Niche – A Genetics Survival Game is by far one of the most entertaining computer games I’ve played in the past ten years. The premise is simple – keep your pack alive – but once you start to juggle the crazy world of DNA, parental lineage and random genetic mutations, this seemingly straightforward game becomes much more tricky.
Every Niche game starts the same: the player is given two creatures, Adam and Eve. It’s up to the player to breed the pair, explore the randomly generated island, find food – berry bushes, rabbits, or nuts from a tree – and avoid danger. What makes Niche unique is that no two games are the same. After the first baby is born, genetic mutations change the shape of the pack. One game can have a lot of males with razor sharp claws while another game is dominated by horned females.
After a creature is born with an adaptation – such as claws, big ears, red fur, or yellow eyes to list a few – it becomes a possibility for future generations. The challenge is controlling the mutation menu (see above), especially since there’s no guarantee that babies won’t be born blind, with a limp paw or suffering from a weak immune system. Sometimes all three!
The flip side to that is when the creatures are born with a new, advantageous mutation. There’s the possibility of panda patterns, poisonous fangs, ram horns, antlers, leopard spots, tiger stripes and a variety of color combinations in fur and mane tones. After three generations, your pack will look nothing like Adam and Eve.
Anything can happen when a pair of creatures breeds – it’s up to the player to avoid incest and creating a genetic pool smaller than a puddle. It’s a daunting task, especially since the island is populated with other uncontrollable wild creatures that’ll breed with your pack, messing up your strategic planning. There are also predators to avoid. One of the trickier dangers is a bird of prey that’ll swoop up any unattended baby. Another is carnivores that attack the old, sick or weak.
While I love Niche and will readily recommend it to anyone, there are a few flaws. One issue is how predictable it can be. After playing a few games I realized a pattern. The island will always spawn birds when you have lots of babies, there’s always a carnivore lurking somewhere and once you get the hang of manipulating the mutation menu and how recessive genes work, it’s relatively easy to steer your pack in a certain direction to increase the chance of having a lot of claws instead of normal legs.
Another problem lies with finishing the game. Niche doesn’t have an end goal. The latest update allows for pack members to jump to another island – but it’s the same thing just on a higher difficulty. There have been a couple of games where I’ve explored every tile of the island and found myself a little bored with just breeding the pack and picking berries.
But even with those two complaints, Niche has the most desirable trait a video game can possess – replay-ability. As I said before, no two games are the same. There have been games when my pack died out because all my females passed away; games where the predators were just too much and pups died as carnivores killed the elders; games where the blind eye gene made exploration impossible.
There’s literally thousands of possibilities to Niche. Most games take anywhere from 3 to 5 hours, but it’s remarkably easy to lose yourself in this game. And best of all, Niche is an early access game on Steam and, according to developers, will have a major update sometime later this month. So who knows what’s in store for our little creatures?
Have you played Niche? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!