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I can't decide if having no inventory system in this mining sandbox is brilliant or brutal

Hydroneer
(Image credit: Foulball Hangover)

Think about the tools of the various crafting games you've played, like pickaxes, shovels, and hammers. You use the tools to mine resources like gold nuggets and iron ore you can smelt into bars and ingots for crafting. You build a base, make weapons, maybe even sell the items you craft and earn some coins. 

But where do you put all that stuff?

Typically it goes in your pockets or your backpack or whatever inventory system exists. Hydroneer, a mining and basebuilding sandbox game releasing on Steam next week, is taking a different approach. There's no inventory system at all. You have to lug everything around in your hands.

And I mean everything: Every shovel and pickaxe, every nugget of iron ore you dig up, every gold bar you smelt or item you craft, even the coin you earn from selling your loot. They're all physical objects in the world and you don't have magic pants to stuff them into. It's... an adjustment.

To get started in Hydroneer, I carry my shovel to a patch of dirt and start digging, dumping each shovelful of earth into a bucket I've also carried there—though I had to carry the shovel and bucket separately because, again, there's no inventory. I also carried over a pan, which I can drop into a river to collect water, then dump the bucket of dirt into the pan of water, then brush the dirt and water away (I also had to carry the brush over here separately) to find a few unearthed precious stones. A lump of gold, a hunk of iron ore, maybe a rough emerald.

I have to carry these minor treasures to a local jeweler to sell them. Thankfully, I can put them all in my bucket so I don't have to make individual trips for each stone—but I do have to physically carry the bucket. At the jeweler I sell the stones and receive a coin that would fit perfectly into a pocket, if I only had one. But I have to put the coin in the bucket and carry it back to town.

I've been doing this for most of the morning and I'm wavering between the lack of an inventory being really, really cool and it being a major drag. I can't quite decide which. I think it boils down to how much time and patience I have, which is, honestly, quite a lot of time but not quite so much patience.

There is definitely something novel about every single item in the game being an actual, physical item as opposed to an icon that slips into a magic backpack somehow capable of storing dozens or hundreds of things that would weigh hundreds or thousands of pounds. But while magic pockets aren't remotely realistic, they're damn convenient, and Hydroneer is decidedly inconvenient.

I mean, think about building a basic workspace in Minecraft. Plunk down some blocks from your inventory and you've got a solid floor in mere moments. In Hydroneer, I bought a single wooden foundation from the shop, which requires physically carrying money to the store and placing it in the sales bucket, picking up and carrying the foundation block from its shelf to the sales floor, placing it there, pushing the buy button, and then carrying the block through the world to where I want to place it. 

That's, like, at least a minute of walking and carrying for a single block of flooring. There are vehicles you can load up with objects, so I could buy a bunch of flooring, stack it in the truck, then drive it somewhere, but if I want to build a real workshop, even just the floor of a real workshop, it's still going to take ages.

Everything in Hydroneer takes way more time and effort than in most crafting sandboxes—but that may ultimately lend a feeling of real accomplishment.

That's speculative because I have not, honestly, accomplished all that much. I managed to dig up enough gold nuggets, iron ore, and rough gems to sell at the jewelers to afford a few new items. I have three buckets now—one for dumping dirt into, one for storing the items I dig up that I want to sell, and one to store things I don't want to sell. That's my version of an inventory system. Three little buckets.

The more stuff that I've got, though, the more problems I have. With everything being a physical object I'm constantly blundering into things. I've knocked my bed into the river at least three times, I've scattered my storage buckets repeatedly, and trying to stack two foundation blocks wound up sending one shooting into the sky and hovering there (it did eventually fall back down).

I do like the physicality of lifting and carrying and moving things, but until I build a proper floor and nail objects down (there's a special hammer for that, I just can't afford it yet) it's been a small nightmare of collisions and oopsies.

I also bought a furnace and cauldron so I can smelt my nuggets into bars, and with enough bars sold I will eventually buy an anvil so I can begin actually crafting more valuable items to sell. There's plenty more to look forward to, as you can see in Hyrdoneer's trailer below: Irrigation systems, water-powered earth-moving machines, massive underground networks of tunnels—hey, there's even fishing. 

I've definitely got the time to dig and smelt and craft and carry and sell and build. I'm not sure yet if I've got the patience.

Chris has a love-hate relationship with survival games and an unhealthy fascination with the inner lives of NPCs. He's also a fan of offbeat simulation games, mods, and ignoring stories in RPGs so he can make up his own.