Having worked in different retail and customer service roles, I like to think I know a thing or two about keeping people happy, in professional terms of course. It’s common sense really. Be attentive, polite, don’t keep your customers waiting…Yasuhiro Wada, the revered creator of simulator titles such as Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing, apparently hasn’t come across these core customer service virtues before.
HomeTown Story is a simulation game where you own and run a small village shop. After selecting your character (you can be male or female, and choose from a whopping three outfits), the story begins. You receive a mysterious letter telling you Nana has passed on and left you her shop. Even though your character doesn’t seem to know who Nana is (really, the name gives it away), they quite happily abandon their current life to take advantage of take over the shop. With only an address to go on, you set out.
All this happens through fairly quick cut scenes and once you enter your new shop, the actual gameplay begins. Of course, in true anime style, when you walk into the shop you are confronted with the writer of the letter, none other than Pochica, an annoying magical sprite thing, who tells you the woeful tale of your grandmother’s passing and seems a good deal more cut up about it than your character. However, if you were inclined to want to grieve you aren’t given the chance because in the next breath Pochica tells you to start selling.
And so begins HomeTown Story. It’s boring, repetitive, tedious, boring, slow, frustrating and boring. The potential of how to turn this into a compelling, interesting, fun game is so obvious it hits you in the face so how the developers, Toybox Inc, have missed it I don’t know.
The tutorial is barely that. You are shown how to open the menu, place a table or shelves in your shop and then place items on them. Sorry, scrap that. Place an item on them. That’s right, tables only hold one piece of produce. So if you have five eggs, you can only put one egg on a table and you have to restock as soon as it’s sold. The ability to stack items would have been very welcome. I’m not sure what kind of minimalist shops the devs frequent but I felt like I was organising a designer store on Rodeo Drive, albeit with much less glamorous stock. Also how does one sit an egg upright in the middle of a table without anything propping it up? That impressed me more than anything. If this were real life, there would be egg goo and shells all over the floor.
You can sell pretty much anything, from food to toys, and you also have the ability to set your own prices. This is pointless because the default price is already a mark-up and, it turns out, in a game where you own a shop and sell things to make money, selling things and making money isn’t that important.
Once you’ve set up shop, customers will start coming in. You can interact with them and some of them will be key customers that you will get to know. If they see something they like (and who doesn’t want a single egg sitting all by itself in the middle of a table?) they will take it to the counter where you ring up the sale. The more customers you serve in a row will result in a multiplier being added to your profit so it actually pays to let the queue build up, something that most real shops try hard not to do. If you talk to customers who have been waiting for a while, they will complain about being kept waiting. But they still buy things and come back again. The whole set up is contradictory and confusing.
Your working day starts at 6am and doesn’t end until midnight but you’re not confined to the shop the whole time. Even though the game doesn’t tell you this, it actually drives the story forward if you leave the shop and explore the small town, which apparently you don’t remember even though you grew up there. This is definitely a point in the game’s favour but it also works against it because you can’t close the shop temporarily while you’re out, or hire an assistant when you start making decent profits or even put up a sign saying “Gone fishin’, please don’t steal”. Theft doesn’t seem to be an issue in HomeTown Story. It’s all a bit Disney.
The town is quite small when you first start but it grows as you progress through the game as more people move in and contribute to the economy. This is where the potential shines through and it almost hurts to think how much has been missed in terms of execution. There is a lovely notion that your shop is helping to bring the community together and everyone is helping each other’s businesses and expanding the town but it gets lost in the sea of banality and tediousness.
The controls are also dubious. Camera angles swing about widely while you are running about town, making things awkward and your character more familiar with the shrubbery than they really need to be. The town also seems unnecessarily sparse and sprawling, even though there is little in the way of population, and you have to go everywhere on foot, annoying when you start to remember where things are and your journey’s become more focused. Moving about your shop and placing items is not easy and the controls don’t seem to work very well; they are either too sensitive or too sticky. Even that is contradictory.
I love exploration in games and the chance to wander about, discovering things for yourself. It doesn’t quite work for me here though. Firstly the camera angles and difficulty in controlling my character made me groan whenever I left the shop and also, as I’ve mentioned before, this game is tedious. It’s like the devs decided to create a fun game and then looked for ways to suck the life out of it. The idea that you can forage for free items to sell in your shop, like catching fish and picking plants, is a great one but it feels like it’s been left unfinished. You can’t grow your own vegetables and fruits and your freedom in this respect is restricted by the fact you rely on a salesman visiting every day around 2pm for your key items, which may or may not be in his inventory.
Key items come about when you need something specific for one of the key customers I mentioned earlier. This is what helps advance the story or should. I’m not actually sure what helps advance the story to be honest; it seems to be random. Sometimes running about outside will trigger a cut scene with a specific character and sometimes retrieving a key item will trigger it.
There is also a blue feather made up of seven pieces that you need to find throughout the course of the game. Players of Harvest Moon will be familiar with this concept. Once you’ve collected all the pieces, you have the chance to grant a wish for anyone in the town. Nice idea eh? Pity most people won’t get that far; the average play time is between 30 and 40 hours so unless you’re really committed you’ll have moved onto something better long before you get to that point. After you’ve granted the wish, credits will roll and you’ll cry with relief. Or, if you’re a masochist and you enjoyed the game, you can keep playing to find another seven pieces and grant another wish. It is my understanding that you can do this as many times as you want. Why you would want to though is something that escapes me.
Another gripe I have (did you think I had finished?) is the music in the shop; it drove me crazy. In fact that’s what prompted me to leave it and explore the town in the first place. It came as a shock then that the composer is none other than Nobuo Uematsu, who contributed to many of the Final Fantasy titles. To be fair the music wasn’t all bad. In fact it was quite pleasant at times but the shop music itself, the place where you are supposed to spend most of your time, is very repetitive.
Then there are the characters. I’m not sure what to make of most of them to be honest. There has definitely been some effort to give the key characters a backstory and personality, and some of them do stand out but for the most part they are stereotypical and uninspiring. This doesn’t seem right when these are the people who you are meant to care about and want to help, and possibly marry. Yes, you can marry one of these boring, bland individuals if you so choose. I did not so choose. I had an awkward shop to run, ridiculous quests to fulfil and an elusive blue feather to find; I certainly did not have the time for romance, besides my inappropriate encounters with the shrubbery.
The look of the game is cartoony, cutesy and friendly, with art by Pokémon character designer Atsuko Nishida. Visually it’s very pleasing and charming. If you want to find something to keep your child occupied…I would still recommend something else. Nintendo have a slew of family games available on their software. Just pick one at random and I can guarantee it will be better.
While I was playing HomeTown Story, I kept wondering what it was Toybox had missed. Were they rushed while making the game? Is that why there are so many bugs and glaring faults? It’s disappointing when developers rush a game out and don’t take the time to polish it. But I don’t think that’s the problem here. I think HomeTown Story suffers from a lack of TLC. Nobody actually cared enough to put more into it. It comes across as a half-hearted attempt at something to pass the time, which is really all it is. After about 15 minutes of play time, you’ll want to take a break but I wouldn’t recommend buying this game at all. If a sequel is made, it may be better; problems may have been addressed. But until then, if you’re craving a simulation fix, try the infinitely better Harvest Moon series instead.
MLG Rating: 2/10 Format: Nintendo 3DS Release Date: 02/05/2014
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of Hometown Story by the publisher for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of two weeks on a Nintendo 3DS. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.