When you arrive on the island of Critter Cove, an opportunistic anthropomorphic rat gives you a deed to one of the abandoned houses in the town square and urges you to go earn your keep. On the face of it, Renard the Rat is a cut-price version of Animal Crossing's mercenary land owner Tom Nook. But there's more beneath the surface of this open world salvage 'em-up.
For a start, while you can redecorate the town and the surrounding land to your fancy, as you would in Animal Crossing, in Critter Cove, you'll feed discord in the community if you don’t satisfy the growing population's needs. Each townsperson has likes and dislikes that will contrast with the other residents. You must design a configuration that suits them all and adapt it when they leave or new residents arrive.
Also, while you will be crafting items, like benches and workout equipment, in developer Gentleman Rat's Critter Cove, the name of the game is salvage. Critter Cove takes place after an apocalyptic event that’s wiped away civilization, leaving it in ruins. Though say what you want about world-ending disasters, it has a beautiful color palette. The island is full of lush tropical greens, golden sands, and a rich blue ocean. It’s only the old tech that is a muddy brown.
"It's kind of a junk town that you put together from salvage, and all of our crafting is based on finding things from the old world and repurposing them for your own use,” designer Eli Holding tells me. "You'll have a strong hand in developing the world."
With shovels and axes, you can extract resources from the ruins that litter the island, and you can either use those to craft new items yourself or pour them into a donation box for Renard’s automated companion Copperbottom to renovate the town. Fixing up the different shops and buildings activates new systems, like workshops full of crafting stations and machines where you can refine materials.
If you hop into your boat, you can explore other islands and meet characters you can convince to move to Critter Cove. On one sandy atoll, I met Lamps, a despondent ring-tailed lemur, stuck after losing all his belongings in a shipwreck. Wearing amber eyeglasses, a clip-on tie resembling a goldfish, and a metal helmet, I would naturally lay down my life for Lamps. After searching the small scrub of land for his possessions, I got the option to offer him a place in Critter Cove, and my heart was complete.
In a departure from Animal Crossing, residents aren't just on the island to validate your design decisions—though a kind word about my flower gardens from Lamps wouldn't go unappreciated. You can put them to work in the stores, earning their place on Critter Cove.
"There's a cafe, a caravan, a bakery, a furniture store, a bait shop—in every one of them, you assign one of your characters to work there," Holding says. "Part of it is finding the right people for the right jobs, though that's not required because you can put bad people in all the jobs, which has some humorous results as well."
As much as these management aspects and the social simulation appeal, there's lots to do outside of town to draw me away. Critter Cove is only one of the scattering of uncharted islands in the world. The map inks in with your discoveries as you explore, marking things like sunken wrecks as you swim in the ocean, becoming an objective to return to when you have the proper equipment. A scuba mask, for instance, allows you to stay underwater longer, and a wetsuit protects you from the colder temperatures as you dive deeper into the ocean. "You’ll also have some flippers which make you swim faster, and eventually even a sea scooter," Holding says.
While much of the world of Critter Cove is familiar, like my bathtub boat and scuba gear, constant reminders give away I’m not Earth anymore: while swimming on the ocean floor, I’m passed by a shoal of pizza fish. What you see is what you get with that description, a creature that wouldn’t be out of place on Bugsnax’s Snaktooth Island.
The relics you find as you explore will tease out a little more about the civilization that lived before the apocalyptic event. At one point, I grab a golden egg from a bird’s nest while exploring a remote oil rig and take it back to the 'Royal Museum of Science, Nature, and Stuff' on the main island. Funnily enough, that’s the name that I give all museums. Once in a display case, I learned a little more about what ancient people used it for—which I won’t be spoiling here.
Critter Cove has much to offer to fans of the wholesome genre who are also hungry for adventure from the very second they step onto the island. Holding told me Gentleman Rat is opting for an early access launch in October to get feedback from players and take a “community-heavy” approach to the trajectory of the RPG. The developer is excited to see what players will build with the enormous tool set and expansive world it’s bestowed them. As a mix of Animal Crossing, My Time At Portia, and MySims, the possibilities could fill an ocean.