Midday. The ever inscrutable Pochica, a levitating mouse thing with abyss-black eyes, abruptly informs me that it might be a good time to take a break. I can't help but concur. The morning, like every morning before it, has been nothing but tedious. I ring up the last customer and we exit, brusquely shouldering past the newly arrived clientele. They can wait. They always wait.
As we exit into the sunlight, I feel a swell of rebellious ebullience. Today is the day it will click. And for a while, it seems possible. On our walk, we find mushrooms and a girl with blonde ringlets in her hair. Then, a cave filled with the skeleton of a shrine. One inquiring orbit of the cavern late, I'm standing in front of what appears to be a piece of a long-forgotten mural. I hit A.
"This is a piece of mural, " The game me informs me, as insouciant as a teenage barista in Hollywood.
It's such a flat description that I can't help but feel sad. There is no imagination to the phrasing, no sense of wonder, nothing that invites me to speculate on the literal writing of the world. How was this made by the father of Harvest Moon?
I'm a few hours into Hometown Story and it's been an absolute slog so far. Which is depressing given the star power fueling its engine; creative talent from Yasuhiro Wada, character design from Atsuko Nishida and earcandy from Nobuo Uematsu. This should have been an instant win. Certainly, it seems as much on paper. For those who aren't sure as to what exactly I'm talking about, Hometown Story is a "simulation lite" pivoting on a shopkeeper's interactions with a small town and their attempts to make copious amount of money off said denizens.
Unlike Wada's previous brain child, Hometown Story won't have you minding an agricultural operation. Instead, it will have you behind the counter of a modest store. What transpires after is completely reliant on you. On the most basic level, there is the shop. You can outfit it with display tables and a veritable cornucopia of marketable objects. Grass, eggs, fish, robots - you name it, you can put a price tag on it. But while you do stare with a stash of items to be sell, that armament is finite. Sooner or later, you're going to need more.
This is where the town folk comes in. Your relationship with them is cyclic: they buy items. You get money. You purchase items. They purchase even more items. As time progresses, that symbiosis will expand. To acquire more merchandise, you're going to want to help them with their lives. Depressed blacksmiths, after all, make no swords. (Or ones worthy of selling, at any rate.)
But Hometown Story's main appeal doesn't lie in its commerce simulation algorithms. It's with the people. (At least, that's what the marketing spiel says) Hometown Story purportedly has a hundred characters, characters you're meant to meet and form rapport with, nestled in its code, many of whom will move into your town should the stars align correctly.
But here is where it falls apart.
The cast is bountiful but absent of real personality. Notable figures fall almost uniformly into stereotypes, providing little real motivation to dig into their pasts. Throwaway NPCs, the kind that exist solely to pad your client base, are worse: just gluttonous, soulless beings who live only to buy random goods and to spout tired one-liners. In theory, both the supporting cast and the starring ensemble of NPCs have individual wants and preferences which you could cater to in order to maximize profits but there's usually no point in doing so because what your customers say and what they actually buy frequently have no correlation at all.
Weirdly, however, I'm willing to forgive that. I'm willing to swallow the drab dialogue. Poor localization has destroyed many a project in the past. But I don't have excuses for the rest. Even after the town begins filling up, the environment still feels remarkably ... dead. The trees and skies are absent of living creatures, the ground clean of ambient vegetation. This isn't so much a world as it is a diorama. It doesn't help that shopkeeping here is so frustratingly easy. You'd honestly have to try to put yourself in the red. Think Recettear except without all the clever, witty bits that rocketed it into 'indie darling' status.
All said and done, Hometown Story isn't incompetently made. All the necessary components are present and accounted for. The problem is that it is far too passive for its own good. While billed as a simulation game not dissimilar from the likes of Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing, Hometown Story doesn't really provide you any incentive to exit your shop or to see the world. ("This is a piece of mural? Fine. Be that way. I'm going home. Sheesh.") Almost everything of value will, at some point or another, show up at your doorstep. You just have to sit and wait. Everything else? As forgettable as that piece of mural on the wall. For a game meant to simulate the more wonderful idiosyncrasies of life, this is distressing to see. Hometown Story is one tale few bards will share.
(Also, a lack of a quest management system? Not cool, guys. Not cool.)
- Visuals:Cute dominates the palette here. Bobble-headed 3D models are big-eyed and endearing in a mildly disconcerting way. The local wildlife, what little there is of it, is adorable to no end. That said, for all of its charm, Hometown Story also looks like a displaced resident of the PS2 era.
- Audio: Tolerable and possibly even good were it not for the repetitive nature of the soundtrack.
- Interface:Fortunately, Hometown Story demands very little finger dexterity. Convenient button prompts on the bottom right of the screen make menial tasks like interacting with stock and chatting with people extremely simple. Figuring exactly what does what the first time, however, is a nightmare..
- Lasting Appeal: Those keen on having something noncommital to play on the bus may enjoy playing Hometown Story quite a bit. Certainly, it looks like there's a bunch to discover. The question is: can you survive the lackluster dialogue and gameplay?