We’ve always known that bees are incredibly important to the Earth, its environments and populations, but it feels like only recently the issue of bee endangerment has been highlighted more and more in mainstream media. For every local or governmental effort to promote bee conservation, there’s a prominent brand or figure like Tyler, The Creator’s Golf Wang clothing line spruiking t-shirts with ‘Save the Bees’ slogans. Bee Simulator, from Polish developer VARSAV Game Studios, takes the message to a slightly different medium – video games – in an open-world adventure starring a little honey bee whose tree-hollow hive is in danger of being cut down by greedy humans.
There’s something oddly magical about playing a game at insect scale. It’s not done often enough either, with the most memorable examples I can think of being games like Mister Mosquito, A Bug’s Life and Sim Ant. In Bee Simulator, your teeny-tiny avatar is a honey bee (whose default name is Beescuit but I quickly changed to Beeanu Beeves) fed up with her lot in life and wanting to take on a greater role in helping save her colony. Is it just me or does almost all insect-related fiction follow the same tropes? Anyway, over the course of the story Beeanu will roam the greater surrounds of her home in a giant park, collecting pollen for the winter and eventually achieving her dream of become greater than she was meant to bee.
This wouldn’t be a Bee Simulator if the bulk of the game didn’t involve flying around the great outdoors collecting pollen from flowers and bringing it back to the hive. Luckily, that’s what the game does best. Flying is simple and feels great – being a bee means that, unlike other games about flying, you’re not subject to a need for continued momentum. Your bee comes to a hovering stop as soon as you let up on the analog stick, and you can easily ascend or descend with the controller’s triggers. Flying around in the open is a cinch; the only time it occasionally comes apart is when trying to fly though cramped spaces at top speeds, but thankfully that doesn’t happen too often. There’s obviously an element of challenge to the game and all of the different gameplay elements it contains, but Bee Simulator is at its best when you’re buzzing through the park at a leisurely pace, watching humans and animals go about their days and munching on the occasional unattended cupcake on a picnic rug. Or stinging kids on their faces. Side note: despite being a honey bee you won’t die from stinging people, so go for broke!
When you’re not busy collecting pollen, you’ll be engaging in a number of other activities either as part of the game’s main story or its litany of side challenges. The most common of these are chase sequences, where you’ll attempt to keep up with or catch another insect by flying through rings. Like the rest of the flying bits, this is at its best in open spaces, but can quickly become frustrating when trying to navigate tight spaces at the speeds required. Anyone who’s ever played one of these ‘flying ring’ type scenarios in other games will immediately understand.
There’s also a bit of insect combat – your bee loves to pick fights it seems – and though it’s fairly basic, I found one aspect quite interesting. Bee Simulator has two difficulty options, Easy and Hard, and for the most part these just seem to affect things like the amount of pollen available or time limits in challenges. When it comes to the combat though, your choice of difficulty actually changes the fundamental mechanics. Playing on Hard, insect battles occur in real time and require paying careful attention to visual indicators and pressing the appropriate buttons at the right moment. On Easy however, combat becomes a turn-based affair where the correct sequence of buttons is shown on screen (not unlike a rhythm game) and a clash plays out after the fact. I didn’t mind the combat in Hard mode, but the slowed-down version definitely feels more in line with the easy-going vibe of the rest of the game. Luckily you’re able to change difficulty at any time without penalty, so it’s easy to tailor each challenge to your personal preference.
One of Bee Simulator’s biggest strengths is also one of its weaknesses – there’s a ton of cool bonus stuff to unlock, from skins and costumes for your bee, to a library of detailed 3D insect models and a glossary of interesting facts – but to unlock it all you’ll need to play a lot of the game beyond its two-to-three hour main story. It’s far from a bad thing that there’s a sizeable world to explore that’s full of stuff to do and find but it is, by nature, a lot of busy (bee) work. Thank God for fast travel too, because as relaxing as it is to gently float around the place, trying to get somewhere with a purpose can be tedious.
At the risk of repeating myself, that really is the appeal of Bee Simulator. Traipsing around familiar environments from such a unique scale really is a joy that more games should offer. Even with its relatively low-detail assets and simple effects, the game can often look quite beautiful; the inside of the main hive is especially impressive, and the insect animations and models are actually pretty cool. There’s definitely no mistaking this for a AAA product, but the love and care put into it is clear and more than makes up for the somewhat amateur-ish spots in the presentation. Special mention has to go to the animated, motion-comic style cutscenes for their seriously great art.
I’m deathly allergic to bees and yet after having played Bee Simulator I would do absolutely anything for the little guys. This is a game made by a small team on a small budget and it shows; but there’s an undeniably wholesome and endearing experience here that is better than the sum of its parts.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher