I think it’s fair to say the Switch has had a fantastic launch year with the system now home to two all-time classics in Zelda and Mario Odyssey as well as Mario Kart, Splatoon and Arms propping up its first-party releases. Aside from Nintendo’s efforts to make amends for the Wiiu’s poor launch year, the Switch quickly became home to the creative indie scene, cherry picking the best of the Steam line up to bolster its library.
What is lacking though are the more serious, considered realistic game worlds. The serious driving sims like Forza and god games like Sim City. In this sense Farming Simulator 17 (FS17) has arguably found a gap in the library and aims to demonstrate that the Switch can host a slower more thoughtful style of game that removes a prescribed single player story and replaces it with a strong focus on doing one thing well.
Released on the Xbox and PS4 and pretty much every format it can back in 2016 the Switch version comes with the promise of a full and complete port to the handheld hybrid. For the uninitiated to the series Farming Simulator provides the player with an arbitrary avatar, a large farm (from 2 to choose from), some cash to spend on staff, material, livestock and vehicles, a so so tutorial, and then expects you to get on with the day to day running of your business.
This mostly involves a first-person perspective / in Vehicle view of various Pickup Trucks, Tractors, Combine Harvesters and other Farming vehicles required to cultivate, sow and harvest your crops. Each aspect of farming requires several processes or be followed from starting engines to lowering blades and emptying containers The game runs at a very leisurely pace – anyone coming to this after enjoying Stardew valley will find a very different pace and approach.
Whilst Stardew Valley had an addictive 15 minutes loop, TFS17 If you can get into the rhythm of the game is almost zen-like and you will lose hours to it.
Whereas Stardew Valley would present a multitude of different tasks you need to do each day with no way to accomplish all of them forcing you to choose how to spend energy and time, FS2017 focusses the role of Farming to the specific day to day tasks. The act of sowing a field can take some time with complex controls for each vehicle and a slow but steady pace to each activity.
No hammering ‘B’ to water plants here. You can hire staff to finish tasks such as harvesting crops, freeing you up to focus on other aspects of Farming (this is highly recommended) If looking after the land isn’t your thing the game encourages you to raise livestock such as Chickens and Pigs or even take up forestry.
While the laid-back pace of the game is refreshing, its hampered by controls that haven’t been mapped well to the Switch, a symptom of it being a PC port. Anyone coming as a newcomer to the series will be initially overwhelmed by button combinations and the hand contortions needed to complete the simplest of tasks.
Playing with a pro controller helped but not everyone will own one. If you have poor eyesight the handheld mode isn’t great as the text font size is very small suggesting a lazy port. I couldn’t play in tabletop mode due to the amount of information I was required to follow and read on the screen.
Maps were small and cluttered with it obvious that a mouse controller was originally built for the UI. In docked mode, the game runs great with very serviceable graphics that while not amazing convey the time of day and detail necessary to immerse yourself in farming matters.
Sound effects are typically bird singing, cockerels crowing and the engine sounds for each vehicle, all very serviceable. Coming straight from playing Mario Odyssey with its constant reward structure made FS17 a very sterile experience. It’s best played setting your own goals as it rarely makes a fanfare about reaching a key achievement assuming the player has come to the game with a passion for the hundreds of different vehicles you can operate.
A good comparison would likely be Minecraft which is a freeform as you wish it to be. If you enjoyed learning the various systems in Minecraft then you may find FS17 a worthwhile investment. While you can choose a male or female avatar and then the colour of their shirt it’s all rather pointless as unlike Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing, the focus isn’t on personal relationships.
This is a clinical portrayal of managing a farm. Anyone old enough to remember the old Amiga Microprose simulations which came with the keyboard overlays will understand the tone FS17 hits. I almost wish the retail version came in a large cardboard box with a 200-page manual and an overlay for the joycons.
Three difficulty levels are available along with a lot of customisation options from having the radio on when driving vehicles to the currency used when buying and selling. I do feel that the game would have benefited from more console focussed modes or short-term goals that had clear challenges such as ‘earn a set amount by next Spring’.
Having no immediate objectives at the start of the campaign can be daunting leaving you up to experiment with farming and find your own way. I initially jumped right into the career mode and quickly realised I had no idea what I was doing. I walked around the farm, chuckled at my small gathering of Chickens, drove a few vehicles and then had no sense of what I was supposed to do.
The tutorials while helpful in learning the various activities didn’t give structure or flow to the day to day tasks which I felt I was left to get a handle on. Yet despite the sense, the game wants to make you earn your farming credentials and that it’s not a great fit for the console and its assumed userbase, I can’t help but feel a strange sense of warmth towards the game.
It plays by its own rules, strips back the busywork of other farming games, doesn’t allow the time stress of modern life to interfere with its core gameplay and offers a hugely deep but at times seemingly impenetrable sandbox.
It doesn’t handhold the player assuming a level of competence that while welcome may mean that younger players will need an adult to play alongside them. Perseverance pays off eventually but my goodness it’s not an easy first few hours.
I’m not 100% sure the Switch has an audience for this type of game but I hope it finds a home on the console. Against the bright colours and family friendly push of Nintendo’s finest it oddly feels surreal being a very straight-laced mature game on the system right now. Ironically as it is such a focused representation of Farming it is possibly also the most family-friendly title in that none of its content will offend young minds. It’s a niche market the simulator genre, but taking your tractor on the go (once you have painfully learnt the 5 steps to getting its engine started) can be a very enjoyable and at times educational way to pass the time.
Pros: Nothing quite like it on the Switch. A lot of depth for those willing to invest time. Over 250 vehicles in-game will appeal to enthusiasts. As deep as you want it to be in an easy mode for a more casual sandbox experience.
Cons: Can feel like a lazy PC port, UI isn’t great especially in tabletop and handheld mode and the joy cons can feel cramped with the button mapping used. Tutorials can still leave new players lost as to what to do. The sterile atmosphere throughout the game can make it feel like a lonely existence being a farmer.
Summary: A very dry, niche title that will not appeal to a lot of Nintendo’s core audience accustomed to bright pastel coloured make-believe worlds, constant rewards, recognition of success and signposting. Get past its cold exterior and you can find a game that can relax, educate, entertain and challenge you all in the space of an hour.
I would recommend this title if you have previously enjoyed slower paced games such as Minecraft, Stardew Valley and Championship Manager. I would stay away from this title if you seek instant gratification in your games and prefer a more arcade driven social experience such as found in Splatoon, Mario Kart and Bomberman.
Overall score: 3 out of 5