’s book. And then the daily interactions with a town full of fun and quirky inhabitants feels more in line with something like Animal Crossing, if it were written by a small group of anxious millennials.
In the few hours I’ve played of it’s early access release, Ooblets seems like a bit of all these things. In those hours, I’ve completed a handful of “Tinstle’s tasks,” sidequests set by the mayor, battled a few Ooblets and collected their “seeds,” which they poop out with a tasteful fart sound, and started renovating my home and farm. Most of the time, however, I’ve just been hunting for collectable items, of which the game wants you to collect a lot.
Want your house to not look like it’s on the verge of collapse? Collect some stuff. Need to fix a sticker printer? Better get collecting. Sometimes you can complete objectives through battles or talking to various citizens, but most of the time, you’ll be growing, buying and scavenging for whatever items you need for the current grocery list.
In a way, this structure is meant to incentivize the type of gameplay loop Ooblets is going for, which aligns itself most comfortably with Harvest Moon. I’ve never played nor had the desire to play these types of games, since too many seem to throw all its tools at you and leave you to make something out of it. Although the aim is to create a calming, somewhat repetitive schedule of chores that distracts from your actual, real-life chores, I’m not the only one who finds this open-ended approach more anxiety-inducing than relaxing.
In Ooblets, however, the blend of concrete objectives somewhat offsets that anxiety, offering a clear, inflexible list of what you should be farming and looking for. It’s not a perfect system, especially early on when if I don’t have something, I can’t just move onto something else until I find it organically. Still, it’s better than nothing, and one of the biggest reasons why I haven’t already given up on the game.
Another important mechanic is Ooblets’ energy system, where, as in Persona, interacting with each object usually takes a set amount of energy. When that energy runs out, you either need to refill it with something energizing such as an energy bar or “beanjuice” (Ooblets’ characteristically adorable name for coffee), or turn in for the night. This disincentivizes interacting with and hoarding every object you come across, instead pushing you to think a bit more strategically about what you need and what you can probably do without.
I haven’t mentioned the actual “combat” in Ooblets thus far, because there’s been a surprisingly small amount of it. When it does happen, the Ooblets engage in dance battles wherein they each have a randomly selected hand of cards each turn. These cards, some of which can be used by any Ooblet and others needing specific Ooblets to wield them, have different dance moves which increase the team’s points or cause different status effects to give itself an advantage or hinder the opposing team. It’s a pretty simple system, even when compared to the ever-simplistic Pokémon games, and although there’s potential for it to grow as the game progresses, right now it’s a bit too easy to be that engaging.
Instead, the complexity seems to come from preparing your team outside of these battles. Instead of catching Ooblets, they poop out a seed for you to plant in your garden, which will eventually grow into a collectable Ooblet. You’ll also need to collect and grow more conventional plants, as most Ooblets have item requirements in order for you to challenge them to dance battles.
I have a list of problems with Ooblets, but I’ve still managed to put a handful of hours into it without giving up. That’s a lot more than I can say about many of the games it imitates. Part of this is helped by its loose structure and reward system, which provide just enough hits of dopamine to keep me interested. The other part is its overflowing charm.
From item descriptions to its art style to the music and especially its dialogue, Ooblets is delightfully awkward and adorable. Characters bob their heads back and forth while talking, and do little jigs in place. The Ooblets themselves seem like something from a modern cartoon, each one having a comically elated or grumpy face and endearing little dances with their stumpy arms and legs. Characters talk with an intentionally jarring candor, with many of their lines sounding like short, feisty tweets. They complain about adult responsibilities, social interaction and life in general, not in a depressing way but in one which highlights the humor to be found in everyday anxieties, especially among the millennial crowd. Its audience tends to skew a bit older than my own, but I still very much appreciated the consistency of its tone.
Ooblets is far from a final product, and I’m far from done with what’s currently available. Still, it’s impressed me with its endearingly awkward tone, and has the seeds of growing something both engaging and relaxing. I just hope it continues to walk that tightrope of player freedom and structure, as veering too far in either direction threatens to lose a big part of its audience.
Joseph Stanichar is a Paste intern.