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Monday, May 27, 2024

Lightyear Frontier Preview: Unconventional Mech-anics

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In the wake of Stardew Valley’s revitalization of the genre after Harvest Moon and Story of Season’s popularity waned, I’ve been enjoying a rush of new farming sim games that explore the familiar mechanics in new ways. Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin focused specifically on a single crop while weaving in 2D action combat. Slime Rancher emphasized the collection, care, and breeding of adorable little creatures. And now Lightyear Frontier is preparing to explore familiar farming loops from behind the controls of an extremely unusual farming implement: a giant mech.

For my hands-on preview, I was able to explore a small portion of Lightyear Frontier’s first area. I got a feel for basic farming, and was able to build some basic structures like a plant bed and a silo, plant seeds, water them, and harvest. It’s a familiar loop for farming sim fans of all stripes: collect resources, use resources to build things that help you get more resources, repeat. The primary distinction is that instead of playing as a little dude in overalls, you’re piloting a repurposed mech to do all your farming chores. The mech is large and slow moving, but what it lacks in speed it makes up for in really big, efficient farming guns that eliminate the typical early-game farming sim tedium of hauling a can of water up to each square, watering, then moving to the next. You can just spray ‘em all at once, easypeasy.

One thing that didn’t quite click for me (but may still) is the inherent silliness of being in a mech at all. There's a thematic purpose here, in that you're using a tool typically depicted in popular media as a war machine with war weapons as a tool to build a peaceful existence. Literal swords to plowshares. But in my limited demo the mech felt less like a repurposed gundam and more like a goofy household appliance. Its vacuum arm slurping up sheaves of wheat, or blasting my plant beds with a seed cannon are fundamentally ridiculous things. It’s a good kind of ridiculous, but Lightyear Frontier seems blissfully unaware of its own silliness, resulting in a strange thematic dissonance at the earliest stage of interstellar farming. But given how little of Lightyear Frontier I was able to see, it’s entirely possible this resolves itself with time – either by leaning into increasingly absurd upgrades for these farming guns, or by finding more ways to drive the themes home. Personally, I’m hoping for a little of both.

Lightyear Frontier so lovely that I am loath to ruin it even slightly with my farming.

If you’re coming at Lightyear Frontier from the more social farming sims like Stardew Valley or Harvest Moon, what jumps out the most aside from the mech bits are the lack of other characters to interact with. As far as the devs of Lightyear Frontier are willing to say so far, you’re largely alone on this planet aside from a merchant who visits regularly to trade, though I’m told there are a few distant contacts elsewhere in the solar system that can be communicated with if not necessarily seen. It all gives Lightyear Frontier a lonely air, even moreso because I feel so distant even from my own character behind the cold metal control panel of the mech they pilot.

But I think that must be intended, because the loneliness plays well with my favorite bit of Lightyear Frontier so far: exploring the planet. For one, with no neighbors to chase around and give gifts to, my time in Lightyear Frontier is entirely my own. Once my farm is tended each morning, I’m off and away for the rest of the day, and don’t even need to come back home at night if I don’t want to – I can just drop off to sleep in my mech when it gets dark. It’s nice to have plenty of time to get lost, though I imagine that balance of time might shift somewhat later in the game once there are more farming facilities to fuss with.

More important and impactful for me was the overall vibe of Lightyear Frontier’s planet. I don’t want to misrepresent what Lightyear Frontier is by comparing it closely to No Man’s Sky – it is, after all, just one deliberately crafted planet, not a seemingly infinite supply of infinite procedurally generated worlds. But the moment my mech stepped off my farm area and into the open fields invoked in me the same feeling of wonder and adventure that I had when I first crested a grassy fuschia hill in No Man’s Sky and looked out on the rainbow alien world spread out beneath me.

Lightyear Frontier – Xbox and Bethesda Games Showcase 2022

Lightyear Frontier is that brand of lovely – it is vibrant and verdant, with smooth flowing grasses and sparkling water and wild, twisty trees. Its hills are dotted with strange plants I can harvest and replant in my own farm, slowly replacing the Terran seeds I’ve brought with me in favor of a garden more befitting the existing ecosystem. It’s so lovely that I am loath to ruin it even slightly with my farming, though the developer has assured that Lightyear Frontier avoids the usual colonialist destruction that interplanetary exploration games love to exploit.

I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of Lightyear Frontier. Having only the smallest taste of the farming elements, I’m still a bit uncertain about how well they’ll play long-term with the largesse of the mech, but am equally not put off the idea just yet. I’m curious about the elements I didn’t see at all in my demo: there’s supposedly a story that unfolds as I explore the planet, for instance, and Lightyear Frontier can also be played fully cooperatively with up to four people total. Both of those prospects are deeply intriguing and either on its own could transform the overall feeling of Lightyear Frontier entirely. But for now, I’m left wanting nothing more than to explore this colorful wilderness and see what new seeds, creatures, and mysteries are waiting for me over the next shimmering hilltop.

Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.

An earlier version of this article suggested that the mech being a former war machine was a Lightyear Frontier story beat. This was a misunderstood remark on the part of the author and has been amended above.

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