Cozy hobbit game Tales of the Shire won me over with a subtly brilliant feature I've never seen in a farm life sim before

Tales of the Shire hobbits
(Image credit: Weta Workshop)

A 30-minute demo with Tales of the Shire at Summer Game Fest last week confirmed what was, uh, never actually in any doubt: it's Stardew Valley but with happy little hobbits. Well, not Stardew Valley exactly—it's in 3D rather than 2D and is focused a bit more on cooking than farming as its primary "cozy" mechanic—but you get the gist. This is one of many, many life sims that have followed in Stardew's wake, but like Disney Dreamlight Valley it's getting a big boost off the starting line thanks to its setting. If I were going to spend a couple hundred hours farming, cooking, and customizing my in-game homestead exactly how I like it, I can't think of a nicer setting than Middle-earth via New Zealand.

Tales of the Shire's depiction of the hobbits' corner of the world—specifically Bywater, located just down the road from Bilbo's home of Hobbiton—is painted in pastel earth tones, with a lovely art style that balances impression and detail. Its slightly muted colors are significant, because they led me to immediately lock in on a small feature that enchanted me during my short demo. 

Like Stardew and many similar games, the villagers in Tales of the Shire have set routines that see them running errands, working the fields, and moving about Bywater to simulate the feeling of a living town. Tales of the Shire includes quests that will require you to find these folks and invite them to supper, deliver an item or dish, and so on. Their locations will show up on your map to help you along, but Wētā's designers came up with a way smarter technique for guiding you to your current objective more naturally. As you walk around town (or hold a button to do a little frolic, which doesn't make you any faster but sure looks cute) you'll see bright blue birds fly into frame and perch on signposts and tree branches and stone arches, their beaks pointing the way to the hobbit you're looking for.

It's a lovely fairytale touch. A little videogamey, sure, but so much less immersion-breaking than pulling up a map covered in icons. And it doesn't feel that out of line for a Lord of the Rings bird to me. If the eagles are smart enough to have a chat with Gandalf, maybe your standard Shire blue jay is up for making sure you get your pies delivered on time. 

Alas, none of the screenshots or video clips Wētā supplied include this feature yet—I was told the birds are still in development, so they haven't learned to do their job right 100% of the time just yet. Hopefully they'll be fully trained by the next time we see Tales of the Shire.

This is Wētā's first videogame, so I do still wonder how the whole package will turn out, and if it'll manage to work its way into our list of the best games like Stardew Valley. I didn't have enough time in my demo to really get a feel for the cooking system, but it was much deeper than I expected and may be the thing that really grabs people. How you prepare ingredients can affect the outcome of a dish on a four-quadrant grid of crisp vs. tender and smooth vs. chunky, which will come into play as you invite fellow hobbits over for a meal and try to win their favor.

If you don't want to engage too deeply with that system, though, it seems like you'll also be able to while away the hours by decorating your hobbit home—changing out floor and wall patterns, positioning furniture and tons of smaller items—and growing crops to sell in the village. I, meanwhile, expect to be spending most of my time chasing blue birds all over Bywater.

Tales of the Shire doesn't have a release date yet, but should be out this year.

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).