'Toca' walk on the wild side, with Toca Nature app

First impressions 

When I was growing up in Cayman with my three siblings, we were lucky enough to go on many summer holidays as a family, hitting everything from the Disney parks to spending time at a horse ranch in Montana. The ranch became one of our favorite places, probably because the landscape was the complete opposite of what we were used to in the Caribbean. 

We did the whole “National Lampoon’s Vacation” thing – everyone in a large rental car, making our way across the United States, getting lost a number of times, and visiting such amazing places as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone Park and the Great Salt Lake. Although we never went to the mythical Walley World, I had my own encounter with a moose at Yellowstone, where, upon reflection, I could have been killed. Apparently approaching a calf while the mother is around is a very bad idea; but that’s a story for another time. 

What I’m trying to say, in a very roundabout way, is that we really gained an appreciation for the great outdoors and the amazing creatures to be found in the wild. Therefore, when I fell upon the Toca Nature app in the App Store, I was intrigued. It would allow me to create my own little wilderness, and hopefully encourage animals to come out of hiding and explore it. 

Sure, they said this would be great for kids, but as I must test these things for scientific purposes, ahem, I downloaded it. 

How it works 

If you’d asked me when I first opened it, I couldn’t have told you how it worked, because I had no idea myself. The initial screen offers you a big fat “play” button in the middle, and in the top left hand corner you’ll see “for parents” followed by an arrow. Oh yes, and there’s a baby woodpecker going bananas on the title letters. 

As I’m not a parent, I went for the “play” icon, expecting to be taken to a video with detailed instructions and maybe some examples. Nope. It took me straight to a landscape with a globe in the bottom right hand corner, some icons along the bottom, and the “home” button in the top left hand corner. Hmmm… 

After tapping and dragging and not really getting anywhere, I decided to go back to the main screen and see what the parent thing was all about. 

Well, before you’re even allowed to get to that section, you have to put in the year of your birth. I furtively looked around for any eyes on my screen, and tapped mine in (like the app could have told if I was lying, as I do on so many first dates.) 

I was then taken to an area where the designer explained why he had created this app, followed by … instructions – yay! I began to wonder if the app creator felt that kids would be able to figure it out from the start, but that parents needed help. 

The instructions explain how the tools work, and that all the items in Toca Nature are related. For example, once you add trees, lakes and mountains to your landscape, plants and creatures will appear with them.

You have to figure out which creatures eat what, and collect/distribute fish, nuts and berries appropriately. You’ll have access to a tree tool, an ax (for the lumberjack in all of us), the mountain tool and the water tool, allowing you to add all kinds of topography to your national park. You’ll also get a magnifying glass to zoom in on locations for a closer look. 

Once you feel comfortable enough to start getting artistic, hit the “back” arrow, and then “play.” 

Use the globe to turn the landscape so you can view it from different angles. Along the bottom of your screen you’ll see a line of icons, including the magnifying glass, a mountain and wolf, a lake and beaver, a tree, and the ax tool. Tap on the tree icon once, and you’ll see you’ve got extra options, each with its own animal, such as a bear, rabbit, fox, bird and deer. 

When you’ve chosen the type of tree you want, add it to the landscape wherever you desire. A short tap will give you a small tree, while a lingering tap will give you a big one. 

Continue in the same vein with the mountain and water tool, although you’ll find that you need to work a bit more for these features. Keep moving your finger in an upward direction to make your mountain range higher, and if you go past a certain point, you’ll get snow on the tops. 

To add a lake, choose the water tool, and then swirl your finger around where you want to place it. The more you swirl, the bigger the lake. Zoom in on it, and you’ll see fish swimming about. Tap on them to add them to your fish inventory. You’ll need them to feed that wolf that now lives in the mountainous area you created. 

As you go along, you’ll see that it goes from day through night at a fairly rapid pace, with what appear to be asteroids floating by. You can also use the camera icon (which appears upon zoom in) to take pictures of your landscaping abilities, and keep track of your animals. 

When I tried it 

I was struggling to get anything going on this from the beginning, partly because I skipped the parent section, and partly because when I did eventually visit it, I skimmed over the instructions. I couldn’t understand why I had no berries or nuts or mushrooms to drop on the landscape, and my mountains looked more like speed bumps until I realized how to make them bigger. 

Then my wolf was starving, walking around, dreaming of fish when I had none to give him (or her). Slowly but surely, however, my brain began to kick in, and I chose the water tool to make a lake so I could get some fish to feed the wolf, all possibly leading to the house that Jack built. 

Once I’d given the wolf his nightly meal, I had to head to the lowlands to give some berries and nuts to the rabbits. The deer hadn’t shown up yet, nor had the bears or beavers. I guess maybe I needed to add some more trees or water to give them a fighting chance of survival. 

Final thoughts 

The graphics on this app take some getting used to – it’s not the kind of animation you often see, as these days, with the tools and technology available on the market, designers can create some truly spectacular apps. That being said, what might look like a glitch in another design is clearly deliberate here – it’s meant to look as it does, and for the animals to react and move as they do. 

The music is quite pleasant and soothing, so it certainly won’t bother children or parents, and once you (or they) get the hang of how to make it all work, it can be a lot of fun. 

I have no doubt that kids will be keen to keep checking on their wild pets and feed them, not to mention adding mountains and trees until the place looks like somewhere that Sleeping Beauty might be kept prisoner. 

It’s nice for the price, and thankfully no in-app purchases. All you have to do is add foliage and the food will keep coming. You’re not going to have to fork out to buy groceries, pay a gardener or an architect. It’s a good game with some definite educational benefits. 

Pros:  

Relatively inexpensive. Nice interaction between items. No in-app purchases. 

Cons:  

Asks for the year of your birth. Could maybe do with a few more options. 

Toca Nature

Cost: $2.99 (at time of review)

Devices: iPhone and iPad

Rating: E for Everyone 

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If you plant the right trees, they will come.

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The fox is trying to tell you something.

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A bear roams his territory at night.

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What would this rabbit like to eat? (And what does that bear behind him want?)

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You can create a world of mountains, or almost all water, like this example.
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