I’m both a sucker for a cozy crafting sim and an aspiring beekeeper to boot, so I couldn’t resist APICO, a beekeeping simulator from TNgineers and Whitethorn Games, whose Steam tagline is “Stress-free games for nervous people.” How could I resist the promise of something stress-free and targeted at me, a nervous person?

APICO

TNgineers
Whitethorn Games
May 20, 2022

Sidequest was provided with a copy of APICO for PC in exchange for a fair and honest review.

One of my disappointments with farming and life sims like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing is that they tend to be generalist. This isn’t a bad thing, but I often want to dive deeper into some of the offered methods of farming and crafting. APICO is precisely that—your primary goal is to form a symbiotic relationship with your bees, finding lost species and nursing them back to being widespread. You build hives and Rehabeelitation boxes (this game loves a bee pun) and give the bees what they need. In return, you scrape propolis from frames, gather honey in containers, and brew up specialty cola.

Bee conservation is a core part of the game. The opening screen greets you with #SaveTheBees, which links to a section of the APICO website that includes several charities and more information about conservation. TNgineers also donates a portion of each sale to bee-focused charities. While there’s a lot you can do in the game—exploration, crafting, breeding—most actions feed directly back into conservation, where the real reward comes from the satisfaction of bringing extinct bees back into the world.

The story is underwhelming and quickly forgotten—like many games of this kind, you leave your city-slicker life behind for a quiet, pastoral fantasy—but it doesn’t really matter. You’re immediately thrown into a guided tour of the game’s many features through a series of objectives outlined in a cute manual that covers the game’s mechanics with even more bee puns written in a cheerful, personable voice. These tasks include gathering wood, building various kinds of apiaries, finding wild bee species in untended hives around the world, and unlocking new items, such as smokers and microscopes, from the local townsfolk. Completing one task unlocks another until you’ve revealed the whole manual, but doing so doesn’t mean the end of the game, as there’s still plenty to discover and do—there are bees to breed, mysteries to solve, flowers to experiment with, and locations to explore.

A screenshot from APICO (TNgineers, Whitethorn Games, 2022) showing the bee manual, which includes a picture of the common bee, its preferred conditions, a description of it, what it produces, its conservation status, and what kind of hybrid bees can be created with it.

I did struggle from time to time with these tasks, mostly due to some inconsistency. If you need an item to progress, sometimes the manual will tell you who you need to purchase that item from, but sometimes it won’t. The pixel graphics are satisfactory and add to the game’s cutesy tone, but the graphics, combined with unclear directions, led me to at one point hit an NPC’s microscope with a hammer so I could put it in my inventory and get the quest reward. Turns out the microscope I needed to buy was for sale by someone in that very room the entire time, I just didn’t recognize it. Still, it’s nice that the goals are outlined in sections that flow logically from one to the next, even if you don’t have to pursue them linearly. I hopped back and forth between crafting tasks, beekeeping tasks, and more, usually only consulting the manual for guidance when I got stuck.

What immediately stands out about APICO is its wonderful cascading menu system. There’s a lot of things to craft, and lots of tools to craft with. Instead of forcing you to walk between different machines and open one menu at a time, APICO lets you open a multitude of chests, hives, and machinery and swap inventory between them as you like. It’s a huge quality of life upgrade from similar games and saved me a lot of time walking back and forth because I’d forgotten a single ingredient.

Though I had a lot of fun with APICO, after about 10 hours, the gameplay began to grate on me. By this point, I’d explored most of the world, brought wild bee specimens back to my home base, and bred some exciting new species that were slowly repopulating the world. But these new wild bee specimens had specific climate requirements that needed to be met with technology I couldn’t build myself, and that technology was locked behind breeding requirements. The number of bees I could breed dwindled until eventually I was focusing entirely on one that required four minutes of real-world playtime to successfully produce the crossbreed I needed. I got frustrated after my repeated failures—based in large part on the wildflowers I’d planted around the hives, which gave my bees longer lifespans than I needed for this particular species—and figured that was as good a place as any to stop for now. The game still holds mysteries and promises, but they can wait for when I want to return to them.

A screenshot from APICO (TNgineers, Whitethorn Games, 2022) showing the player character crafting items against a snowy landscape. The player has three menus open at once, allowing them to pull resources from any of them.

I love the emphasis on bee conservation and how neat bees are. But at times, APICO is hindered by being part of the crafting simulation genre, where players are expected to harvest, harvest, harvest and build, build, build with few repercussions. Most of these games emphasize the pastoral fantasy over true ecology (with the notable exception of Eco), and APICO unfortunately falls into this trap as well. You need lots of wood to build your hives and bee boxes, and while plenty of acorns fall to let you replant the trees you cut down, there’s no negative repercussion (aside from having to walk further to continue harvesting) to not doing so. This is in spite of the fact that the game’s website includes a link to an article about how important trees are for bees.

Because ecology isn’t a large part of the game’s mechanics, it starts to feel like APICO suggests that human cultivation, not improvements to the environment, is the answer to bee conservation. Bees only become less threatened when you send them out through the Rehabeelitator, not if you attempt to cultivate them without intervening, such as by placing them in the untended hives, or even natural ones the bees build themselves. Though in the real world bees need a variety of environments to thrive, APICO‘s bees all benefit from hives you build, even if you had to deforest an island to build them.

APICO also relies on fictionalized currency, much like Animal Crossing, as a gate to progress. While APICO isn’t being cited as a vision of socialist utopia in the way that Animal Crossing sometimes is, it still stinks that money is the means by which progress happens. Despite there being at least four distinct articles with identical titles about how capitalism saved the bees (I am not kidding), capitalism is also in many ways to blame for bees being threatened in the first place—you can trace most of the causes Museum of the Earth cites as contributing to colony collapse disorder back to money. Pesticides help increase crop yields for higher profits. Climate change is caused by human use of environmentally damaging fossil fuels and other materials, which make big profits for companies like BP and Shell. Habitat loss includes degradation due to both climate change and humans developing natural areas to make way for homes, businesses, and agriculture—or, more succinctly, money.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and it frustrates me that a game as invested in bee conservation as APICO sidesteps the issue. It would require additional complexity to program in the kind of interconnectedness real ecosystems need, which was in all likelihood outside the scope of the game’s development. Still, a girl can dream of a cozy crafting game that doesn’t remind her too much of the crushing weight of capitalism, can’t she?

Capitalism aside, I had a good time with APICO. Those first ten hours were a delight of discovery and fun with the mechanics, and TNgineers have made some excellent adjustments to the crafting sim formula with their menu improvements. I’ll happily return to the game when the sting (ha) of the late-game repetition has faded, if only just to play at being the beekeeper of my dreams for a while longer.