Loving dinosaurs with a burning passion is an obsession that happens to many of us when we are little. Being able to name 20 more dinosaurs than the nearest adult gives a rare feeling of authority to a small child, and knowing such unusual creatures once roamed the earth adds a twist of magic to everyday life. This intensity fades for most, as life gets busy and less time is available for rewatching Jurassic Park over and over. Hints of that magic still resurface when a new discovery is made, however. The relatively recent revelation that most dinosaurs had feathers took me straight back to my childhood, to a time where anything seemed possible. Freebie Dinosaur Fossil Hunter: Prologue is a celebration of that kind of intense, focused interest in discovering all you could about extinct animals. Following the entire process of reconstructing a fossil — from digging up bone fragments to displaying a completed skeleton — this simulation game aims to appeal to the most meticulous of gamers.
Dinosaur Fossil Hunter: Prologue follows a paleontologist at the beginning of his career, an intense young man who lives and breathes dinosaurs. Scoring an internship with a group who has located an ornithomimus skeleton, the specimen must be found and preserved quickly as the mining operation that uncovered the find cannot stop digging for long. Traveling across the world in a bright green four-wheel drive, the intern makes his way through muddy terrain, fallen trees, and a deep layer of dirt in his journey to recover the fossils.
As a simulation game, Dinosaur Fossil Hunter: Prologue is extremely detailed. Driving the car to the dig site requires changing gears depending on the terrain, chopping up and moving chunks of fallen tree branches blocking the road, shattering boulders with a pickaxe, and keeping an eye on the map all the while. Digging up fossils involves slowly sweeping the ground with a radar, digging scoop by scoop into the ground, and slowly swiveling around a promising rock to check for bone fragments. Specimens are covered in plaster, driven manually to the drop-off center, and then slowly cleaned up one bone at a time at the museum. Once clean, the skeleton is assembled like a jigsaw puzzle, with each bone placed on a ghostly outline of the beast.
This intense focus on precision can be soothing, in its own way. Slowly cleaning every last speck of dust off the bones gives the same feeling of satisfaction as putting the finishing touches on a house in Minecraft or maintaining a field in Stardew Valley. Running counter to the game’s exacting focus on the minutiae of fossil collecting, however, are the loose physics and performance issues. When driving the car, running slightly too close to the edge of the road will flip the whole thing over. Throwing a rock that is too close to the dig site punts it off into the sunset. Placing bones into a skeleton is a slow process, due to the extreme lag on the mouse movements.
In a simulation experience, the game is most enjoyable when the physics are very accurate, like in Spintires, or very loose and silly, such as the anarchy of Goat Simulator. Dinosaur Fossil Hunter: Prologue sits somewhere in the middle and thus does not really scratch either itch.
Worse still are the sporadic but severe performance issues that plague the game’s two-hour runtime. Now, with full disclosure, my graphics card did not meet the minimum requirements of Dinosaur Hunter: Prologue, and as such some of these issues will hopefully not happen on a higher-end system. I will also note that Dinosaur Fossil Hunter: Prologue bafflingly asks for the same minimum specs as Flight Simulator and has a higher minimum requirement than Monster Hunter: World or Horizon Zero Dawn. The hardware requirements seem very high for a middle-of-the-road Unity game with some nice bloom lighting. Since simulation games are a rather niche genre, too, limiting the players to those with high-end PCs is a poor choice.
With my (slightly) inferior card, I was able to get the game trundling along with the settings turned down. For the most part, the game operated as it should, but the longer the play session went on, the worse the game performed. At about an hour in, a severe memory leak left the game inoperable, unable to move the mouse at all. The game has no way to save manually, so quite a bit of progress was lost when I tried again. The second attempt went better, with all background programs turned off to save every byte of RAM possible, but the frame rate was beginning to lag again by the time credits rolled.
The technical hiccups are disappointing because I can see a lot of potential in Dinosaur Fossil Hunter: Prologue. Nothing else quite like it exists on the market, and with a bit more polish I could see the experience being quite consuming. Along with smoothing out performance, I would have liked more educational content. The cleaning phase uses all sorts of devices for preserving the dinosaur bones — telling the player what each piece of equipment does would be interesting.
The story also feels separate from the gameplay experience in its current state. The paleontologist recounts the events in past tense when the player is experiencing them in the present, and his studious nature clashes with the maniacal driving and bone-flinging actions of my player character. Since the game already uses a tablet to communicate with the player, maybe the story could be driven through email conversations with another scientist, rather than walls of exposition.
While Dinosaur Fossil Hunter: Prologue tried to send my computer back to the Cretaceous period, I did appreciate the unique spin on a detail-oriented simulation game. For those who wish to support the developer, a full build of the game is expected by the end of the year.
Next week we will be playing 1980, a city-builder based on the real-life pressures of Gangxia Village. The game can be downloaded from Steam. If you would like to share your thoughts, discussions are happening in the Discord server.