Harvesting wheat in a giant robot? Swedish developer FRAME BREAK introduces its twist on the farming sim, Lightyear Frontier.
You could call it Chekhov’s Mech: if there’s a giant robot in a game, you can guarantee that it’ll punch or shoot something eventually. Not so in Lightyear Frontier, though, where the hulking staple of Japanese anime is well and truly tamed: instead of giant swords or laser rifles, your mech is the farming equivalent of a Swiss Army knife. With you at the helm, it can plant seeds, water them, harvest the resulting crops, and even build other bits of tech and equipment to help your growing farm run more efficiently.
It’s the distant future, and you’re a pioneer striking out on a lush alien world. As Lightyear Frontier begins, there’s just you, your shiny red mech (which you can customise, naturally), and your crashed spaceship, which doubles as your sleeping quarters, garage, and research centre. Starting off with a handful of terrestrial seeds, it’s up to you to explore the landscape, gather resources, and gradually build up your off-world farm, one raised bed and grain silo at a time. For FRAME BREAK CEO Joakim Hedström, Lightyear Frontier fills a yawning gap in the farming sim market: between the light, top-down types like Stardew Valley or its ancestor Harvest Moon, and the straight-laced realism of, say, Farming Simulator 22. “It felt like there’s [somewhere] in between where you can have these large, 3D spaces, and not use that grid-based gameplay [of games like Stardew Valley],” says Hedström. “We basically decided we wanted to explore the farming genre, so how can we fuse those two worlds to make something interesting?”
It was then, back in 2020, that Hedström and his small team came up with the mech idea. A few months earlier, they’d made a prototype of an entirely different game that featured robots, but the concept soon withered on the vine. “We put that on ice because it wasn’t going to work out,” Hedström recalls. “And that’s when we thought, ‘We really liked the robots, so… what if we put a mech on a farm? What does it do? How does it plant seeds?’ Well, obviously it shoots them in the ground. So that gave us the inspiration to make the game.”
The mech concept immediately makes sense once you go hands-on. Far from a glorified tractor, it comes with a wealth of tools that you can switch between at the press of a button. Among those we sampled are built-in hoses which you can use to water your crops; a vacuum cleaner-like device for harvesting and gathering resources; and a drill attachment for destroying rocks and uncovering minerals. When you aren’t tending to your farm, there’s the game’s other pillar to be getting on with: exploration. Out in the open world, it’s wise to take advantage of your mech’s transforming ability, where its plodding legs can be folded away, turning it into a much faster, tank-like vehicle which can also take to the skies, albeit briefly, just by jabbing a boost button. Faster travel means you’ll burn through more fuel, but your reserves can be replenished by extracting precious energy from certain rocks.
Aside from finding more exotic resources than the ones growing on your farm, there’s another reason to explore: uncovering more of the game’s sci-fi narrative. Orbiting above you is Piper, an artificially intelligent satellite that offers advice early on, before encouraging you to explore the alien ruins strewn across the planet. What secrets do these crumbling structures hold? It’s a closely guarded mystery for now, though Hedström points out that the game won’t force you to seek out these ruins at every turn. “We don’t want it to be stressful or to distract from the farming,” he says. “You can explore them whenever – they aren’t going anywhere.”
It’s an ethos that extends to the game as a whole; accidentally trample on your crops, and they’ll revert to seeds which can be planted again. Fall off a cliff or bellyflop into a lake, and you won’t die horribly – you’ll simply respawn somewhere safe with a bit less fuel in your mech’s tank. “We keep basing our design decisions on, ‘It needs to be relaxing and forgiving’,” says Hedström. “So there are small things that say, ‘Hey, don’t do that’, but there’s no game over state.”
We spent about half an hour playing Lightyear Frontier, happily planting crops, harvesting them, selling them for cash, and spending that cash on upgrades for our nascent farm. We trundled across the alien landscape, studying the plant life and collecting unusual seeds. But it’s clear there are big things afoot for the game – a four-player co-op mode, for one, and the ability to befriend the local wildlife, take them back to your farm, and cross-breed them to make your own hybrid pets. Lightyear Frontier is “a scalable game”, Hedström points out, and it’s clear that there are all kinds of ways the concept could be extended after its planned launch in 2023.
One thing we definitely won’t see, he insists, is mechs waving giant guns about. “We get suggestions of all kinds for the game, but we had to put down some limits,” says Hedström. “We had requests for combat, but that’s not in our plans. We had an early concept where we tried combat, and we found that it distracts from the farming experience. It creates these stress factors where all you’re thinking about is the next battle.”
With all the turmoil going on in the real world, maybe we need more relaxing games, we suggest. “There are enough combat games out there,” Hedström nods. “We definitely don’t need to add to that pile.”