For many years, simulator games were previously the preserve of uber-serious players, keen to try out loving recreations of pastimes that could charitably be called dull. If a game had ‘Simulator’ in the title, it was a clear sign that it’d be an admirably straight-faced experience, with a focus on the most minor, granular detail. Though low budget and often lacking from a visual standpoint in terms of graphical bells and whistles, the immersion and realism was all that players wanted. There are stories going as far back as the '80s of people making real-time transatlantic journeys in flight simulator games, for example, which most certainly doesn’t sound like the kind of experience that most gamers are looking for.
The adorably stupid and surprisingly fun, GTA-with-caprines chaos of Goat Simulator seemed to kickstart an interest in oddball ‘Simulator’ games, however, light-heartedly mocking the seriousness of ‘real’ simulators and spawning countless, increasingly bizarre imitators of its own (Grass Simulator and Shower With Your Dad Simulator 2015 being two PC-based oddities that use the simulator name, but have very little in common with a traditional sim, or even Goat Simulator itself).
With Bee Simulator, we have a title that does take itself somewhat seriously – even offering some educational facts along the way, in the intro and loading screens, regarding the lifecycle of the bee and their importance to our environment – but, as with titles such as Goat Simulator, it does aim to be a more traditional game, too.
Set in a stylised world based on New York’s Central Park – albeit a nicely-idealised version inspired by the actual location, rather than attempting to truly replicate it – the main story mode of Bee Simulator sees players buzzing around in the role of a honey bee, collecting nectar for the hive. There’s a nice animated intro as well; the game starts with your little bee emerging from her larval form, at which point you can name her (the game suggests a Bee-related pun, but this can be immediately changed). Your newly-transformed insect is then shepherded through a quick flying tutorial by a very matronly bee, before setting off to meet the Queen and leave the hive for the first mission.
There’s a nice sense of scale – even inside the hive – as well as a wonderful ambience, due to the sounds of nature that you’ll hear. The humans your bee encounters throughout the story speak in a kind of garbled gobbledegook, not unlike the language heard in games such as The Sims.
A click of the right stick shifts the view into first-person ‘bee vision’, which helpfully highlights waypoints and objects that can be interacted with, colour coding things such as flowers to denote their rarity. Passing through an amber-coloured circle above a flower collects its pollen, which you’ll only be able to carry a limited amount of before needing to take it back to the hive.
There's a wide variety of flowers to discover and players will also engage in combat mini-games against other insects, such as wasps; combat in Bee Simulator is presented as a very simple rhythm action exercise in which you’ll make timed button presses in order to defeat your opponent. Another mini-game you’ll encounter is the waggle dance – also a rhythm action game – but instead of button presses, you’ll instead need to copy the movement sequence of the bee you’re trying to communicate with. The final type of mini-game is the race, in which you’ll need to fly through checkpoints with precision and often at great speed; it’s quite a contrast to the laidback, easygoing nature of the rest of the game. Rounding it all off is a lovely soundtrack – by no less than Mikolaj Stroinski, composer of The Witcher 3 and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter – which adds to the playful sense of wonder inherent in much of the game.
Though this all sounds fine enough, unfortunately, there are a number of issues with Bee Simulator. Flying in a less open environment feels extremely erratic and imprecise; though it can be a joy to move around in the more open environments of the park, the hive and other more restricted areas can be somewhat frustrating. The controls aren't as smooth and intuitive as we'd like, and this removes a lot of the fun that is hinted at by the game's core premise; flying around as a bee should be exhilarating, but it rarely hits that high here.
It’s due – in part – to this control issue that the game's races are maddeningly annoying affairs too; though the more gentle exploration is relaxing and satisfying, trying to quickly pass through checkpoints in sequence – with the most minor errors or drops in speed seeing your bee unceremoniously kicked back to the beginning of the race – is overly punishing, especially in a game that, in many ways, strives to be a family-friendly, laidback experience.
The visuals, though undeniably naturalistic, could certainly do with a bit more vibrancy; most areas feel somewhat muted and desaturated. The graphics lack detail too, but even then the frame rate still struggles at times. Loading times, particularly when starting the game, are also a problem. You’d be forgiven, when starting Bee Simulator, for thinking it’s crashed, as it hangs on what is pretty much a black screen (aside from three white dots in the corner) for what feels like a very long time.
Many of the non-threatening creatures in the environment feel lifeless and stiff (the humans encountered also fall into this trap, unfortunately, looking not entirely unlike mannequins), though their sound effects are nicely done and the sense of scale when discovering (and flying past) larger creatures is impressively handled. The campaign is incredibly short, which is a surprise given the game’s relatively high RRP. Though there’s a number of multiplayer modes (where players can compete or play co-operatively) and extra bee skins to add further value, it still feels a little threadbare for its price range.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to know who the final product will appeal to; it would have been an excellent game for younger gamers, had it not been for the punishing design and 'instant failure' nature of the racing mini-games. More experienced players are likely to find themselves breezing very quickly through everything that Bee Simulator has to offer, despite the difficulty spikes. As such, it's stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Bee Simulator is a surprisingly thoughtful game with bags of charm to spare, a wonderful soundtrack and a reasonably detailed world to explore. However, the experience is seriously soured by the sensitive controls, along with the punishing – and very frustrating – racing segments. A few visual and technical problems crop up as well, which – when added to the game's brevity and distinct lack of content (especially for this asking price) – all conspire to make Bee Simulator a much less successful undertaking that it could have been.