Back in 2016, we tried our hand at (the then still in Early Access) Niche. To refresh your memory: Niche was created after a highly successful GoFundMe campaign by independent Switzerland-based Stray Fawn Studio. Niche is a turn-based strategy game with a heavy focus on genetics. Your goal is to breed and shape your own species to let them thrive and keep them alive against all odds.
In our first review, we mentioned that Niche was highly enjoyable though felt a bit limited. Fortunately, Niche has had a few updates since 2016. Stray Fawn Studio uses its forum to communicate with players and takes their feedback and suggestions on board. For example, players can suggest ideas for new biomes or genes and vote which ones end up in Niche. Our personal favourite was the addition of wings, which allowed our Nichelings to take to the skies. By keeping communications open and updates ongoing, Stray Fawn Studio has successfully managed to keep our attention and we have re-visited their game quite regularly since its release in 2016.
Due to the breeding system being based on real genetics, Niche has become increasingly popular amongst teachers. So much so that Stray Fawn Studio decided to make the educational license for Niche completely free for schools.
An exciting and very recent announcement is that Niche is coming to Nintendo Switch on September 3! Of course, we were very eager to try Niche on Switch to see if the transition works as well as we hoped. Adorned with a polygon-esque art style and cute critters, Niche is adorable but definitely not as easy-breezy as it may appear. It is not a difficult game to learn or understand, but it is definitely difficult to keep your animals alive.
Depending on which game mode you pick, you start out with 1 or 2 animals. It is your job to create a tribe of animals that is genetically a perfect fit for its environment. Your animals (referred to as Nichelings) live and travel between islands. Since every island is randomly generated, no game feels repetitive. Furthermore, the biome on each island is different; your tribe can end up in a desert or in snowy mountains. Of course, this means you must make sure your animals can survive in those specific conditions; a Nicheling with thick fur will thrive in snow but soon overheat in a desert setting. Depending on the difficulty of the island you travel to, enemies might be stronger which means you need to make sure your Nicheling has either a good defense or the correct means to attack (or both).
You can breed wanted traits by inspecting your animals' DNA and choose the desired traits you wish their babies to inherit. You can unlock more genes by performing certain tasks (for example, letting your Nichelings dig a lot will make them develop digging paws) or inviting other unique Nichelings you meet along your journey into your tribe. Discovering and collecting genes may remind you of the popular game Spore, which Stray Fawn Studio cites as one of its major influences for creating Niche.
All of the above may sound simple, but it is surprisingly easy to overlook certain factors. It is only a matter of time before you see your first genetically modified species perish from something you didn't know was important until then. For example, you may finally have the perfect animal but forgot to keep in mind there are no females around to mate with. Perhaps you have been so focussed on playing around with DNA you forgot to gather enough food to feed your tribe. Maybe you have bred an animal solely on its looks, but it can't defend itself against any predator. The biggest enemy of our tribe was a fast-spreading illness, which killed our animals quicker than we could breed the unwanted weak gene out.
The game has a turn-based tile system reminding of Civilization. Each adult animal has three moves per turn, which resets when you hit the 'Night' button. Every new day is a new turn. Your moves are cut short if your animal is not able to adapt to their environment. If you're not careful, animals can even get stuck, losing all their moves permanently unless one of their tribe members can help out. Being limited in your moves adds a great amount of challenge to the game! When your tribe goes extinct, the game offers you two options: start over but keep all the genes you have unlocked so far, or start over from scratch again. Niche auto-saves and doesn't let you go back in time - once gone, your tribe is gone forever. Therefore we are very happy to have the option to keep the genes we have unlocked so far, although the option to start from scratch definitely adds a whole new layer of difficulty.
Niche has two game modes: 'Story Mode' and 'Sandbox'. In Story Mode we follow the story of Adam, a Nicheling separated from his family at birth. Adam lands on an island where he meets another Nicheling (aptly named Eve). It is your duty to breed a tribe of animals descending from Adam and Eve, and subsequently help that tribe to find and reunite with Adam's family.
Sandbox Mode has no such defined goals but gives you the same experience in terms of survival difficulty and the same biomes to discover and the same genes to find and unlock. Furthermore, Sandbox Mode can have random starting animals, whereas in Story Mode you will always start with Adam.
Even though Story Mode offers a goal, there is no penalty for never achieving or trying to achieve that goal - the game carries on for as long as you have living animals. The goal is there should you desire it, but the game doesn't try to steer or force you towards it. Therefore, both game modes don't play different from each other at all - the choice is always yours.
As with most games, the Steam version offers fun achievements to complete. The Switch version doesn't have these, but that doesn't take away from the gameplay at all. Interestingly, players create and share their own made-up stories and challenges as has been seen in the immensely popular sandbox game, The Sims.
We played Niche on a Nintendo Switch Lite, and the game looked perfectly fine on a smaller screen. The controls are of course different than those on PC, but on Switch, they are surprisingly easy. We were a bit skeptical at first, but within no-time, we could control and move our Nichelings with the same ease as on PC. The fact the game is exactly the same on Switch as it is on PC is a huge perk: you can have the same experience and same enjoyment, but now from the comfort of your bed or couch. Niche is a game you can easily pick up whenever and play for as little or long as you want - now it's portable it makes the replay value of Niche even more attractive. We have taken our Nichelings to coffee shops, on public transport, to friends' houses - you name it.