Farm management sims are hard to get right; farming is work, after all. Successful farming games either add substantial non-farming elements like Harvest Moon's social elements, or they take the work so seriously that it becomes comically overbearing, à la Farming Simulator. French studio BiP Media's My Exotic Farm ultimately feels more like work than play, with neither the fun of the Harvest Moon series nor the depth of the Farming Simulator franchise.
After last year's My Farm, the next logical place for BiP Media to take the sequel was... Africa. Not any specific African country, mind you — My Exotic Farm takes place in a vague, stereotypical vision of Africa. The word "Africa" is never even used, and the setting is only referred to as "the other side of the planet".
The game opens with a pleasing storyboard-style cutscene, explaining how you've left the "urban jungle" to become the farmer seen in My Farm. But you're bored with traditional Western farm animals, and when your friend Arnold tells you about the wondrous farm on the other side of the planet you pack your bags. The narrator is presumably a French man from BiP doing his best to feign an American accent, with mixed results; this doesn't have to be considered a negative, though — it sure gives the game character! It's like those bubbly European pop songs where the lyrics are grammatically correct, but you can still tell the lyricist doesn't speak English as their first language. My Exotic Farm gets bonus points for this hilariously mediocre fake American accent.
Back to the game at hand. The 3D graphics are nothing to write home about, but that's to be expected from a budget title like this one. The character and animal models are stylised in a manner reminiscent of the popular kids' film Madagascar, which draws some of the attention away from the otherwise-subpar polygonal designs. The main menu features generic African-style music, but once you get into the actual gameplay there's no music whatsoever. We're left with serviceable nature sounds to accompany our farming adventure.
An attractive 3D render of your farm is displayed on the TV screen. You use the Wii U GamePad's control sticks to look around the farm, and you can jump from animal to animal with ZL and ZR. However, there's not much else you can do on the TV. The bulk of game actions take place on the GamePad with touch screen controls; it's a breath of fresh air to see a third-party developer actually take advantage of the Wii U's two-screen setup and use the TV display and GamePad for different functions, but it would've been nice to be able to do slightly more on larger screen. It's almost nothing more than a pretty screen to savour while most of your time is spent looking at the GamePad. The GamePad has no map, though, so you're required to look up at the TV every now and then to see where your animals are relative to one another.
After the opening cutscene there's no tutorial, and you're immediately bombarded with pages and pages of text informing you of all the different game mechanics; then you're dumped into the game with no direction. Assuming My Exotic Farm is aimed at children, this is hardly the way to create an accessible experience. You begin with a nearly-deserted farm and a single ostrich as your starting animal, and the core gameplay revolves around raising your animals to produce items like eggs and milk, then selling those items for money. In the world of My Exotic Farm, giraffe milk is a profitable commodity!
Once you've raised your livestock until they're fat and ready, you can rake in cash by selling the animals themselves as well. There's a plethora of items to purchase: food for the animals, medicine, upgrades to the farm and, of course, new animals. Each animal has a happiness gauge and a hunger gauge, so you need to keep your livestock fed; after they eat, they get dirty. You've got to scrub your animals clean with the Wii U GamePad's stylus to keep them happy. In addition to washing each animal, the farm itself gets dirty over time and you have to use the stylus to sweep up garbage. For those that have played the DS or 3DS entries in this series, this should all be sounding very familiar.
Each animal has a specific type of food they'll eat — ostriches and parrots eat seeds, zebras and gazelles eat hay, lions and crocodiles eat meat, monkeys and elephants eat fruit. The animals will occasionally get sick, and you've got to cure them before they spread disease to other animals; this is an interesting concept, but it's bogged down by the multiple medication types to cover the different breeds, complicating matters and potentially frustrating younger players.
Aside from micromanaging your livestock, there's not much to do but sit there and watch them. You'll get "challenges" that reward you with more food and animals, but the challenges are nothing more than "raise 3 ostriches" or "buy a fence." Not exactly cerebral. The game uses a day-night cycle that moves at a sluggish pace; you can fast-forward the pace up to 64 times standard speed, but your animals need such constant attention that it's tough to sim your way through the day. Until you acquire the more expensive animals later in the game, the items your livestock produce turn such a minor profit that it requires a frustrating amount of grinding to earn enough money to make any progress. Real life farming can be a tough grind, but the effect isn't ideal for a budget download game.
My Exotic Farm is a functional, cute farm management sim; at an affordable $4.99 price point it's also decent value. But beneath the kid-friendly exterior, it's nothing more than an empty test of your micromanagement and grinding skills. Perhaps the most obsessive players will find a sense of accomplishment in this Skinner box, but for the rest of us it's not a plunge worth taking; as with previous entries it lacks enjoyable design to actually entertain the player. There are more accessible and deeper farming games available elsewhere, which are also more engaging experiences.