Have you recently been charmed by the meme-spawning Untitled Goose Game and if so are you looking for another mischievous creature to inhabit, like some kind of awful body-snatcher?
Bee Simulator, which is developed by VARSAV Game Studios and published by Big Ben Interactive, might appear to have you covered on the surface. Unfortunately it’s a case of buyer bee-ware this time around. Bee Simulator isn’t likely to scratch your animal simulator itch, and at £34.99 you might feel a sting in your wallet too. It released on PS4, Switch and Xbox One on November 14th 2019.
Bee Simulator is initially charming, with gorgeous presentation and a promising opening section demonstrating basic flight mechanics.
Unfortunately Bee Simulator quickly becomes tedious. As you might expect, the vast majority of the missions require you to gather pollen and bringing it back to the hive. Collecting pollen involves flying through a ring situated above each flower until your meter is filled. Flowers come in different levels of rarity. Clicking in the right thumb stick switches the perspective to a first person “bee vision” perspective and allows you to see how rare/valuable each flower is, which is denoted by the colour of the ring above it. More valuable flowers fill your pollen meter quicker, and some missions involve finding flowers of a specific rarity.
At times you will be asked to chase or race against another character. Whether you’re chasing or racing the mechanics are exactly the same. You fly through the rings your rival leaves behind. Falling too far behind or missing a certain number rings means having to start over. This can be really frustrating due to the camera going crazy once when flying through enclosed spaces. It’s quite easy to fail a mission without having made many errors, even though there are few penalties.
Quite why Varsav Studios chose to base so much of the game around flying through rings is beyond me. It’s like Superman 64 never happened. Your bee even complains multiple times about having to collect pollen instead of getting to do more interesting things such as scouting out the location of a new hive. On one mission the game tricks you into thinking you’ll get the chance to do something interesting then smacks you down with yet another pollen-collecting mission.
Fortunately there are other a few more gameplay mechanics. Real life bees dance to give directions to other bees, and the developers have implemented a simple “Simon Says” style minigame where your protagonist must mirror the movements of another bee using the left stick. It’s very easy and not particularly fun, but it does break up the monotony slightly.
Some of the insects which prowl the park are hostile. Triggering an encounter with them switches to combat mode. On the easy difficulty setting this involves a very simple rhythm game where the player must press square or triangle at the right time, thereby triggering a sequence of attacks and blocks based on how well they did. Hard mode offers a “For Honour” style battle system where the player can use the left stick in conjunction with square or triangle to block or attack directionally. This works okay, although there’s rarely an incentive to attack in a specific direction since carefully blocking then spamming any direction of attack will typically lead to success. One battle against a particularly aggressive hornet represented a nice level of challenge.
These encounters represent the only hazard to the protagonist during most missions, and this feels like a big mistake. Bee Simulator is devoid of tension, and it actually feels as though you’re invisible at times. Why don’t the humans try to swat or squash you? Or why don’t the birds try to swoop down and gobble you up? And why implement a stinging mechanic if it generally has no perceivable effect on the creatures around you?
Because there is no incentive to fly skilfully outside of the chase/race sequences, travelling from point A to point B feels incredibly slow, even with the occasional boost which derives from collecting lots of pollen. Even more frustratingly, once your meter is full you can no longer collect pollen, which means you can no longer boost. By the end I was contemplating hooking a rubber band around my left thumb stick and going off to do something else for 5 minutes while my bee flew in a straight line back to the hive at the other end of the park.
The missions which aren’t chases or fights are sometimes really odd. One mission involves stinging a young child (or “bully”, as the game calls them) on the face twice to stop it stomping on flowers. It feels weird to potentially cause anaphylactic shock to a kid just because they trampled a couple of tulips. Another involves directing a number of lost bees back to the hive via the aforementioned dance minigame. This involves asking the lost bees which way they came and then copying their movements to tell them the way back. It makes no sense, and it comes off as a silly way to introduce more mission variety without introducing new gameplay mechanics.
Completing missions and collecting pollen accumulates “Knowledge points”, which enable you to unlock really nice 3D models of the animals you have encountered, along with various skins for your bee. There is also an in-game achievement system. There are side quests but these use the same mechanics as the story quests and there’s no real incentive for completing them.
Bee Simulator looks fairly nice at times. The park environment is pretty, and there is much to see even if there isn’t much to do. The animals dotted around the park are consistently well-modelled. Unfortunately the humans look pretty lifeless and creepy, and fail to react to your presence in a believable way. Stinging a human repeatedly will result in a series of yelps. But the dead-eyed automaton you’re punishing will remain fixed in place. There’s no visual feedback from stinging something other than a couple of yellow stars popping up. In a game about being a bee.
Animations for the player character also feel a bit off. For some reason I found that once I left the hive pushing to the left or right on the left analog stick would result in the bee lurching off-centre, as though the animations hadn’t been properly joined up. I can’t tell whether this was deliberate or not, but it doesn’t feel good.
I didn’t notice any severe frame-rate drops on the base PS4 version. Although I would hesitate to say that game runs smoothly.
On the plus side, the general presentation of the game is lovely. The intro cutscene is beautifully animated, and the paintings which populate the loading screens are wonderful (and belong in a better game).
Bee Simulator has a sweeping orchestral score, which, although repetitive at times, fits the vibe of the park perfectly.
Unfortunately audio is otherwise pretty terrible. Many of the insects you come across are pretty talkative, and I can’t over-emphasise how bad the script and voice-acting are. What should have been terrifying encounters with wasps and hornets have been completely robbed of any impact due to poor characterisation. I don’t understand the logic of releasing a game in English language territories and not investing in quality translation and voice-acting.
Some areas feature boomboxes, and the music coming from them is ungodly, presumably royalty-free, pap. This, in combination with humans babbling away Sim-style as you pass, detracted from the sense of realism for me.
Bee Simulator is ridiculously short for the price-tag, the main campaign taking just a couple of hours to complete. I was actually relieved when it was over, given that most of the missions involve either flying through rings or collecting pollen.
There is a multiplayer mode with additional areas to explore. But what I can’t understand anyone wanting to play it considering how dull the main game is.
Bee Simulator is a massive disappointment. I was charmed and intrigued by the trailer but the gameplay is extremely repetitive. As nice as the world is the developers haven’t managed to make traversing it feel fun.
A child might find some wonder and limited educational value but otherwise I would strongly recommend you steer clear.
I give Bee Simulator the Thumb Culture Bronze award.
Disclaimer: A code was received in order to write this review.
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