When the COVID-19 panic began erupting back in March, a near-universal source of comfort within the gaming community was the perfectly-timed launch of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. This may well wind up being the worst year any of us have lived through, and more than ever we’re seeing the value in transporting ourselves to cute, colorful worlds in which everything is totally fine and remains that way.

Months later, the world is still a mess, and now Ooblets is doing the same thing. It’s a cheery title centered on farming, dancing, and mingling with townsfolk. The only dark undertones – such as when a character warns the player not to dig more than six feet – are fleeting and played exclusively for comedic effect.

The titular “ooblets” are little Pokémon-esque creatures that sprout from seeds planted in the run-down farm that the player inherits at the start of the game. Ooblets love music, and the dance-offs that frequently ensue form the basis of the battle system.

Yes, even though Ooblets is primarily a life simulator, it has ‘combat’, albeit without any actual violence. Instead of attacking each other, the competing ooblets just bust moves in an attempt to out-perform each other on the dance floor. There’s also a collectible card game (CCG) component to Ooblets, as players build decks by earning cards through various activities. A hand is drawn at the start of each round and winning is a simple matter of racking up more points than the opponent.

Ooblets is pretty straightforward and I have yet to compete in any particularly difficult battles, but the focus seems to be more on the adorable spectacle of the encounters themselves, with large groups of ooblets forming a ring around the competitors while grooving to the surprisingly catchy music. Most conflicts are solved through such dance-offs, and it’s just nice and wholesome. Pokémon has a morally iffy cockfighting vibe to it, but there’s nothing objectionable about how Ooblets operates.

One very distinctive aspect of the world of Ooblets is its goofy dialect, which leans hard on slangs, deliberate misspellings, and made-up words that are close enough to real-life equivalents that the player can always tell exactly what’s meant. The game’s writing style creeps into every corner, including the menus – when asked a yes-or-no question, for example, players are given the option to answer “yuh” or “nuh.”

I expected this to grow old after a while, but to my surprise, it hasn’t. Ooblets will often go just long enough reading like a normal game that I’ll be caught off guard when it asks me if I want to “reconstitoot” something and I’ll chuckle.

If there’s a potential downside to the sense of humor here, it’s that quirkiness is both the meat and bread of this sandwich, with virtually every townsperson speaking almost exclusively in non sequiturs. I don’t go into something like this looking for rich characterization, however, and I don’t necessarily find the inhabitants of Ooblets any less enjoyable to talk to than, say, the villagers of New Horizons. They make me laugh, and that’s worth a lot.

Ooblets recently launched on Early Access with no formal release date in sight. If I continue playing, I assume I’ll eventually hit a point when a text prompt pops up and informs me that I’ve reached the end of what’s available at the moment, but I can confidently state that what I’ve played so far feels finished. That it’s the work of a mere two-person studio makes its level of polish all the more impressive.

I certainly hope that the pandemic is at least under control by the time Ooblets is complete, but if it’s not, at least we’ll have another piece of joyous escapism to fall back on.

Mike Suskie
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