REVIEW: Dino farm sim Paleo Pines is creative, cute, and clunky
The farming sim and life sim genres have seen a surge in response to the popularity of the likes of Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing. And something I think we need to celebrate more is just how creatively people have twisted the formula to fit increasingly specific niches. There's the caveman farming sim that has you inventing farming techniques and technology. The environmental ocean-themed farming sim that is literally helping fund conservation efforts. And we're eagerly awaiting the mecha farming adventure coming to Early Access in 2024.
Now, we've got the dinosaur rancher farming sim that reframes our relationship with animal helpers on the farm: Paleo Pines.
Paleo Pines is an approachable and gentle farming sim — a great representative of the cozy games movement, although held back from its full potential by some gameplay quirks that make its chores feel like actual chores.
Just the Facts
Developer: Italic Pig
Publisher: Modus Games
Platform(s): PC*, PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S and X, Nintendo Switch *platform reviewed on
Release Date: September 26, 2023
Review key provided by Tinsley PR.
Italic Pig brings us this dino adventure from Ireland, with the team operating out of a three-story townhouse just outside of Belfast. The studio has experimented with a variety of concepts over the last few years that have won them rounds of funding and awards from Creative Europe Media. They've started to experiment with animation in recent years but are finally putting out their second release, Paleo Pines.
With several other projects in development and tons of professional development in nearly a decade since their first release in 2014, this is a bit of an unorthodox "sophomore" release. And it shows in the level of polish and general quality that Paleo Pines delivers.
Paleo Pines opens with a storybook tale about your character's relationship with Lucky, a Parasaurolophus you helped raise from birth. Lucky has only known domesticated life and has never seen any other dinos. So when a letter slides through your door that shows a land where the Parasaurolophus roam free, the decision to pack up and leave for literal greener pastures is obvious.
You end up on the island of Paleo Pines, where dinosaurs and humans live together in harmony. Pretty quickly after arrival, it becomes clear that Lucky's species is nowhere to be seen. You'll run into herds of Triceratops, Gallimimus, and Ankylosaurus, but Lucky's kin? Missing. This becomes the focus of your adventure in Paleo Pines, as the two of you work with the dinos and villagers alike to uncover the history of the land and where Lucky's species ended up after all this time.
It's an interesting narrative setup, one whose focus is on research and learning. Whether it's the research duo — the analytical, process-focused Owynn and the adventurous, hands-on Mari — or the burnt out historian Zara, almost everyone you run into is interested in learning more about their past, the innate nature of the dinos you encounter, and how to work together with these dinos to make everyone's life better. It's a wholesome setup and one that emphasizes the importance of treating these dino helpers well, as the more you learn about them, the more you understand what they need and what can help them thrive on your farm.
The game regularly emphasizes that these dinos are not your workers or your pets, they are friends who will only work with you if they're treated well and once a sense of trust has been built. It's a nice reframing of the relationship you usually keep with animals in farming sims, one of pure resource gathering and typically very light on relationship building.
The dinos are the star of the show in Paleo Pines. But the stories you uncover — especially the side-character stories that usually define how much I love games like these — take so long to develop and feel shallow in comparison to what they're clearly trying to achieve. For example, progression through various character arcs requires very specific resources that may be out of season. And when you finally do nab the necessary items, the narrative payoff could be as meager as a thank you.
Locking interesting quality-of-life tools (like the ability to add slots to your inventory) behind building up these game-spanning relationships doesn't help, either.
There are interesting concepts broached in the stories being told, like dealing with overwork and finding your place in a community, but its execution holds it back.
In nearly all phases of the Paleo Pines experience, there are ideas that sound great in theory and work okay in practice, but ultimately are held back by some questionable design decisions. It's a confounding experience... but the game still has much to enjoy despite it all.
It starts with all the usual farming fun: tilling land, planting seeds, and maintaining it every day. It all works as expected. You've got a mess of a farm to start but not nearly the same kinds of tools you'd usually have to clear it all. In Paleo Pines, a lot of the work that you'd usually use tools like pickaxes and scythes for is left to the dinos. Need to break a rock? Dino. Clear some loose debris? Dino. Chop up a big log? DINO! Even advanced farming actions, like being able to till the land quicker or water more than one tile at a time, are accomplished by your dinos.
So, clearly, bringing these creatures home is key. To do that, you go out into the world and charm them with your music and with their favorite snacks. First is a call-and-response minigame where you mimic the dino's four-note calls with your flute. After that, you enter into an interesting taming phase where you balance their energy levels into a sweet spot by either giving them their preferred snack or soothing them. You lock it all in by offering the right Poppin snack that aligns with their preferred taste profile.
It's a fun little system that sets up the overall deeper bonds that Paleo Pines is going for in an interesting way, however convoluted and underexplained it may be. For much of the game, you'll be making educated guesses about what each dino's favorite snack is by looking around the environment you find them in. You'll be guessing at what their overall abilities might be. They range from obvious, with Triceratops being the type to break rocks, to less obvious, like an Allosaurus being the type to gulp up water and spray it all over a large plot of land.
What the game doesn't tell you until pretty late is that if you purposefully soothe a dino too much, it will fall asleep, which allows you to study them with your journal... giving you a bunch of that information you've been hunting for and making the process a lot smoother. I found that under-communication to be present all throughout, making for something that feels less like the exciting discovery of playing Minecraft for the first time without a Wiki and more like a game that's hiding its best bits and key gameplay systems by undertutorializing.
After you bring the dinos home, Paleo Pines' farming sim experience leans into some management sim-like systems. Each dino has specific needs for its environment on your farm-slash-ranch. Their pens need to be a certain size, each one has specific social and dietary needs and those things can't usually mix. Fans of management sims that have you building rooms with very precise parameters will find the system familiar. It makes the decisions about what dinos you want to bring home a more nuanced one, which I really enjoyed.
But it led straight into my next issue: an economic one.
The Paleo Pines economy is delicate. By economy, I mean the economy of resources, which leads into the economy of currency, all of which is altered by the economy of time.
In Paleo Pines, money is almost always tight (what's new?), and it takes a long time and many dinos to get a handle on the game's basic resources, fiber, wood, and stones. Because of that, you can go multiple in-game days without feeling like you're making any meaningful progress toward your goals. Farming sims usually leave you with a daily incremental grind toward your goals and the game's ultimate end goal. Paleo Pines has more than a few chunks of its calendar dedicated to just waiting.
The most baffling move comes in locking what is ostensibly the game's biggest goal, finding Lucky's family, behind a seemingly randomized collectible that you can find in the world. After spending one in-game year and 30+ hours getting to know these dinos, my final act in Paleo Pines was a steady descent into madness as I wandered through each of the game's three biomes hoping to catch one of these collectibles out in the wild.
If the game communicated even one thing about where these pieces could be found, I'd be okay. Instead, I was left wandering fruitlessly until finally locating it in a place I'd visited several times.
While a lot of what I felt about this game was steeped in frustration, I want to be clear I still found a lot to love in Paleo Pines. I was frustrated because I could feel a game I loved trapped within some of these confusing decisions. It's what made issues stand out even more. So before we go, a few positives.
Paleo Pines is a beautiful game, one whose bright, cartoony graphics showed a level of polish that most farming sims usually lack. Italic Pig's animators bring the dinos to life with a beautiful curiosity and taking care of them genuinely made me happy. When you enter their pens, they run at you and tilt their heads as they analyze you. When they've left droppings in their pens, they shamefully stand over the top of it as a group in a way that should be familiar to all pet owners.
The dino's designs — leaning more into the bird-like look that we've begun to learn in the past two decades that dinosaurs likely possessed — make for such a fun twist on how dinosaurs are traditionally represented. Everything is just so cute, and that in turn makes it so approachable. I can easily imagine Paleo Pines being the first game folks use to try out the farming sim or life sim genre, and I think someone like that can have a great time with it.
I also loved the broad strokes of Paleo Pines, the greater ideas propping it up. The reliance on your dino friends to get more complex tasks done. The bonds you build with them are well-represented in all phases of the game with almost everything you do. Even the overall concept of collecting goodies is a fun way to continually reinvigorate the game world, in its own way.
I'd be interested in revisiting Paleo Pines in time, seeing if things change with patches, but even as-is there's plenty of fun to be found.
Paleo Pines' dino-based farming sim experience may make for a great first step into the genre for some gamers, but those who know what to expect from the genre may find more than a few questionable gameplay decisions hidden inside. With its adorable style and recontextualization of a farming sim's relationship with animal helpers, it plants the seeds for some strong ideas that (mostly) do enough to help you push through its most frustrating bits. Mostly.
Video Games Are Good and Paleo Pines is . . . GOOD. (6.5/10)
+ an adorable aesthetic, some fascinating new ideas that recontextualize familiar farming sim concepts, a polished, bug-free experience
- a shallow storyline, frustrating decisions that halt the pace of play, too much is left unexplained (Wiki necessary)
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