In the wake of Stardew Valley’s revitalization of the genre after the decline in popularity of Harvest Moon and Story of Season, I’ve enjoyed a rush of new farming simulation games that explore familiar mechanics in new ways. Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin focused specifically on a single culture while weaving in 2D action combat. Slime Rancher has focused on collecting, caring for, and raising adorable little creatures. And now Lightyear Frontier is gearing up to revisit familiar farming gameplay behind the controls of a wildly unusual farming tool: a war robot.
For my hands-on preview, I was able to explore a small portion of the first area of Lightyear Frontier. I got an idea of basic farming and was able to build 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 main distinction is that instead of playing as a little dude in overalls, you pilot a repurposed combat robot to do all your farming chores. The mech is big and slow, but what it lacks in speed it makes up for with very large and efficient farming cannons that eliminate the typical early-game farming sim annoyance of lugging a can of water up and down. ‘at each square, water, then move. next. You can just spray them all at once, easypeasy.
One thing that didn’t quite click for me (but still can) is the inherent silliness of being in a Mecha. I understand that the goal is thematic, in that you use a war robot and its weapons of war as a tool to build a peaceful existence. From literal swords to plowshares. But in my limited demo, the mech looked less like a repurposed gundam and more like a goofy household appliance. Its suction arm sucking up sheaves of wheat or blasting my flowerbeds with a seed cannon are basically ridiculous things. It’s a good kind of ridiculous, but Lightyear Frontier seems blissfully oblivious to its own stupidity, leading to some weird thematic dissonance at the very beginning of interstellar farming. But given what little of the Lightyear Frontier I’ve been able to see, it’s entirely possible that this will work itself out over time – either by leaning into increasingly absurd upgrades for these farming weapons, or by finding more ways to bring the themes home. Personally, I hope for a bit of both.
If you’re coming to Lightyear Frontier from more social farming sims like Stardew Valley or Harvest Moon, what jumps out the most outside of the mechanics is the lack of other characters to interact with. As far as the Lightyear Frontier devs are willing to tell so far, you’re largely alone on this planet other than a merchant who regularly visits to trade, although I’m told there are a few contacts distant elsewhere in the solar system that can be communicated with if not necessarily seen. All of this makes Lightyear Frontier feel lonely, especially since I feel so distant even from my own character behind the cold metal control panel of the mech they’re piloting.
But I think it must be on purpose, because loneliness plays well with my favorite Lightyear Frontier track so far: exploring the planet. On the one hand, with no neighbors to run to and gifts to give, my time at Lightyear Frontier is entirely mine. Once my farm is tended each morning, I leave for the rest of the day and don’t even have to come home at night if I don’t want to – I can just fall asleep in my guy when it’s dark. It’s nice to have plenty of time to get lost in, though I imagine the time balance might change a bit later in the game once there are more farming facilities to manage.
More important and impactful to me was the overall vibe of the planet Lightyear Frontier. I don’t want to misrepresent what Lightyear Frontier is by comparing it closely to No Man’s Sky – it is, after all, just a deliberately designed planet, not a seemingly endless supply of procedurally generated infinite worlds. But the moment my mech rolled out of my farm and into the open fields invoked in me the same sense of wonder and adventure I had when I first reached a fuschia grassy hill in No Man’s Sky. and as I watched the rainbow alien world spread out beneath me.
Lightyear Frontier – 2022 Xbox and Bethesda Games Overview
Lightyear Frontier is that beauty mark – it’s vibrant and verdant, with soft grasses and sparkling water and wild, winding trees. Its hills are dotted with strange plants that I can harvest and replant on my own farm, slowly replacing the earthy seeds I brought with me in favor of a garden more suited to the existing ecosystem. It’s so beautiful that I hate to spoil it even slightly with my farming, although the developer has ensured that Lightyear Frontier avoids the usual colonialist destruction that interplanetary exploration games love to exploit.
I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of Lightyear Frontier. Having only a small taste of the farming elements, I’m still a bit unsure how they will play into the robot largesse in the long run, but I’m also not put off by the idea for the moment. I’m curious about the elements that I didn’t see at all in my demo: there’s supposedly a story that takes place while I explore the planet, for example, and Lightyear Frontier can also be played in full co-op with up to four people in total. These two perspectives are deeply intriguing and could on their own entirely transform the overall sentiment of Lightyear Frontier. But for now, I want nothing more than to explore this colorful wilderness and see what new seeds, creatures, and mysteries await me on the next glittering hill.
Rebekah Valentine is a reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.