City life got you down? Longing for the open air, for the chirp of birds? Maybe even for the buzz of honeybees? And would you settle for pixelated versions of all the above?
If so, APICO has got your number. This beekeeping-focused Stardew Valley-like, developed by TNgineers and published by Whitethorn Games, brings many of the same pleasures, but with a mechanical depth that will keep your brain buzzing. Rather than running a farm of fruits and veggies, APICO players arrive at their new island home to follow the family tradition of apiculture. Armed with their grandfather's guidebook and supported by the members of a small town, they set out to collect bees from the surrounding environs, breed them into entirely new species, revive dwindling bee populations, and build a cottage empire of bee products.
APICO pitches itself as laid back, and I'm sure there will be players who find it to be relaxing, but the game's range and depth of possibility is a little overwhelming, especially in the early game. One collects bees from natural hives, then stores them in special bee containers they craft and that are sorted by bee species. One then turns those containers into apiaries, which must in turn be filled with frames the bees fill with honey.
But to access the honey, one needs to craft an uncapper to remove the wax the bees use to store the honey. Then the uncapped frames can be fed into an extractor, which whips the frames around and allows the honey to drip down and be harvested. As with much of the game's crafting mechanics, these machines require manual operation via simple mouse movements. Then, finally, after all this the frames can be returned to the apiary and the process begun anew.
But it doesn't stop there. By its own admission, APICO aims to sneak biology into the game. By collecting and cross-breeding bees from around the island, players can discover more than 30 species of bee, each with its own properties. Some produce more honey, some live longer, some produce unique byproducts, and all add depth to the apicultural endeavor.
A complicated harvesting process is all well and good — it can even be part of the fun — but there is a rub. Whenever the player is off turning filled frames to honey, their bees continue to produce so long as there are empty frames in the apiary to fill. Ensuring the apiary is always stocked with bees (that must occasionally be bred to continue producing) and frames (that break over time), while operating the machinery to turn those frames into honey (pulling the uncapper lever and spinning the extractor with the mouse) means that achieving maximum productivity requires juggling several open menus at once. Heaven forbid you run out of the materials for frames, forcing you to leave the operation and go chop down some trees, which must then be split into logs, and then further split into sticks.
This brings us to APICO's biggest departure from its contemporaries in the farming genre: it is very menu heavy. Where most of Stardew Valley is played out in the world, running through the fields, forests and towns to harvest crops and talk to neighbors, APICO asks players to find the joy in inventory management. Building materials are kept in one container, bees in another, products in a third, and the relevant container must be open for crafting menus (workbench, centrifuge, rehabilitator and so on) to access their contents.
APICO works hard to make those menus easy to use, but I often found them blocking out the game's delightful pixel art, and having so many windows open occasionally makes the game feel more like office work than an idyllic rural escape.
That's not to say APICO is without whimsy. The writing is charming and full of bee puns, the ambient soundtrack plays at the midpoint between Brian Eno and C418, and the obsessively detailed mechanics ooze enthusiasm. It also features up to four-player cross-platform multiplayer, which would surely ease the pressure to do everything, everywhere, all at once. After all, bees work in colonies; why shouldn't their keepers?
APICO's release coincides with World Bee Day, and a portion of its sales will go toward beekeeping and conservation efforts. It's clear the creators of the game hold a deep love for bees, and for the environment they help bring to life. Spend long enough on Apico island, and you'll find that same love pollinated in your heart — just as long as you're a spreadsheet wizard, a queen bee with workers to accompany you, or a zen master free from the pressure to produce.
APICO is available now on PC.
DBLTAP was provided with a copy of APICO for review by its publisher, Whitethorn Games.