Ranch Simulator: Just a Relaxing Ranching RPG?
Laid-back RPG simulator to while away the hours
Teething problems for Early Access mechanics
No story to drive the gameplay
Doesn't feel like value for your money
Ranch Simulator, dubbed ‘Ranch Sim’ by the developers Toxic Dog, is a simulation RPG for relaxation and escape.
If you enjoyed the likes of Valheim or the older Farming Simulator, you’ll enjoy this game as much as I did. Already this has achieved a 10/10 rating on Steam from its early access launch at the beginning of March 2021, and I can see why. A PC exclusive, for now, Ranch Simulator ties in all of the classic simulator mechanics with a relaxed farm-hand vibe to boot. I found lots to love about this playthrough, which especially satisfied my craving for something as engaging and story-driven as Stardew Valley on the Nintendo Switch.
Ranch Simulator focuses heavily on the multiplayer aspect in its marketing, but I found single-player showed off the best of what this game has to offer. In particular, the building aspects are so in-depth that it feels like you’re only limited by your own creativity. Did I mention this is tagged as an open-world explorer too? What more could you want from an RPG simulator than the freedom to roam, settle down where you choose and expand your settlement to the very edges of the map?
There are some issues that lie behind the expansive, impressive marketing, though. Graphics sit exactly where you’d expect them to. Character models are limited, particularly, and animals have that blocky texturing I remember from the likes of Nintendogs. Sadly, the game doesn’t have a strong narrative behind it either, and if you’ve read some of my other reviews, you’ll know a lack of story is a big pain point for me.
With just over 15 hours of Ranch Sim under my belt, I’d like to tip my Stetson, load up the trailer, and show you what this game can really offer a veteran RPG simulation fan.
No Story, No Problem?
The story behind Ranch Sim can be explained in one paragraph. Your grandfather leaves you a note after his death. You’ve inherited his ranch, and it’s yours to manage and grow. The note isn’t signed off lovingly or with any motivation to achieve something specific with your inheritance. It’s just yours to do with as you please.
The ranch itself isn’t much more than an area of land, basic outbuildings and resources to begin with. The initial tutorial is also simple to the extreme, and this didn’t bother me as I’m more of a ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ kind of gamer. Unlike some RPG games, the tutorial is mercifully short, so you can quickly get into the flow of the game’s mechanics and gameplay.
Further than that, the story is yours to create alone or through co-op play with your friends. I think some manner of computer-controlled rival rancher would have been a fun way to increase the stakes and bring in more of the story element, even to a minimal degree. The odd 1-star Steam review mirrors my thoughts on the lack of story content. Perhaps this is something the developers will offer in DLC in the future?
Does the lack of story make this an unenjoyable game? Not at all. That said, I couldn’t help comparing it to something like Valheim that so cleverly brought in the narrative component to make progression more immersive. This also makes me believe that the publishers at Excalibur Games emphasised the multiplayer aspect because of the ‘empty’ feeling of the single-player experience. With up to 4 of your friends in tow, you get a much more present sense of momentum as you divide tasks and work on building specific structures, increasing your livestock or crop yields.
Farming, Building, Hunting: Your Off-grid Dream Ranch
Where Ranch Simulator lacks in narrative drive, it makes up for with enjoyable gameplay. The first sign this game would offer strong customisation and creativity was the initial character customisation window. It gave me the choice of genders, musculature, facial features, bust-size—interestingly—and clothing.
Objectives are shown clearly in the minimal HUD, but it’s not pushy; you’re free to choose your own path. Initially, the game requires you to grab a Jerry can and go fill it up with fuel at the nearby gas station. Next on the list is getting your Jeep running. It’s this first project that shows you the basic elements of fetching, discovering, and backtracking that you’ll use in pretty much every task ahead of you.
The gas station is another sad sign of what’s to come, though. With no one at the cash register, and the shop empty, the world around me ended up feeling barren and lifeless from the outset. It reminded me of all the complaints surrounding the tumultuous release of the Fallout 76 game—and it seemed like Toxic Dog had made a similar mistake. The only interesting interactions it seemed I’d be getting would be with animals and friends I brought with me.
I’m then directed to get a radio installed in my car and then pick up some chickens to start my livestock farming journey. It’s at this point that I felt the creativity kick in at last.
I had to do something about the poor main house. Apparently beloved by my grandfather, the family ranch has fallen into disrepair, to say the least, including the big house at its heart that is totally unusable. Completely demolishing the house was an arduous but fun task, and I eventually built my ideal home on the empty site. Doing this meant scavenging the surrounding areas and shops for the tools and materials I would need. All of which I had to figure out mostly on my own, which was fun in itself and stayed true to the RPG aspect.
Building is easy in most regards. Pressing TAB will bring up the building window, which includes available skills, structures and designs. Finding the resources for your chosen structure design is done by going out to the forest, chopping trees down that you need, then fuelling up your bandsaw to start cutting them to size. Back at your building site, simply holding the planks then pressing E places them automatically where they need to be.
Issues come with the details. To carry all your freshly chopped and planed planks, you need a vehicle that can hold enough to make each trip worth it. This means buying a bigger A.T.V and repeating the steps above until your house is complete—no decoration required. Simple stuff.
Hunting is perhaps even more important than building as early on it’s going to be your main method of making money to buy your fuel and vehicles! Head out into the wilderness around you to shoot deer, bears, and boar. You’ll need your gun skills to protect yourself and your livelihood from roaming wolves who will attack on-sight.
Farming is where I had the most fun, as you can set up huts, paddocks and enclosures for all the different types of animals. Of course, it’s your job to care for these animals in every way, watering them, feeding them, protecting them. They’ll also be your primary long-term income source as you sell meat, eggs, and milk to continue the cycle of improvement.
These mechanics make up the fabric of the game, and they’re hugely relaxing and therapeutic. The process of setting up in the beginning holds the majority of the features you’ll experience throughout, which for me made things feel a bit repetitive. That is, in part, the nature of a resource gathering sim game. The lack of interactive components and NPCs left a hollow feeling after the house was built, the chickens were laying, and I’d shot my first few prowling wolves.
Perhaps the life of a rancher is a lonely one, but when I took advantage of the multiplayer support I started to see the fun side of the daily grind.
One thing my friend and I found the most entertaining was how poorly we could control the vehicles. The game relies on vehicle transport for most tasks, so we raced, crashed, and laughed a lot. I find it’s always the little things that you get the biggest kick out of in multiplayer or co-op, and Ranch Simulator makes the most of that. With your buddy in tow, things get done a lot quicker, which means you can have grander objectives and fulfil your visions together.
Is Ranch Simulator the best multiplayer RPG simulation on Steam right now? The simple answer for me is no, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to play for a few hours. I wouldn’t spend more than an hour a month or so playing this with friends. It’s important to note that this game is still in Early Access at the time of writing this review, and the developers may soon bring in more content to build out the world and make Ranch Sim a go-to therapeutic ranching RPG.
Ranch Simulator is available now on Steam.