The premise behind Staxel is simple, but compelling: what if you mixed the farm life sim of Story of Seasons or Stardew Valley with Minecraft’s block-building creativity? It seems like a natural fit: disparate as the genres are in a lot of ways, they have similar rhythms to their relaxing atmosphere and methodical game loops. Staxel doesn’t always get the balance just right, but does show the potential that lies in this kind of mash-up—while also being a fun, laid-back game to lose yourself in for a while.
The farming side of the game will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played any other life sim: you till your soil, plant your seeds, water your plants each day, harvest them when they’re grown, and sell them for the (hopefully) big bucks. Tending virtual crops may not sound that interesting, but it can be oddly satisfying and relaxing—as Harvest Moon’s creators realised so many years ago, and as many other developers have in the years since. That’s as true in Staxel as in any other such game.
But it’s also a field that’s become very crowded in recent years, and Staxel’s farming, while enjoyable, is a little rudimentary. There’s a decent selection of crops and livestock to farm, but it lacks the systemic depth or sense of personality that the best life sims offer. Without a stamina system of any sort, there’s a strategic layer that’s missing—you don’t get the sort of puzzle that comes with trying to find a productive balance of stamina, time, field space, and seed money. Instead, farming winds up feeling like you’re just planting interchangeable crops whenever, wherever you want—which is enjoyable in its own way, but doesn’t quite have the same hook.
The other important side of the life sim is, well… the life part. Charming characters and the small-town stories that unfold through them are a big part of the appeal of these games, and while Staxel does have a village full of locals to get acquainted with, they don’t have a whole lot of personality. Giving gifts and completing quests helps you get to know the locals better, but they all amount to fairly generic, shallow NPCs—not terrible, but far from memorable. In its farming and life simulation, Staxel is fine. Enjoyable enough, but unremarkable.
Where it balances out is with its building elements. A voxel-based world that you can reshape to your heart’s content brings with it a degree of creative freedom that you don’t often get in life sims, even at their most open-ended. Sure, you start your journey with a semi-established (if a little rundown) farm and a house to call home, but there’s nothing tying you to it. You can relocate, expand, and redesign as much as you want to, one block at a time, as you work towards your perfect ranch.
Instead of having predetermined fields or sections of farmable land, Staxel lets you establish your plots almost anywhere you please. If you don’t like the topography of the land, a few swings of the pickaxe can reshape the scene. A procedurally-generated map ensures fresh opportunities to explore and flex those creative muscles for each new world you create. Instead of pre-designed barns and other facilities, you can build them however you like—a blueprint will tell you what items you need in order to create something that actually functions, but beyond that, the design is up to you.
It’s this sense of creativity that sets Staxel apart, despite some of the shortcomings of its core life sim loop. In fact, you could say that the game isn’t really about farming so much as designing the perfect farm, and the actual production side is just a consequence of that. Hell, you can ignore that side of the game altogether and focus entirely on building if you want, with little consequence—there are plenty of other ways to make money, and other ways to enjoy. Staxel is at its best when you let yourself just explore those creative possibilities.
Unfortunately, there are a few little annoyances that get in the way of that creative freedom. Whatever your approach, crafting plays a big role in Staxel, but navigating the recipe list and keeping track of what materials you need is a nightmare that only gets worse as you learn new and more complicated blueprints. Just having the right materials isn’t enough, either—you need to manually place them on the right crafting table, which means a lot of fighting through that recipe list to double check what you need at each stage in the process.
The user interface in general is a nuisance, with a lack of contrast that makes it hard to know what option you actually have highlighted, unhelpful menu icons, and a fiddly cursor that often gets confused when you’re moving between buttons that don’t neatly line-up. Targeting blocks and objects to interact with often feels a little disjointed, making slight mistargeting a common and annoying occurrence, especially when it comes to placing (and then need to relocate) big pieces of furniture. It definitely feels like an interface designed primarily for mouse and keyboard, which is fine for PC, but it hasn’t made a smooth transition to Switch.
Despite its fiddly interface and a farming side of things that’s a bit underwhelming, Staxel’s open-ended nature and creative potential make it an enjoyable outing in blocky rural life.At the very least, it shows the potential in this idea of a life sim block-building game: even if it doesn’t get the balance quite right, creative freedom and the laid-back, satisfying rhythm of farm life go hand-in-hand.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.