Very sorry to anybody who knows me in the real world, but I’m never happier than when I’m playing a town simulator. When fully in the grips of My Time At Sandrock, my little made-up computer game life is all I can think about. My relationships with real humans fade into the background, to be replaced by an altogether more fulfilling kind of relationship, one based entirely on gifting the same jar of honey to a cartoon character over and over again until they admit that they love me.
In My Time At Sandrock you play the folksy frontier town’s new builder, tasked with taking on various commissions to build machinery, tools and equipment for anyone who asks. Pretty much every feature and idea from every successful town simulator has come along for the ride. The town ticks along in a fast-moving day-night cycle. Seasons pass, special events unfold, and residents appear convincingly human through the simple act of just wandering around as if they’ve got to be somewhere.
You can mine a handful of different types of metal ore and collect machinery scraps from the desert, which can be smelted into more useful items and used as components in more elaborate machinery and advanced tools. There are light RPG and combat elements, seeing you descend through dungeon levels to fight mutant lizards, level up your skills and discover rare loot and resources.
There’s just a whole lot going on all of the time in My Time At Sandrock. It’s a relentlessly busy game if you try to take on too much. Some features, like the ability to grow and maintain crops, keep animals and cook food, could be a game by themselves. On Saturdays you can volunteer to rate and review items built by other workshops, which is effectively a 3D game of spot the difference as you rotate watering cans and cabinets in search of imperfections.
Wooing the locals is an unexpectedly involved process too, though My Time At Sandrock stumbles into every icky romance trope going. You can bombard your crush with trinkets and compliments until they fall for you, and take them on dinner dates where you order their favourite food and pay for their meals. As far as representations of healthy relationships are concerned, “gifts-go-in, love-comes-out” is an odd one for every town simulator to have unanimously settled upon. Anyway, I don’t have any better ideas, and I’m well on my way to having a baby with a hot sheriff, thanks.
That dogged adherence to well-worn town simulator tropes is one of My Time At Sandrock’s few drawbacks. Almost every idea you’ll find here – the farming, the mining, the dungeons, the interior decoration – has been seen somewhere else, or in the previous game My Time At Portia, for which this was originally intended as DLC. My Time At Sandrock brings all of these familiar features together in a neat and unified way, and for the most part carries everything off to a much higher standard than you’ll find anywhere else. It’s formulaic, sure, but the formula is good. If a chemist put this formula up on a big projector at a Harvard lecture hall, everybody would clap.
Moreover, the game has a lovely cadence and a rhythm to it that makes it difficult to stop playing. All of your various furnaces and refineries take time to do their thing, sometimes more than a day, so once you’ve set your workshop going and made sure there’s enough water and fuel to keep things ticking over, you can leave your machines unattended while you pop into town to do other things like take on side-quests, shop, mine and socialise.
Once you upgrade your machines you can start to create work orders using queues. This is the point at which Sandrock’s talons fully pierced into the soft meat of my brain, and my brain got ruined. With queues you can more easily start to fulfil higher-rated commissions, improving your workshop’s reputation and slowly moving you up the ranks of the workshop leaderboard, which I have decided is important to me now. My Time At Sandrock doesn’t just hook players, it is a game made entirely of whirring, spinning hooks.
Eventually, the kinds of machines you’re called upon to build require rarer components, and have you descending into Sandrock’s combat dungeons, the ruins of an ancient advanced civilization populated by furious malfunctioning robots and lizard people. Weapon choices include all manner of daggers, swords, spears and shields, each with their own stats and bonuses, but while the loot system suggests something far more complex, the fighting in My Time At Sandrock doesn’t get much more involved than a bit of button mashing.
Also, about ten hours in, somebody gives you a gun. When the Geeglers – the impish lizardfolk who keep trying to wreck the town’s water supply – really start to push their luck, you get given a modern handgun to shoot them with. In a cute game about selling your home-grown tomatoes, petting horses and being kind to your neighbours, getting a gun feels somehow illegal. The game even shifts to a gritty third-person shooter perspective when you whip your sidearm out, and your character assumes the hardened stance of somebody who’s spent a few hundred hours at the shooting range.
My Time At Sandrock is Stardew Valley with a gun. It’s a compelling and lusciously detailed life simulator with an endlessly rewarding mine-and-build loop, and a set of diverse career paths so richly designed that it’s difficult to pursue them all. When I am 120 years old, suckling grey nutrient paste from a tube in my hovering retirement home, and they’ve finally invented the virtual reality world from that one episode of Black Mirror, I want you to put me into this eight out of ten game from 2022. Just duct tape a Steam Deck to my head if you have to, and watch as a nostalgic grin spreads across my withered, paste-dappled face. Oh yes, that’s the life for me. Take me there now.