Windows Central Verdict
The gameplay can get a little repetitive, but overall, the core experience of finding and befriending dinosaurs is well worth your time. There could certainly be some improvements, such as the ability to fast-travel back home or between biomes, and a limited supply of quests is disappointing.
Creative dinosaur design
Wholesome, heartwarming story
Plenty to explore
Repetitive side quests
No fast travel
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Paleo Pines invites players into a beautiful, vibrant world where dinosaurs and humans not only co-exist but work together in harmony to cultivate a ranch of your own. This is a game, though, and you can't expect a cozy, wholesome ranching simulator to give you all the dinosaurs for free. You're going to have to make some dino friends for yourself. It's like the old saying, "If you're going to have dinosaur helpers, you have to boop a few snoots."
..That is how the saying goes, right?
Paleo Pines: Story and gameplay
Paleo Pines begins with the player witnessing a short intro with stunning watercolor illustrations of a little egg that hatches into a blue parasaurolophus that is given the name Lucky. We get to see a tiny baby, Lucky, as she experiences bubble baths and the warm glow of a wood stove, but we also know that she is quickly outgrowing her childhood home. At this time, the player character decides to pack things up and head out to find more of Lucky's kind. There are rumors of Paleo Pines where parasaurolophus roam the hillsides.
Developer: Italic Pig
Publisher: Modus Games
Genre: Adventure, Casual simulation
Install Size: 4.7 GB
Playtime: ~20 hours
Release date: September 26, 2023
Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Steam, PS4, PS5, Switch
Reviewed on: Xbox Series X
Upon the player's arrival to Paleo Pines with Lucky, the two will approach a dilapidated ranch that is to be their new home. The place needs fixing up, so in true farming simulator fashion; it will be up to the player to clear the ranch of stones, broken tree limbs, and other debris to collect vital resources. These resources will be necessary for completing additional quests and uncovering the mysteries dotted around Paleo Pines.
Early in the game, the player is introduced to Mari and Owynn, residents of Paleo Pines who are also prominent dinosaur researchers in their rights. Mari quickly informs the player that the parasaurolophus has actually gone missing from Paleo Pines, kicking off a quest to discover if Lucky is truly the last of her kind. The player is then equipped with a couple of handy tools: a journal for tracking dinosaurs and collectibles alongside a flute.
The flute is undeniably one of Paleo Pines' more interesting gameplay mechanics. Each dinosaur species on the island has its friendship call that players can learn to open up communication and potentially establish trust. The flute can play four notes, represented by red, blue, yellow, and purple. Each note can be held for up to 3 beats. Matching the notes from the dinosaur with the flute enables you to interact with the dinosaur.
You don't need to be musically inclined to master the flute, however. The colored notes float across the screen during the friendship call sequence. When a note is to be held longer, it is represented with 1 or 2 circles around it to visually signal the number of extra beats. On the player side, blowing a note through the flute is visually represented with a colorful bubble at the tip of the flute. Holding a note for extra beats allows the bubble to grow in size. Once you've successfully performed a friendship call, it is recorded and becomes available on the screen with you for future interactions with that species.
After learning a dinosaur's friendship call, you'll have the opportunity to interact with the dinosaur via another mini-game sequence. This time around, there is a gauge in the corner of the screen to determine the dino's level of interest in what you're offering. Feeding a dino its preferred snack types can tilt the gauge into the green, where you can offer a special treat to earn its trust.
Careful, though, as there are also two red zones, meaning you can bore a dino to sleep or anger it enough that it won't take any more treats from you. These aren't always negative scenarios, however. For some quests, boring a dinosaur to sleep can help allow you to record important information about it in your journal. This can be useful even if you're not interested in taking that particular dino home to your ranch.
When a dinosaur trusts you, then and only then can you give it the required boop on the snoot to seal the deal. At that point, the dinosaur will follow you until you return home. This is where ranch management and farm simulation come into play. The player can clear and decorate their ranch however they see fit, including constructing pens and choosing the dinosaurs that populate it. Dinosaurs can provide different functions on the ranch, from smashing rocks to tracking precious resources and watering crops.
They also have their own needs, which the player must consider. Base-building decisions such as pen sizes, potential pen-mates having problems, and even the size of a herd within a single pen can all affect a dinosaur's mood. So can needs like food availability and whether they're in the appropriate habitat type.
Meeting the needs of your dinos allows them to level up from being happy ranch residents to being happy helpers. Helpers can be equipped with a saddle if they are large enough, and then the player can benefit from individual dinosaur traits to make the most of what you have available on your ranch. The crops and other resources you harvest can then help improve the island of Paleo Pines for the residents.
The residents of Paleo Pines are diverse and intriguing, each with their own little stories to tell. Individual quests for the characters help drive along the game's plot and encourage exploration. However, at the center of town sits a notice board. The player can visit the noticeboard for new side quests, often yielding generous payments.
The notice board quests regularly rely on sending the player to a few set locations to find specific items, and they quickly become repetitive. The side quests here are the one true weak link in Paleo Pines, as the quest lineup could use more variety. There are only so many missing hats and trinkets to deliver.
Paleo Pines: Visuals and performance
If there's one thing that stands out about Paleo Pines, it's undoubtedly the saturated and approachable aesthetic. This game is intended to be cozy and relaxing fun, so everything about the game's visuals further drives that home. From the biome variety to the round and cartoonish look of the characters to the brightly colored dinosaur variants, the inviting art design is evident in every aspect of Paleo Pines.
The game played exceptionally well on the Xbox Series X without any frame drops or hard crashes to the dashboard. There was one instance where the game froze during my 30+ hours of playtime, and I was required to force quit. However, this was while I was testing the game through Xbox's remote play functionality and streaming it to my PC from the console. Cloud streaming could have likely been just as much of a culprit as the game where that particular freeze is concerned.
Paleo Pines: Accessibility and approachability
Because of its relaxing, cozy atmosphere, Paleo Pines is one of the most approachable games to launch in what has been a banner year for games. The game features low-stress gameplay options without timers or fail states, making it suitable for players of all ages to kick back and enjoy their time on the ranch.
Regarding accessibility settings, Paleo Pines makes considerable strides even as an indie game. There are options for larger text boxes under the Settings tab and a toggle for higher contrast. Players like me who struggle with hand fatigue can benefit from the walk mode toggle. I found the absence of a fast travel option a struggle. While I value the encouragement to explore leisurely, fast travel can be a vital quality-of-life and accessibility feature.
Additional elements to Paleo Pines improve accessibility outside just the menu toggles. The previously mentioned flute mini-game has the potential to be an issue for color-blind players due to the notes being color-coded in red, yellow, blue, and purple. However, the notes are also coded with specific symbols to further help players choose the correct one.
That said, the notes from the player are displayed as colored bubbles that do not include the corresponding icon. This could make it difficult for color-blind players to detect which note they pressed incorrectly when playing the mini-game.
Paleo Pines: Should you buy it?
As an avid fan of farming simulators, management games, and all things cozy, it was no surprise that Paleo Pines earned a spot on my list as one of my most anticipated indies for 2023. Now that I've spent more than 30 hours combing over the game while jotting down collectibles in my journal and hunting for ultra-rare dinosaurs, I can confidently say that every moment of the wait for Paleo Pines was worth it.
The game is visually striking, from its color palette to art direction. There were plenty of moments when I wandered around some of my favorite areas on my steed, just admiring the environment's design.
That's not to say I don't have a few quality-of-life qualms. There could certainly be some improvements, such as the ability to fast travel back home or between biomes. The aforementioned limited supply of quests is also a shame. However, I wonder how much of that results from my spending so much extra time playing beyond the 20-hour mark that the developers believe it takes to get through the campaign. Even beyond what the developers imagined for a playthrough, time in Paleo Pines was certainly time well spent.
Cole is the resident Call of Duty know-it-all and indie game enthusiast for Windows Central. She's a lifelong artist with two decades of experience in digital painting, and she will happily talk your ear off about budget pen displays.