Review: Fossil Hunters

Freshly unearthed by Canadian indie shop Reptoid Games following a successfully funded Kickstarter campaign last fall, Fossil Hunters is a 3D isometric puzzle adventure in which you, as one of four playable characters, descend underground through 29 levels of increasing complexity and subterranean danger in search of precious, prehistoric fossils to excavate and reassemble.

Rather than relying on action, survival, and a grand sense of scale, as dinosaur videogames often do, Fossil Hunters draws inspiration from the archaeological side of dino-science, tasking you with pickaxing through dirt, one mound at a time, in search of fossil tiles that must be assembled into fully formed skeletons. This is a game of discovery, exploration, and puzzle-solving, not one of immersing yourself in what it might have been like to live during prehistoric times, or putting on make-believe battles between the in-the-flesh creatures.

Each level features a handcrafted layout with a predetermined skeleton diagram etched on the ground somewhere on the map, which must be found and completed by digging for fossils and slotting them into the matching squares. Once all fossils in the diagram have been properly positioned and connected, a power line to the elevator sparks up, permitting access to the next floor down, where another diagram awaits construction. The process of putting the skeletons together feels very similar to doing jigsaw puzzles with sliding blocks. After unearthing a fossil tile, you need to grab and drag it into position, rotating the tile as needed to align it in proper orientation so that it can connect to an adjacent tile. Once lined up correctly, the modular fossils auto-snap together at highlighted joints with a satisfying click.

Within this construct, you’re able to freely travel between unlocked levels and spend as much time as desired just digging out fossils and piecing them together freehand to create whatever wacky dinosaur skeletons you can imagine, within the boundaries of the provided assortment of skull, spine, body, claw, tail, and leg bone tiles. Here are screenshots of some of my own creations, to give you an idea of how fossils connect:

Creating freeform skeletons of dinosaurs that could in no way have ever existed isn’t done just for kicks either. Similar to a combo scoring system, gold coins and other treasures are awarded based on the number of fossils incorporated into a design. Naturally, fossils are dirty when first uncovered, but by brushing all tiles clean a bonus can be earned for submitting a skeleton in pristine condition.

Amassing gold comes in handy as barriers and elements of danger are introduced. Assistant shopkeeper NPCs can be found hiding throughout the dig site, each returning to the lab to sell single-use tools, including TNT barrels, bridges, lamps, and support beams. The level progression changes through four environment themes the deeper you go, each biome presenting unique obstacles to overcome. Some areas are overgrown with glowing mushrooms that pop as you walk over them, spreading fungal moss that cakes onto fossils and makes them very slow to drag unless they’re brushed clean. Subterranean critters called crawlers creep around in the shadows, sneaking out of burrows to munch on fossils when you’re not paying attention. You can shoo the little buggers away manually, or buy lamps to strategically station around a skeleton site as a defensive light barrier. Nothing’s more disheartening than nearing completion on a skeleton and venturing out of view in search of a needed fossil only to return a moment later to find that a crawler has snacked away a few tiles.

Cave-ins are another prevailing hazard. Digging out too much dirt from one location eventually leads to a cave-in, replenishing the map with new dirt to mine but also crushing any fossil tiles underneath. Sometimes a skeleton diagram will be directly below an area prone to cave-ins, so you’ll need to find or buy support beams to stabilize the area before getting down to the nitty-gritty. Used to avoid getting squished under a cave-in yourself, the dodge-roll mechanic doubles as a method to navigate sections of light platforming, where pits or lava rivers divide areas of a map that need to be jumped across. However, in certain caves bridges need to be rolled out to cross larger gaps or create pathways to safely carry fossils or treasures from one side to the other.

In addition to leisurely piecing together dino bones, the game offers a variety of optional, exploratory content. The top floor of the dig site serves as a lab hub area, where an unseen NPC known as The Collector radios in with request challenges. Available one at a time, these side quests each come with specific guidelines, such as building a skeleton with two heads, six claws, two tails and a wing, or one that consists of at least 10 pieces without using any skull or tail fossils. Requests can be completed at any time, but since certain fossils only appear on certain floors, advancing through the main puzzle diagrams is required to be able to finish them all. Once a request has been fulfilled, you can head back up to the lab to receive a treasure box as a reward, as well as the next skeleton request. The levels are also designed in such a way that fossils and items from one floor can be placed in the elevator for transport to another floor.

Note pages and golden idol collectibles are hidden on each floor, each adding text and pictures to a journal that serves as the only real storytelling device. Gems earned through completing requests or creating colossal skeletons function as keys to open access to such hidden areas. What I enjoyed most about Fossil Hunters is the amount of freedom it gives to play at your own pace. It probably wouldn’t take too long to rush through the levels only doing the diagram skeletons, but it’s so easy to lose yourself to obsessively chipping away at dirt piles and snapping fossils together just for the hell of it. Playing slowly and doing all of the requests, it took me around a dozen hours to reach the end. However, I did miss a number of journal pages and golden idols, so there’s still reason to continue replaying. Although not currently implemented, a skeleton creation sandbox mode is in the works for a free post-release update, so that’s something else to look forward to as a future replay extension.

As wholesomely enjoyable as the game is, certain design aspects do come across as inelegant or underdeveloped. Fossil Hunters could benefit greatly from a number of quality-of-life improvements and feature additions. These are a few constructive ideas that popped into my head as I was playing:

1) How’s About an Inventory System? When buying from the shopkeeper assistants in the lab, each item needs to be purchased and carried, one at a time, to the elevator. Then they need to be carried, again one at a time, from the elevator to the locations where they’re needed. Lugging items around and trekking back and forth to the elevator and lab becomes far more tedious than it ought to be. A better solution would be to have purchased tools go into a stackable inventory so you could quickly stock up and deploy tools on demand, rather than needing to backtrack so often only able to carry one thing at a time.

2) Fossil RNG: Another thing that grows aggravating as the levels and skeletons increase in size and complexity, is the randomization of the fossil drops. There were numerous times where I would get down to needing one specific fossil to complete a skeleton and proceed to chip away at respawning dirt piles for five to ten empty minutes until the one I needed finally appeared. Some additional tweaking could certainly be done to balance out the fossil spawns.

3) Hold to Dig: Since each swing of the pickaxe requires a button press, the game involves a lot of button mashing, and as a result the dig button takes a serious pounding. It’d feel smoother and more intuitive if you could simply hold the dig button for continued digging.

4) Depreciating Gold: Gold has its purpose but in general becomes less valuable the longer you play, because you’re quickly able to earn far more than is ever necessary to spend, or that is ever lost as a penalty for dying. Instead of the fountains the game sporadically provides for gaining power-ups to run speed, drag speed, and dig power, I think a neat idea would be to have those powers as character attributes that you could spend gold on to upgrade. This would give greater purpose to earning gold while also providing another form of progression. Character customizations, like costumes and equipment skins, could fit into some sort of an expanded economy as well. Character hats are planned for a future update, but I don’t know the details on how exactly they’ll be implemented. As is, the gold largely feels like a superfluous currency, a shiny, collectable particle effect to shower the player character with upon submitting a skeleton.

Like a newly excavated fossil still caked with dirt, Fossil Hunters is in need of extra brushing and polishing on the technical side of things. The framerate tends to skip and pause when there is an explosion, or a stampeding lava salamander triggers a domino chain of cave-ins. When imbued with the sprint power-up, the character runs so fast that the camera is unable to keep up, leading to a higher probability of accidentally running off a ledge and dying. A few times I encountered a bug where the elevator wouldn’t close, and therefore I was unable to proceed to the level select menu. I was able to narrow the cause for one of these instances down to a mushroom that was beneath the elevator blocking the door from closing all the way. Only after running back and forth and knocking the invisible mushroom over through pure chance was I able to get the elevator door to finally close so I could proceed. I’m not sure what caused the other hang-ups, nor how they corrected themselves. And for completionists who care about such things (yes, I’m including myself), most of the Steam achievements are not synching properly. I’ve only unlocked 11 of the 47 achievements and yet I’ve fulfilled the requirements to have at least earned 30 to 40 of them.

As Fossil Hunters is a PC game first (console versions are in the works), it’s disappointing that it doesn’t fully support true mouse and keyboard control. The controls are simple and easy to learn, but the gameplay feel is so much tighter with a gamepad in hand. While keyboard controls are supported, they currently don’t feel properly optimized or well suited to the game’s three-dimensional block manipulation and character movement. The game desperately needs a configuration that incorporates mouse input with the keyboard.

While there is ample room for growth and improvement, Fossil Hunters manages to successfully tap into the inner child fascination many of us have with dinosaurs while tailoring its gameplay mechanics to capture the childhood spirit of digging around in the backyard or playground sandbox, pretending to excavate fossils and other buried treasures. The tone set by the art and audio assets is appropriately playful and elicits a sense of discovery and adventure. After pickaxing through the umpteenth block of dirt a degree of repetition does begin to set in, but there’s enough variety and freedom within the level design structure to mitigate the grindier moments. Although I was only able to play by myself, players with local friends/children/spouses can take advantage of shared screen multiplayer to go on archaeological fossil hunts together, which I’ve no doubt only adds to the dino-building fun.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Fun modular fossil construction evokes comparisons to jigsaw puzzling
+ Good balance of required level progression and side quests/exploration
+ Nice variety of map designs and environmental challenges
+ Playful visual style and music

Cons:
– Becomes a bit grindy and monotonous in spots
– Some technical faults still need to be fixed
– Various quality-of-life elements could use improvement

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: Reptoid Games
Developer: Reptoid Games
Release Date: 2/13/2018
Genre: Adventure/Puzzle
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-4 (local co-op only)

Source: A Steam key for Fossil Hunters was provided to VGBlogger.com for review consideration by Reptoid Games.

Buy From: Steam, itch.io, and Crytivo for $14.99.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!