Staxel is a game that intends to amalgamate the styles of open world life simulators seen in Minecraft, Stardew Valley and Harvest Moon. The result is a cute little game with an interesting art style and a few good ideas along the way, but in the end, ultimately, feels hollow and repetitive.
When I start up a new world in Minecraft, after the preliminary hut building and ‘Creeper’ dodging, I set myself a task that I wish to achieve. In the past I might have decided to build an ancient Greek trireme, or perhaps recreate the ‘Mines of Moria’ or something along those lines. The subsequent gathering of materials and developing crops or cattle are all funneled towards this end project and when I have finally completed my task, I simply decide on another one. One of the complaints I have often heard about open world games like Minecraft is just that – meaning – the lack of direction or focus, which to me is entirely the draw of the experience. Having to make your own rules and also deciding what you consider to be the victory condition makes the experience all the more rewarding when that victory condition has been achieved.
Games like Stardew Valley or Harvest Moon are similar to Minecraft in that you may go about various tasks around the farm in many differing ways, but in the end the goals are set in stone: complete quests, foster relationships and make money to improve the farm. The crux of the experience is caring about the world that you inhabit and wanting to get to know the other inhabitants and perhaps solve their problems. Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley don’t have a problem with this as their worlds are quirky and cute, filled with interesting characters and places to explore. The gameplay experience can be epitomised by a feeling of curiosity at everything you find. You’ll be thinking to yourself: ‘What does this do?” “What does this mix with?” Or “I wonder what their story is.” The possibilities are what drive you on to get up each day, water the crops and explore the world similarly to the personally set goal in Minecraft, but of course one that has been purpose built.
Returning to Staxel then, the game does its best to straddle a fine line between both types of game in order to allow for the free form gameplay of Minecraft (including elements of terraforming and harvesting that are very reminiscent) but with more direction like Stardew Valley (quests, NPCs and the like). In so doing however, the game feels very mixed in its message, I feel that I want to just go and make random creations, but I also need to purchase blueprints from the store in order to make certain things. I want to get invested in the town that I have been dropped into, but don’t feel much of anything for the characters that I am interacting with as they seem far too cardboard and similar to each other.
Trading my goods that I have either dug up, grown or made is as simple and tossing them onto a table for instant petals (Staxel’s currency) and then using said petals to buy more seeds or crafting equipment which then allows me to more efficiently acquire goods that I can then use to get more petals in order become even more efficient, and on and on it goes. This method of gameplay is by itself not a huge problem for all games. As previously stated, games like Harvest Moon invest the player in the world they are inhabiting, with the inclusion of seasonal fairs and events helps to push you through the repetitive gameplay because the end goal is only over the next horizon. In Staxel it felt as if that horizon was never going to come.
Staxel itself is a undeniably beautiful game. Its visuals are block-y like its inspiration, but also made with a 16-bit style, making for a visually appealing game all in all. Whilst walking around the forests that surround the game’s town you will encounter butterflies and praying mantises to name but a few of the creatures. The fields are filled with a variety of flora, beautiful flowers and tall grass that make for a lovely sight whilst exploring. The greatest shame of the game however is simply that for all the games aesthetic charm the previously mentioned lack of environmental features make exploring an often fruitless endeavour.
Walking for a few minutes in a straight line out of town brought me to the ocean – that I assumed went on forever, I didn’t check – and at that point I felt like I was really wanted to play Minecraft instead. A game released in 2018 should be very wary of doing this. The variety of options of what to grow and build is fairly impressive and it can’t be denied that seeing your little plot of land expanding is certainly enjoyable, but in the end there never seemed to be a strong enough hook to keep me invested in playing it for hours on end.
It is not all doom and gloom for Staxel though, as the game is assuredly a labour of love from a few dedicated developers. The game is by no means a poor attempt, but instead lacking in its current state. Its faults lie not in its overall design but with its limited focus, which can be remedied by some polish down the line by filling the world with more to do and places to see. As a foundation for greater things to be built upon Staxel is a decent experience, but in its current state it is not something that a player should invest too much time in.