Who knew paleontology could be so dull?
Fossil Hunters is my third Kickstarted Switch game after Shovel Knight and Mercenary Kings. Unfortunately, my love for those games completely overshadows my lukewarm feelings about Fossil Hunters, a game I should love to the core of my soul. It’s allegedly about paleontology, which is my first love. Previous paleontology-based games, like Dinosaur King and Fossil Fighters, offered Pokemon-like gameplay with interesting methods of fossil prospecting in which you carefully dig, chip, and brush sediment off a given fossil using instruments that mimic those used in real life. Fossil Hunters does not have Pokemon-like gameplay, which is fine, but it more importantly doesn’t have an intricate, methodological process for finding fossils, either. The result is a somewhat dull game that’s buoyed by co-op multiplayer. There’s just not a lot of meat on these fossilized bones.
In Fossil Hunters, you and up to three friends explore a deep, multi-layered mine filled with fossils, environmental hazards, and local wildlife. Each floor of the mine is essentially a grid, and rock of varying thickness covers many of the squares. You destroy the rock by whacking it with a pickaxe until it disappears and, usually, uncovers a fossil. Fossils are funny things in Fossil Hunters: they’re puzzle pieces. You get all sorts of puzzle pieces, from 1x1 blocks to 2x2, 1x2, etc. The blocks have different things on them, like skulls, spines, leg bones, claws, or joints.
You drag the puzzle pieces around until you’ve created some unholy abomination, then submit it for a monetary reward. If you fulfill a client request (like “make something with two heads”) you’ll also get a gemstone or trophy upon returning to camp. Each floor of the mine has a skeleton blueprint on the floor, and creating that skeleton unlocks the next floor down. In addition to skeletal puzzle pieces, you can find coins, dynamite, and journal pages. Journal pages are the completionist collectible; each “zone” of the mine has so many journal pages to find.
You’ll eventually find people who will sell you items that will make your treks less frustrating: lamps (which keep fossil-destroying bugs away) and, critically, support beams. Support beams should be the first item you find, for reasons I’ll go into in a second. Some floors also have glowing pools that briefly increase your character’s digging or dragging stats.
If all of this sounds kind of boring, that’s because it is, and Fossil Hunters adds a couple layers of frustration on top. First, bugs can and often do destroy your puzzle pieces. You have to purchase and set up lamps in several spots around your works in progress to keep them away. However, in addition to not being particularly bright, the lamps need to be moved in order to drag puzzle pieces to where they need to be. If the lamps are hung from the ceiling or simply hovered in place, this wouldn’t be an issue. This is particularly irksome in areas that don’t have a lot of free floor space.
Second—and this is the big one—cave-ins happen with teeth-grinding frequency. Each area of a given floor seems to have a set limit on how many tiles you can pickaxe at before the ceiling caves in and all the rock is replaced. In some areas, it’s a lot. In others, it’s very little. In all cases, anything left uncovered will be destroyed by the cave-in. Because the puzzles pieces seem to be randomized, you can see why this might be frustrating: there were so many times where I’d been looking fruitlessly for a particular puzzle piece only to uncover it and trigger a cave-in before I could drag it away. The solution is to purchase as many support beams as you can afford, but you aren’t given the option of even having support beams until you're about a third of the way through the game.
Co-op multiplayer with a younger crowd might alleviate some of these frustrations, but as a goal-oriented solo player, I was disappointed by Fossil Hunters. I also wish the game had used a bigger selection of puzzle pieces to craft more true-to-life prehistoric oddities. One of the blueprints I found was of a sea serpent, but I couldn’t help but wish it was a mosasaur or a plesiosaur. It’s a little bit sad that a DS game from 2008 is still the best paleontology-based video game on the market—Fossil Hunters does not scratch that itch.