You are alone on a faraway planet, and a strange piece of technology is your only way to survive an alien frontier teeming with unfamiliar creatures. Slime Rancher’s set-up may sound like a tense sci-fi shooter, but the reality is far more relaxing. This easygoing simulation from developer Monomi Park is all about exploration and optimization, with plenty of depth and tantalizing upgrades to make your life on the range entertaining.

Equipped with a vacpack that can suck up, store, and shoot various items, your job is to turn a desolate patch of land into a thriving ranch. At the center of this pursuit are slimes – cute, bouncy lifeforms that act as your livestock and primary source of income. You collect them as you venture beyond your homestead, place them in corrals, feed them to produce “plorts,” then harvest the plorts to sell. The loop is simple in concept, but with new areas to explore and additional layers of complexity gradually folding into ranch maintenance, Slime Rancher hits a sweet spot; it makes you feel successful, but also keeps you planning for the future.

Despite their vacant smiles, managing slimes requires a surprising amount of thought. An in-game Slimepedia explains the basics of tending to your herd, but the best lessons come from experience. Early on, I just kept normal slimes in basic pens, but then they bounced out and I had to chase them around and suck them up again. After upgrading the corrals, I started cross-breeding slimes. That went well until I moved two different cross-breeds into the same enclosure, which resulted in the creation of evil slimes that almost wiped out my entire collection. And don’t even get me started on the teleporting quantum slimes. In addition to making funny stories, these minor and major disasters deftly nudge you toward the best approach to running your ranch, building a knowledge base that comes in handy as the game expands.

Taking care of your slimes is a consistently rewarding background activity that gives you money at a decent pace, and your ability to create and handle new situations improves by purchasing an array of upgrades for your character and the ranch. Whether you’re increasing your carrying capacity, installing a jetpack, or unlocking access to a different part of the ranch, you never have a shortage of useful things to spend your hard-earned money on. This results in a gratifying stream of improvements that always has you anticipating what you’re going to buy next. I often had trouble deciding because the options seemed so useful (though the jetpack should be a high priority).

Building a thriving ranch requires going far afield to gather new slimes and resources. You advance through interesting areas, like the quarry and ancient ruins, and the cartoony visual style suits Slime Rancher well. Exploring is fun, and I couldn’t wait to see what unique slimes and vegetation were waiting to be gathered. For example, each slime has a favorite food that makes them produce double the plorts, so bringing that back to the ranch and cultivating it yourself guarantees a big payday. While chasing that payday, sometimes you’re a long way from home, a little lost, and holding on to a treasure trove of rare goodies. Slime Rancher nails the thrill of that situation, creating memorable moments of tension and discovery without being too punishing.

On your journey, you find mysterious beasts and objects that are bound to raise questions. What do I do with those gigantic slimes that won’t move? How do I unlock these doors? I like how Slime Rancher lets you find and engage with these things on your own terms, but I would have appreciated an indication of how important they are. Once you realize these things are your only way to progress, remembering where they are can be a challenge; though Monomi Park says a map is planned for a future update, its current absence is frustrating given the size of the world – especially the final area. The relative rarity of teleporters is another issue. Though you can craft them late in the game, until then you must traverse zones that don’t have much to offer you anymore. At worst, these problems result in mild tedium and a bit of wasted time, which isn’t enough to dull Slime Rancher’s overall charm.

My time on the range periodically reminded me of many other gaming experiences I’ve enjoyed over the years. The low-stress farming element feels like Viva Piñata, the routine scratches the same itch as Stardew Valley, and exploring the unknown has a Minecraft vibe. Slime Rancher captures the essence of what makes those things fun, but it’s more than an assemblage of familiar parts. Everything comes to together in a carefully crafted whole with surprising depth that provides incentives to collect every slime and buy every upgrade (not to mention lots of resource-intensive, late-game rewards for the especially dedicated). Slime Rancher has the ability to keep you hooked for hours; I often looked out over my ranch, felt pride at my accomplishments, and eagerly ventured back into the wilderness to see what other strange things I could find.