Forager was a game that passed me by on its initial PC release, but with the familiar cycle of indie PC games being ported to console, it’s now got a second chance to grab the spotlight. On the surface level, it has similarities and points of comparison to the simulations of My Time at Portia, Stardew Valley and Harvest Moon, but it cuts them with the sensibilities of idle games like Cookie Clicker. Forager feels like a pure distillation of the craft ’em up, its seeming simplicity concealing a compulsive and addictive game that knows how to get its hooks into you.
Forager has its origins in a 72 hour GameJam and it’s clear that this is a true indie game. Obviously the final retail version is far more developed and sophisticated than the prototype, but it is proud to wear its indie credentials on its sleeve. Progressing through the various challenges in the game will see you rewarded with character customisation options that include cameos from Binding of Isaac, Super Meat Boy, and the obligatory Shovel Knight (surely one of the most prolific cameo characters of recent years). While these are mostly cosmetic, the result is a game that feels like a celebration of some of the best parts of indie gaming from the last decade.
Graphically, Forager is unabashedly retro, but the crisp and clear style really helps when things get ridiculously hectic later on. The lo-fi graphics are perfect for ensuring that everything stands out, although there is a tendency for items to get obscured behind buildings. When you get far into the game this becomes more apparent as you will be covering the land with special structures to wring the most output from each island. Even though the game world is relatively small, the various unlockable islands cover a nice range of biomes from grassy to desert, with traditional fire and ice. These areas aren’t just cosmetic dressing, as different collectables spawn in different areas.
The addictive nature of Forager’s gameplay loop comes from its incremental idle game elements. Whilst staying true to the increasingly ridiculous numbers and compulsive acquisition of that genre, Forager adds a layer of actual playability on top. The first few hours are much closer to the opening parts of RTS classics like Age of Empires as you actively acquire resources, build structures and work towards goals that will increase your productivity. Later on you unlock skills that enable you to automate many of these more routine activities, just as you might be becoming bored with them. I was impressed by how well judged these rewards were, although it is possible to follow skill paths that will see you having to carry out the drudge work for longer.
There is a surprising amount of flexibility to how you proceed throughout the game. There’s always something to work towards, whether that is upgrading your equipment, levelling up to unlock new skills, earning coins to buy new lands, exploring the dungeons on some islands, completing subquests for NPCs, or collecting items for the museum. This dizzying range means that you never feel as if you’re just waiting for things to happen, the worst problem in many idle games. Once everything is automated it’s possible to just leave it running and go off to make dinner, but that never really feels like a suitable way of playing Forager (at least until you get to the endgame and want to do the kinds of ludicrous things that make for entertaining YouTube videos). If nothing else, the levelling up and exploration side to Forager makes it feel like an actual game rather than a visual spreadsheet – even when there is lots of maths happening in the background.
As you level up you unlock skill points that open up new paths in the skill tree. Choosing which path to follow can become quite tricky as you try to balance optimising acquisition with other goals such as equipment upgrades or exploration. Some of the more useful skill nodes are hidden behind ones that don’t initially seem useful, so it is worth taking the risk occasionally. If I had a complaint about this aspect, it would be that some of the wording for unlockables is unclear, with the essential functions of structures like mining rods, quarries, and lighthouses not always being obvious. Once you work out that the rods automatically harvest resources in their area of effect, and that quarries spawn minerals at regular intervals, you can combine the two to accumulate at a far more efficient rate. Lighthouses increase the drop rate around them and, as their effect stacks, they enable some ridiculous numbers to be achieved.
Balancing your goals is perhaps the main challenge of Forager, but I’d definitely recommend working towards a mixture of upgrading your equipment and regularly buying new lands. The inflation mechanic means that the more of something you build or buy the more expensive it becomes, so there will be times when lands are simply out of your budget for a while. At these points, it’s worth exploring the mini Zelda-like dungeons on various islands, as each offers unique items and abilities, as well as the potential for health increases. The latter becomes more useful later as combat becomes more frequent. Death doesn’t mean much, as you can reload to just before the fatal blow, but it does quickly becomes annoying and is best avoided if you can.