On the surface, The Shopkeeper is quite enticing, a game that promises interactive storytelling with multiple endings, inspired by Groundhog Day and The Twilight Zone, and beautiful hand drawn environments brought together by exemplary voice acting. However the reality is far from the developers, Verse Publications, best efforts to plug their game/story. The Shopkeeper lacks depth, emotion and, yes, decent voice acting, the bane of my game-playing-reviewing life. It falls as flat as it’s beautiful 2-D backgrounds (the only thing which does live up to the marketing).
In the style of a short-form choose your own adventure story, this is a point and click game with an emphasis on pointing and clicking. It’s the only mechanic utilised here so that’s one part of the review that’s easy to write. You want to go somewhere? Point and click. Desperate to know more about that set of coffee spoons? Point and click. Need to choose what you’re going to say next? Point and click. None of this “left click for action, right click for inventory” rubbish either. One point, one click is all it takes. Genius.
I’m not in the habit of mocking these types of games. I love a good point and click adventure and I’m all about the story. But this doesn’t do either particularly well. In fact I’m still not entirely sure what was happening.
You begin the game without any preamble and are dropped into what will soon be a very familiar scene, the antique shop. In walks the shopkeeper and sits at his desk. After a minute a man walks in. After another minute he walks back out again. It was at this point that I began randomly clicking on various objects in the shop and realised that the introduction I was waiting for wasn’t coming. The next time the man walked in, I was ready. I clicked on an object.
As the shopkeeper launched into a story about the object I felt sure it was going to have some relevance to something in the game. I was wrong. After a while he asks the customer to follow him (rather ominously I felt) and another kind of story begins. The young man enters a large office where an older woman is sitting at her desk. Her manner when she realises the man is there is less than welcoming. It becomes clear she is his mother in law and he has come to ask for advice or money (depending on your dialogue choices) with regards to his failing business. She berates him for being useless, wishes her daughter had never married him and gives some pointless stories about her own business successes which don’t seem to have anything to do with anything. Then the scene cuts back to the shop where the young man also seems less than impressed with the story and decides to leave without buying anything.
This happens over and over and over again until you (accidentally in my case) click on the right object and the right responses. The idea seems to be that the man wants to buy a present to soften the cranky old cow up and squeeze some money out of her. The shopkeeper appears to be predicting what will happen perhaps through similar stories? I don’t know. After a while I did begin to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day except you don’t have the luxury of killing yourself in the game.
The saving grace is that the whole thing is very short; it only takes about five minutes to play through each time. And the artwork is lovely. A cartoonish theme with muted colours of greys and blues highlight the sombre mood of the story (whatever it is). There are good intentions here I think but the execution falls short of the mark by a long shot.
And for a game with such emphasis on story, the writing is very poor. Most of the time the dialogue doesn’t seem to have any bearing on what’s been said before and the choices you get are too few. This is the only real tool the developers have given you, other than pointing and clicking, so the fact that it is frustrating and illogical will probably cause you to switch the game off before you’ve reached the highly anti-climactic ending.
There is also the issue of voice acting. The mother in law is the worst but everyone sounds as if they are reading their lines for the first time, even though one of the actors (that of the young man trying to sponge money) is Jeff Ricketts who is (apparently) known for appearing in Buffy, Firefly and Star Trek: Enterprise. The problem is there’s nowhere for the actors to hide. The story is short and there’s nothing else going on to distract the player. Really the writing and the dialogue should be the most important thing here but it feels more like someone drew some pretty pictures and a game was quickly thrown together around it.
A lack of music anywhere doesn’t help. Anything would have been welcome to relieve the tedium of replaying. The notepad seems to be a revelation until you realise all it does is record vague thoughts of the shopkeeper that, again and as seems to be fitting with the theme of the game, has nothing to do with what’s actually going on (whatever that is).
Perhaps the developers intended for part of the game to be figuring out how to play it. I’m generally a fan of the “figuring things out for yourself” motivator where you’re thrown into a situation and must do or die. But this is supposed to be an interactive story so some kind of introduction or exposition at some point should have been included. I love indie games and how they try to make something different but Verse Publications haven’t even tried. In the time it takes to play through the game once, you could come up with a more coherent story.
It’s sad but true; this isn’t a game in any sense of the word, nor is it an interactive fiction piece. It’s simply a thing. Pretty artwork or not, I have nicer things I can look at that I enjoy spending time with more.
MLG Rating: 2/10 Format: PC Release Date: 23/10/2014
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of The Shopkeeper by the publisher for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of 1 week on a PC. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.