It’s not really a game that had ever appealed to me but I’d been gifted Recettear by some cheerful soul and so it’s on the list. Immediately, I was turned off by the tedious and longwinded way the game goes about introducing itself. There’s cutscenes, a flashback, a flashforward, and several seemingly immense tutorials to wade through before you can just get down to the business of running an item shop. While this is a shame, it’s not a killer blow: the idea of being one of those anonymous merchants that outfits all the heroic dungeon-crawling adventurers is a pleasing one that I’m surprised I haven’t seen before.
Recettear has three strings to its bow, three separate and seemingly equal sides. There is your shop, where you set out your merchandise and sell to customers. You arrange items on shelves (with the best on prominent display in the windows), you sell to customers that want selling to, you buy from customers who want buying from, you change the carpets and wallpaper for god knows what reason, and you watch the money accumulate. Selling is one of the main things you’ll be doing in the game, a customer will ask for an item, you set a price and if they like it, they’ll go for it. The most important thing for you is that this goes on without a hitch, as chains of first-time sales will massively increase your merchant level, which then allow you to expand the shop and bring in more items. So, in practice, you just stick to the safe margins that you know will always sell because it’s the combo that is important, not the extra few pounds. This is, uh…not particularly exciting.
There is the outside town, where you can visit various locations, occasionally bump into a ridiculing cutscene between two characters that squeak all the time, and buy and sell stock from the merchants, who don’t charge as much as you do. And there are the dungeons, where you hire out an adventurer to traipse around, nick all the good stuff, and slaughter six dozen wandering monsters along the way. The dungeons are, well, a bit crap. You wander around, avoiding reasonably obvious attack patterns, and picking up a variety of terrible things that drop onto the ground. Then you get to the fifth level, fight a boss, and go back to the shop, to sell off your ill-gotten gains.
After a few hours of figuring out what to actually do, I was genuinely enjoying the game. I felt like there was a strategy to what I was doing, trying to visit the dungeon to get a reasonable chunk of loot without dying, then figuring out which locations to visit, what stock to add to the shop, and then the hard-nosed selling. The day is split into time segments and the motivation is provided by loan repayments that you must make every week, that gradually scale up as you expand the shop. The aim is to loot and sell and chat until you make the final payment at the end of the fifth week. This was proving difficult and I was enjoying the consideration of different approaches to yield the most gold. I tried to learn from my first unsuccessful playthrough and started again. Suddenly, disaster strikes.
I’m a strategy gamer, you know? Deep in my heart, I want to scheme and make plans, to react to events and shape them, to twiddle my Bismarck moustache while shit goes down. Anyway the thing that really grinds my biscuit is the auto-win button, something you can just do that will, without fail, win the game, thus removing all need for strategy. There’s two semi-examples I can think of here that did temporarily ruin really great games in my eyes. At some point, I remember reading about the cottage spam strategy on Civilization 4, where you would plonk down cottages on flood plains and rivers in such a way that your economy becomes stratospherically successful and you win. Eventually I figured out there are counters to this, and so the world breathed easy once more, and I kept on playing for another three years. A bit later, I was temporarily incapacitated with rage about a skill combo on Blood Bowl that would remove players from the pitch ridiculously easily, but once again I eventually realised that counters did exist. Children once again slept soundly in their beds the world over, knowing that there was no surefire path to victory.
What ruins Recettear is that it has an auto-win button, and what’s more it’s one that cuts out a good two thirds of the game. You don’t need to talk to anyone, you don’t need to ever actually visit a dungeon. If you want to win, to meet the repayments of your loan, then all you need to do is stay in the shop and sell, occasionally popping to town to buy a metric fuckload of swords or whatever’s cheap. Once I realised this, the game was, essentially, ruined.
I must admit that these are very much Jim reasons why I think Recettear is not just dull, but fundamentally A Bad Game. Others might not be bothered by them in the slightest, and so I’ve spoken to people about this to try and get a better grasp of why they enjoyed it. One suggestion was the style of the game and you can certainly see the enthusiasm that has been sunk into Recettear. There’s a ridiculously large array of characters which show up in tons of cutscenes. The dialogue in these is occasionally very entertaining, there’s something endearing about the cheerfully translated dialogue that is just on the right side of whimsical but unfortunately it’s dragged back by the fact they all take hours and hours to display about three sentences of text. I mean the font they used was probably bumping against the absolute theoretical limit for massive font size, as predicted by Einstein. I felt I was only using a fraction of my information-processing capacity.
Another suggestion was the completionist side of the game, as Recettear has this big chunk of characters to actually find that you’ve got to trigger in various arcane ways, as well as different dungeons to unlock. Most importantly it has a huge array of potential objects you can craft, each requiring a different combination of elements that are found in the dungeons and shops. I can see that this would be a motivation, it can be fun to ‘beat’ a game but completionism for its own sake has never really appealed to me, it’s too much of an MMO feeling. Grinding, taking on extra work to complete a set, that’s no fun.
The main defence was that it was a simple, fun indie game and why the hell was I reading this much into a mechanical thing that you can actually ignore? I mean there was nothing stopping me from treating the game as I did on my first playthrough, a tooth-and-nail scrap for funds complete with dungeon romps. This guy is right, up to a point. I was enjoying the game because it felt like it was a challenge trying to balance my actions (you can only do four actions a day, dungeons count as two) to maximise my profit. But, now I know that the best action is always to stay at home and sell, well, that has been stripped away.
Because why else would I go to the dungeon, other than because it could help me win? It’s not fun in any way, though it can be difficult. You fight hundreds of enemies, who by the way appear to have been created via some kind of random animal part generator and have no common tone. You fight the same guys over and over in the same ways, in dribs and drabs, all the while losing health when your focus slips for a moment, and then it’s over with some novelty boss battle. It’s incredibly frustrating to lose because you take back virtually no loot with half a day wasted, so you have to win every time, or be spawny with your saves.
I’m most likely being too harsh here, Recettear is a simple and enthusiastically made game that definitely does not take itself seriously. I played 14 mindless hours and I could easily keep going if I had nothing better to do. I just can’t shake the feeling, however, that they forgot to make it a game. There’s no real strategy or experience, it’s certainly not fun to play beyond some of the ridiculous translations, it has a profound, zenlike love of grinding as a mechanic…it’s like a single player MMO. It’s everything I don’t want in a game and so I must consign it to the rubbish bin.
I leave you with the lyrics to the song that plays over the end credits.
I put the sandwich Mama made for me
In one of my apron pockets as I head out
Even old magicians with grey hats and archdevils
Will do anything to get their items back!
So with each bite of my sandwich you take
You seem to get a little steel in your eyes
And you keep reminding me of my Papa
Because I want to see their smiles, because I want to help them out
I line up our items every day and wait here in the store with you
Always, forever, absolutely
I’ll be trying to make everyone’s wish come true
1 star, 14 hours spent.