Not So Massively: Lightyear Frontier is a charming blend of survivalbox and life sim


Like many people, I spent a lot of last week downloading and trying demos on Steam’s Next Fest. There was one I almost didn’t even bother to download. Skimming Lightyear Frontier‘s store page, I initially thought this co-op title for one to four players looked like yet another “me too” survival game, but I decided to give it a shot anyway.

I’m glad I did. It turned out to be a surprisingly charming and enjoyable game, ably blending elements of survival sandbox and life sim games.

In Lightyear Frontier, you play as a exile from a dying Earth who lands upon an alien world. When Earth was lost, most people fled to Mars, but your character went farther afield, though your exact reasons for choosing the road less traveled are left up to your imagination.

Once you land, it’s up to you start building a home on this new frontier — literally. It’s here we enter the familiar survival sandbox loop of breaking rocks, cutting down trees, and seeking out rarer materials so that you can build yourself a base, improve your tools, and give your character an ever more comfortable existence.

There’s little need for manual labour here. You’re given a massive farming mech outfitted with a variety of tool attachments for all your gathering needs. As you progress, you can unlock both cosmetic and functional upgrades for your mech, but even at the start it’s quite powerful and versatile.

The mech is a real lesson in how much presentation can change your experience of a game. The mechanics aren’t any different from gathering by hand in other survival games, but they sure feel different.

Punching rocks? Bo-ring. Punching rocks with your mech’s GIANT JACKHAMMER HAND? Now you have my attention.

I keep referring to Lightyear Frontier as a survival game, but I should make clear that it isn’t really. There’s nothing that actually threatens the survival of your character. No hunger, no thirst, no combat whatsoever. This is where it starts to feel more like a life sim; it’s a relaxing journey through a clement wilderness, not a hard-fought struggle against the elements.

That said, the lack of conventional survival mechanics is probably my biggest criticism of the game. Now I get that this is meant to be a low-stress game, and I don’t take issue with that. I’m not saying it should have deadly monsters or the constant threat of starvation looming over you. But it would be nice to have some interaction with basic necessities like food, even if just for buffs. That your character doesn’t need to eat or drink makes the experience feel weirdly artificial.

The only thing like this currently in the game that I saw is a “coziness” mechanic that gives you a minor buff based on how well-outfitted your base is when you sleep (the only biological need your character can fulfill). I’d like to see more stuff like that.

Your main longterm goal in this game seems to be to restore the environment of your new homeworld by feeding the local wildlife and clearing up patches of mysterious, slimey pollution. The source of this pollution isn’t explained in the content I played, but I’m guessing it will become clear as you continue exploring the world. Once you’ve cleaned up a region, new resources will become available within it.

I had a moment when I was concerned the game was going to devolve into running up and down the map looking for that one last patch of slime I missed, but the fumes from slime patches are visible from quite a long way away, especially at night, so it ended up being pretty easy to track down the last bits. It also looks as though you don’t need to fully clean every single patch, just most of them. There were still a few scraps left when I got the notification the area had been fully restored.

It seems as if the devs took a very thorough approach to eliminating every possible source of frustration in this game. It’s meant to be relaxing, and come hell or high water it will be.

This is perhaps my favourite thing about Lightyear Frontier: It respects your time. One of my pet peeves with the survival genre is how grindy harvesting resources can get. I understand that’s the point of the genre to an extent, but a lot of them take it way too far. I shouldn’t have to deforest the entire countryside just to build a hovel and a storage box.

Not so in Lightyear Frontier‘s demo. Of course you’ll still have to do a bit of gathering because that’s the core gameplay loop, but it feels much more reasonable. In no time at all I had already gathered enough resources to build myself a well-appointed little camp full of crafting stations, farming plots, and even some decorations.

There isn’t a lot of story in this game, but you can uncover trickles of lore by collecting relics from alien ruins scattered around the landscape. Once you’ve completed a set of relics, it will unlock a bit of text outlining what you’ve learned from them. It’s not much, but it adds a bit of texture to the world, along with another activity to keep you exploring.

You’re assisted in your journeys by an intelligent survey satellite above the planet, who provides guidance and commentary. The dialogue is sometimes repetitive, and her voice is about 12% folksier than I’d like, but on balance I still prefer this to the grim silence that hangs over you in most survival titles.

The art style of the game is very appealing, though I do wish the devs had been a bit more creative with their environment design. Even for a “cozy” game, the endless green meadows and rolling hills are perhaps a bit too nice. The world doesn’t need to be ugly or threatening to have some character. Give me some snow or fall colours or something.

It’s also a little disappointing that the environment is so Earth-like considering this is meant to be a distant alien world. There’s a lot of missed opportunity for creativity here.

All that said, only a small section of the game world was available in the demo, so it is quite possible that there more interesting locations once you advance farther into the game.

Lightyear Frontier is scheduled for an early access release on March 19th, and it feels ready for that. The build I played was quite polished; the only hiccup I encountered was that building placement behaved a bit oddly, snapping to certain positions seemingly at random, but it’s possible it’s working as intended and I just didn’t fully learn the nuances.

There’s already a roadmap on the Steam page, promising future features like a neighbour friendship system. That seems to imply there will be NPCs at some point, which I think would do a lot to flesh out the experience. Hopefully the teams don’t skimp on voice-overs like Palia did.

I don’t know if I’m 100% sold on Lightyear Frontier, but that’s mostly down to the fact it’s pretty far outside my wheelhouse as a player primarily motivated by combat and narrative. That it’s made it onto my “maybe” list despite that is a testament to its quality, and if you’re more keen on this kind of wholesome non-combat gameplay than I am, Lightyear Frontier is a game that should absolutely be on your radar.

The world of online gaming is changing. As the gray area between single-player and MMO becomes ever wider, Massively OP’s Tyler Edwards delves into this new and expanding frontier biweekly in Not So Massively, our column on battle royales, OARPGs, looter-shooters, and other multiplayer online titles that aren’t quite MMORPGs.
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