Game Reviews

‘Forager’ Review: A Compulsive Labor of Love

As Forager boots up, a pixelated picture of the developer, Mariano Cavallero, aka Hopfrog, appears with the endearing quote, “I worked really hard on Forager. I hope you love it as much as I do.” Forager is the hybrid of many games that emerges as its own creation, but no matter what your feeling is about this bustling bundle of mechanics, it’s impossible not to sense that it was a true labor of love. 

What to forage first?

Hard Core Stardew

Simply put, Forager fuses the gameplay mechanics of Stardew Valley and Terraira with aspects of the classic Legend of Zelda series into its own efficient and adorable endlessly looping creation. What emerges from the forest is a relentless, addictive, and at times downright cute loop full of smart systems. For gamers who like open-ended and succinct progression loops overflowing with crafting and leveling up, read no further and uncover these systems for yourself. For the rest of the gaming herd, dig carefully, as while the game is beautifully-made and wildly addictive, your actual enjoyment will tie directly to how much you enjoy constantly fulfilling the systems in place, as there isn’t much else besides a mushy little character swinging a pickaxe and lots and lots to craft and gather. But there is so so much of that. The comparisons to Stardew Valley and Zelda are apt on the surface, but Forager also bears comparisons to compulsive clickers like Cookie Clicker and Universal Paperclips – there’s truly and relentlessly always something to do. 

Must…Forage…More…

In Forager you do just what the title suggests, you forage for basics – anything and everything you see: wood and rocks and coal, and gems and sand and slimes. On your little island it is all yours to chip, chop, dig, and gather up. Craft those goods into other goods, and eventually craft those goods into other structures that in turn open up other goods. Soon enough, chickens and cows will be pooping everywhere.

When you begin the game, you start on one little island with commendably little explanation as to what to do. If you’ve played games before, you’ll figure things out pretty quickly via the intuitive menu and inventory system. If not, kill those radishes and watch them weep. 

How much do you love those sweet delicious radishes?

Whether you’re focussed on finding gems in order to unlock the next pickaxe or hunting flowers to make paper to make spells, the expansive possibilities have a way of feeling limitless, if sometimes overwhelming. These progression systems tie together like an army of ants working in unison – you always have something to build towards. And while you gather and craft, you constantly hear new materials regrowing, and with each regrowth the compulsive and, at least initially, impossible desire to gather it all up and keep those islands cleared. 

Level Up and Forage More

As you endlessly forage, you gain Experience Points (XP) for nearly everything you do, which in turn levels you up. Each time you level up, you receive a point to spend in order to unlock a new skill like ‘Cauldrons’ or ‘Sewing.’ Each new skill typically unveils new materials you can craft, or new structures to craft them in like windmills or a vault, all of which requires a new bounty of things to forage for. Chop and gather and repeat. While the skills aren’t expressly broken up into skill-trees, each one you open unlocks a new set of potential skills branching off of it which can be broken down broadly into the four major categories: Industry, Economy, Foraging, and Magic – all of which have particular buildings tied to their progressions.

Skillful skill-based skills aplenty!

Before you know it, you’ll realize you can buy New Lands, the last major mark of expansion. Coins buy lands, and stuff you forage and find makes or can be traded for coins, so if you didn’t have enough to do making eight iron ingots in order to make five steel in order to make metal gloves in order to… well, now you’ve got a colonial urge to find every island that will drive you to pickaxe ever further.

New lands vary nicely. You begin in a pleasant little Grass Biome, but as you expand further, you eventually unlock Desert, Winter, Graveyard, and Fire, all of which house unique (if environmentally predictable) items to forage and enemies (to also forage). Some islands are relatively simple puzzles, some are obtuse puzzles, some house funny NPCs with odd quests, and somewhere on each biome is a dungeon. The variety is fun and will make you look forward to unlocking each spot on the grid to find a new locale.

The dungeons themselves are fine. There’s a lot going on in this game, and having dungeons break up the relentless foraging is a fun conceit. They clearly aspire to be Zelda-like, and achieve that feel, though fall short of the true majesty and design prowess of a classic Zelda dungeon (in all fairness a high bar in any game). Puzzles and mechanics stumble a bit in execution, and bosses are not particularly memorable, but as a bit of an extra diversion, they don’t overstay their welcome, either.

Desert are for foraging, too!

Certain progression systems are more efficient and effective than others. Discovering how each material and structure interweaves is part of the fun, but the system can sometimes leave you feeling a pang of regret when you realize how much more you’ll need to forage just to upgrade your inventory or build a sword. Moreover, there are points in the game where you will feel as though you have plateaued in terms of skills and abilities. But overall, if you’re wrapped in, you’re too busy with your next ten tasks to pay much mind to the way you should have done it.

Is There More to Life Than Foraging? No.

As you consistently reap the natural resources of your little Forager-world and watch it and the technology for doing so evolve exponentially, it’s tempting to dig up some complicated metaphors at play here. The insatiable threat of colonialism, capitalism unchecked, and the inevitable consequences of blindly pillaging resources all come to mind pretty readily. When you first meet a little druid, he complains that people (i.e, YOU) have been pillaging all of the world’s natural resources and implores you to collect some torch bugs for preservation’s sake. Is this a nod to a greater message, or just another of the infinite ingredients to forage and make into your own busy ball? For better or worse, the latter feels like the case, as Forager leaves you to gather together meaning as much as materials. Later, when you manufacture plastics, oil rigs, and grenades, the druid is still hanging out by the big tree, doing his thing, unbothered. And so are you, there’s too much to do.

Fish Fairy Ice Castle Forage FTW

It’s Own Busy Beast of Compulsive Beauty

While the comparison to Stardew Valley makes sense, Forager is filled with little to none of its calm contemplation. And while the gameplay root of Legend of Zelda tracks, Forager can’t compare to Nintendo’s master-class in dungeons and gradual exploration. But like the insane droids that you craft after relentlessly gathering plastics and oils, Forager is something else entirely. Forager is a masterfully-crafted homage to many sources that have been gathered up together in order to become its own wild beast. 

For some, Forager will be bliss that they cannot put down. For others, it will be tedium that they cannot put down. For Hopfrog, the game is something as unique as it is wonderful, and while it’s probably impossible for anyone to love it as much as he does, that love rings clear in every detail.

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