I wish I could stomach Immortal Life's clunky controls long enough to fall in love with a cultivation fantasy farm sim

 Immortal Life - Several characters sit around a stone table outdoors in a lush forest.
Immortal Life - Several characters sit around a stone table outdoors in a lush forest.

Farm life sims are one of my favorite genres, but they still don't offer a great variety of settings and themes: They're typically vaguely modern and set on sunny islands or in rural valleys. Immortal Life, a life and farming sim based on the xianxia genre of Chinese fantasy about immortal heroes, offers a refreshingly different "cultivation" spin on the genre—referring not to the farming, but to a genre of fantasy fiction that involves spiritual cultivation. Unfortunately, its extremely clunky controls and dated visuals make it hard to recommend.

Despite its different genre inspirations, Immortal Life doesn't dump the entire box of life sim conventions on the ground. I arrive as a fresh-faced newbie in a place called the Misty Valley. I've been recruited to bring my farming skills to the mostly martial-focused community of spiritual students called the Guiyun Sect. Instead of being inducted as expected, a natural disaster hits the valley. Along with my other intended initiates (a fisher, carpenter, and trader among them, of course) I begin to restore the sect and continue my journey of spiritual cultivation to achieve immortality. I'll do that by chopping trees and mining rocks off my new plot of land and then planting lots and lots of crops, as the farmlife sim standard demands.

Immortal Life - A player uses magic to water crops with a rain cloud
Immortal Life - A player uses magic to water crops with a rain cloud

Unfortunately, Immortal Life makes an immediate bad impression if you're playing with a gamepad. Despite claiming to have full controller support for both Xbox and PlayStation, the only control scheme available uses a Nintendo layout so that confirming and interacting are mapped to my B button and canceling or returning are on the A button. Keyboard controls are remappable in the menu—not always a given, so I'll consider that a small win—but not controller buttons, so I'm stuck with the unintuitive experience and sometimes get keyboard control prompts anyway. It's the kind of oversight I'd expect from a new early access game, not something that had already already been in early access on PC since 2022.

I convinced myself to persevere, attempting to cultivate a little spiritual resilience of my own, but was further let down by the slow, clunky animations for chopping trees, tilling soil, planting and watering. Those basic chores make up the majority of playtime in a farm sim, so making them feel like a real life chore is a big turnoff. Even my magical powers for watering fields by summoning rain clouds or instantly maturing crops, though a nice part of the setting, are cumbersome.

The cooking minigame is decently fun, though not too complex; I've got to pull ingredients off a table to chop, steam, or fry them in the correct order to assemble a dish. Fishing is pretty simple too, just a button press when a fish sinks my bobber, but I'll gladly take that instead of overcomplicated, finicky fishing minigames. If I progress further, Immortal Life promises a housemates system, which is the 'just friends' alternative to the marriage systems other farm sims have.

Immortal Life - A player holds a fish overhead in the inn kitchen to prepare a meal
Immortal Life - A player holds a fish overhead in the inn kitchen to prepare a meal

All the while though, Immortal Life's interface, character models, and environments all feel like they were designed to be crammed into Nintendo hardware of a decade ago. It's not uncommon for farm sims to be visually retro, but I don't get the sense that Immortal Life is intentionally evoking the Nintendo 3DS graphical style for nostalgia's sake. I genuinely wondered if I'd missed the memo that this was a new port of an older game. But it isn't.

Immortal Life does have very lovely character portraits, which is a small point in its favor. And the characters themselves are an initially charming bunch of optimists ready to roll their sleeves up to help restore the town. One of them is even an eager fan of the heroic cultivation stories that our group has found itself the protagonists of.

That's the larger disappointment of Immortal Life; that it could have been a great entry point to cultivation games for English-speaking farm sim fans. My own exposure to the genre is still very shallow because official English translations of Chinese xianxia and wuxia fantasy games are so rare. Players mostly have to rely on community curators and fan translations to get started. I'd love to see a cultivation farm sim catch the interest of the wider community, but the small hassles of Immortal Life add up too quickly for it to be the standard-bearer.

Immortal Life - Li Mengquing stands with other characters in the rain near a construction site encouraging them to earn money from bulletin board jobs.
Immortal Life - Li Mengquing stands with other characters in the rain near a construction site encouraging them to earn money from bulletin board jobs.

Immortal Life has been in early access on PC since April 2022 and launched its 1.0 full release this month with the completion of its main story, the housemates system, and other customization elements for your house and character. It's worth noting that Immortal Life is $17 on Steam, which is a good bit cheaper than some of the games I consider to be the best games like Stardew Valley. For some, that's a price point at which you may be willing to take a risk for a new type of farm sim story. Just know that you're going to have to grit your teeth through all its clunky parts to do it.