Now that I’ve debunked a couple of critical assumptions about Hometown Story, I will expand further on that game’s goodness. I played Hometown Story for roughly 70 hours and milked it as thoroughly as I could, to my great delight for the most part. Those 70 hours of play were rich and interesting, and I would like to convey that lavishness through this post. That’s not to say that this will be all roses and gilded edges: this game does have flaws, like any other game under the gaming sun, and I will address these too. But for now, on with the praise!
I firmly want to believe that Yasuhiro Wada and his team knew what they were doing when they created Hometown Story and that they designed it as a cohesive and purposeful experience from the get-go. Some early interviews with Wada describe the game as focusing on the pursuit of happiness as well as eliciting some thinking about the different possible meanings and expressions of it. This focus was so strong that the game’s codename during these early stages was “Project Happiness”. The finished product bears a different name though, and it’s not a coincidence: whether it was due to technical limitations, an inability to convey the concept efficiently, or simply a change of interest, the focus shifted from the pursuit of happiness to the development of an integrated life in a homely microcosm. That doesn’t mean that happiness doesn’t play a part in the process—as a matter of fact, the player spends a good chunk of their time trying to please NPCs by fulfilling their desires—but it’s been clearly blended and diluted in the bigger picture of making it big in your cosy hometown.
‘Cosy’ is indeed the perfect word to describe Hometown Story. Here is a game that devotes itself to offering the player a heart-warming experience, a piece of solace removed from the agitation of the mundane world. This translates into the indolent, relaxed pace that was so hissed at in reviews. Hometown Story removes any notion of agenda or deadlines to meet in order to let the player progress at their own pace. While this may be seen as an alienating move that suppresses any momentum and motivation the player could have to get things done—and has actually been seen so—the other side of the coin is that you don’t have to worry about missing important events or deadlines. The pressure of attending calendar-tied events is totally absent, and there is no such thing as a cutscene that can be accidentally skipped in Hometown Story. All cutscenes and events are unmissable, so to speak, and they will unfold regardless of the time you will take to meet the requirements for triggering them—heck, even if you spent your first ten in-game years secluded in your shop selling stuff and becoming filthy rich before venturing outside to interact with the locals, the cutscenes would trigger placidly and without a hitch, I’m pretty sure of that. This allows you to relax, breathe a sigh of contentment and simply enjoy your daily game routine without getting embroiled in races against the clock or time-consuming tasks. Everything will fall into place sooner or later, either when you feel ready to work for it or simply when the time is ripe, and nothing important will ever be missed. So relax, take a deep breath, and enjoy your stay in your lush, picturesque hometown.
And indeed, enjoying the vistas is another important part of the Hometown Story experience. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that this game has been designed as a feast for the eyes—especially since the 3D lacks polish and precision—but a lot of thought and effort has obviously been put into making the village a beautiful, lush place that caresses and soothes the player’s retina while offering a solid atmospheric experience. Roaming the village and drinking in the surroundings is one of the greatest pleasures the player can indulge with: trees are lush, ever-green and ubiquitous, flowers bloom everywhere, houses are lovely and well-kept, mountains quietly watch over the village and every vista involving water is just drop-dead gorgeous. Combine this with a sweet, soothing music, and you’ll have an experience that is as charming and calming as a real stroll in the countryside. As a matter of fact, the Hometown Story village strikingly reminded me of the real-life village where I spent all my holidays as a kid, which only added to its atmospheric charm.
To crown this cosy and atmospheric experience, a lot of attention was poured into the right details—i.e. the ones that can make the heart grow fonder. And on top of the list is definitely the endearing appearance of your wares. Wada and his team made sure that every item looked as much as possible like its real-life counterpart while keeping them stylised enough to be kawai, and the result is incredibly enchanting. Gems shine and sparkle, fruits look ripe and juicy, jams and juices are glossy and colourful, and the delicatessen—o, the deli! Its looks impossibly delicious, with its wide selection of Japanese specialities (that chirashi!) laced with the occasional French onion soup or English club sandwich. It’s seriously mouth-watering, so much so that I often found myself craving for food as I arranged these dainties on my shelves. A great deal of attention was equally poured into the weather effects that range from dark, low skies to azure ones streaked with clouds, from the purple hazy glow of the dusk to the soft pitter-patter of the rain. Your village is indeed one with a good variety of weathers, and sunny days are far from being the norm. I found oddly comforting to take strolls outside on rainy days, when the music would stop and be replaced by the soft sound of the rain, and venturing outside in the 6.am semi-darkness on a cloudy day was strikingly similar to those dark winter mornings where one leaves for work early. Last, the sound effects are crisp and pleasant to the ear, and add a layer of sensorial delight to the simplest experience: shelving item produces a soft froufrou, while picking them from the ground produces a crystalline tinkling and so on, all sounds being ultimately quite enchanting.
All in all, the combination of this mellow, tension-free pace, atmospheric environment and attention to endearing details could nearly be seen as an artistic and conceptual statement. Whether making such a statement was Wada’s original and clear intention cannot be assessed for sure, but these elements put together come across as a firm stance all the same. Hometown Story is formally original, choosing to commit to an unusual structure that could rebuff and disorientate potential players—and actually did so. However, the originality doesn’t stop here: if Hometown Story has a bold presentation, it is as brazen, if not more, when it comes to flaunting its content.
Greed 'n' Grind
Indeed, what do you do in Hometown Story? This subject has been curiously glossed over in reviews, to the point where one could actually wonder if there is anything at all to do in that game. Well, rest assured: there are plenty of things to do in Hometown Story. The game may appear unfocused and confusing at first because it doesn’t present a clear-cut ultimate objective to reach—or smaller ones, for that matter: there are no festivals to attend, no financial mark to reach, and in a tongue-in-cheek move, Wada&co made marriage a mere detail in the grand scheme of things, no doubt taking the piss out of the Harvest Moon and Rune Factory series that made it so important. You’re given an empty shop, basic instructions on how to arrange shelves and items, and voilà! The rest is up to you. In a quirky, unexpected way, Hometown Story is very similar to an MMOPRG à la World of Warcraft : albeit the world to roam is only a nutshell, the tasks to accomplish a handful and the foraging spots a precious few, there is the same feeling of setting your own goals and running for them—or walking, since the pace is entirely up to you. This is a compelling approach, albeit one that can easily polarise opinions or be misinterpreted.
That being said, the shop is the central piece of the Hometown Story experience. The act of selling, and by extension finding wares to sell, is not only the main focus of the game, but also—and especially—the glue that holds everything together and the force that drives the development of relationships and of the village as a whole. It’s all put together in a very clever, organic and harmonious way and can be summed up by this motto: Shop ‘til you drop and sell round-the-clock, and everything will fall smoothly into place. The whole custcene business that worries so many players and reviewers will be taken care of without a hitch if you act like the dedicated merchant: events and cutscenes will trigger effortlessly while you roam the village to forage and buy wares from your suppliers and caterers, and displaying specific items in your shop will trigger even more cutscenes, de facto creating a virtuous circle that is as enjoyable as it is gripping and addictive. The shop mechanics themselves only add to the enjoyment: it can be really giddy and intoxicating to run all around the shop to refurbish shelves that empty at the speed of light during rush hours or to cash in an impossibly long line of patrons with all the financial bonuses they provide. There is a “combo” feeling to these tasks, and getting the longest possible line of customers while keeping your shelves full can turn into a full-blown challenge. (My personal record is 30 patrons rung up in a row). I compared Hometown Story to WoW earlier, and the comparison is apt in more ways than one: at its core, Hometown Story is really just a big grinding fest. You may pick up apples and sell yummy jams instead of killing monsters, but it’s grinding all the same, and it’s the very essence of the game.
Is Hometown Story then just a cosy, fluffy interpretation of the “Greed is good” 80’s credo? While there is undoubtedly a ‘greedy grinding’ factor there, the game’s philosophy and message fortunately go deeper than this. And that is when the cutscenes and events come into play and reveal their importance: they are here to convey the idea that by fully playing your part in a microcosm, you can influence it positively. Your wares can make your fellow villagers happy and help them solve problems and progress—and by extension, you can make them happy. So yes, you’re foraging and buying and selling all around the clock and cashing in loads of money, but that’s ultimately to help your fellow villagers and make them happier. The absence of any rival shop and the fact that the money you reap cannot be used for any other purpose than bettering your own shop are revelatory elements: this is not an ego trip, and you’re not here to become the richest cat in town à la Uncle Scrooge. You’re here to take your place in that world and be connected to your whole environment in a harmonious way. Your position as a pivotal part in that world is not mere coincidence: you’re a part of it, since this is your childhood/holiday village, but you’re also an outsider, since you’re just coming to live there, and that gives you a unique insight into the situation. You’re bound to care about your surroundings and fellow villagers, since you’re presented as having a connection to them, but you’re also a newcomer oblivious of the village’s rules and mechanics—not to mention your shop’s ones—and you’ll have to learn them from scratch. On a more prosaic level, this explains the lack of tutorial: you have to find your own stance in that world, explore it and interact with it to become a full part of it. (If you had to take over your Grandma’s shop on the fly, there wouldn’t be any tutorial popping up from thin air to explain you how to successfully run a shop, would there?) Once again, this could be seen as a philosophical statement: Hometown Story could be the ultimate emulation of the similar real-life experience of settling into a new place, learning to know your surroundings and fellow inhabitants and ultimately creating your own niche there.
Hitting the Wall
Hometown Story is not all cuddles and fluff, though, and my love for this game doesn’t make me blind to its flaws; as a matter of fact, a list of gripes slowly but surely emerged in my mind as I played the game. The first one was the clumsiness of some cutscenes’ presentation: the said cutscenes are an uncanny mix of 3D models, cardboard cut-outs and text filling in the blanks to describe the action. The result is cringing, to say the least; fortunately, not all cutscenes are affected. There is also the small issue of the cosmic disconnect between the NPCs’ regular babbling and the sometimes dramatic events unfolding in cutscenes: to hear your fellow villagers serve you the same watered-down generic sentences as usual after a life-altering occurrence is somewhat disconcerting and even a tad alienating, and I really wish Wada and his team had taken the time and energy to modify the NPCs’ babbling according to the chronology of events.
However, these are only minor flaws that don’t make the game unplayable by any means; they only dent the atmosphere ever so slightly, and it would be ludicrous to qualify them as deal-breakers. But there is one other flaw that came perilously close to being indeed a deal-breaker; and ironically, it’s a flaw that has not being pinpointed in any review, because it takes a dedicated and smitten Hometown Story player ready to pour dozens of hours into the game to uncover it.
Here’s the mighty flaw wrapped up in two figures: it took me roughly 40 hours to get the first six pieces of the Blue Feather and 16 hours to get the seventh.
At the heart of this ridiculous discrepancy lies the ill-inspired decision of tying the obtainment of the last feather piece to arcane conditions that are incredibly hard to meet. The six first pieces of the Blue Feather are easy to obtain and are handed to you with a pleasant regularity; and while I have to admit that I don’t know precisely what the exact triggers for gaining these pieces are, it’s also true that such knowledge is not necessary since the said pieces fall so effortlessly into your lap. But the seventh piece is another affair entirely, and one that troubled many dedicated Hometown Story players: internet bristles with distress calls from people begging to get a decisive answer about how to unlock that infamous seventh piece—often to no avail, unfortunately. I will delve into the matter in my next post; for now, suffice it to say that the obtainment of that seventh feather is tied to an abstruse combination of specific items to get and well-hidden custcenes to unlock—“well-hidden” meaning that you really have to go out of your way to uncover them. (Heck, one of them unlocks only if you go to a certain spot, at a precise hour and in a specific weather. Could you be any more obtuse?) This is a much uninspired and nearly punishing mechanic, and I can’t fathom why Wada and his team made such a poor decision. Did the focus falter during development? Did they fail to envision the devastating effect it would have on the game’s flow?
Devastating, yes; I stand by this. It’s not only the issue of needing so much more time to get the seventh piece that’s at stake here, but also the much more serious unravelling of the gameplay. To sum it up, the mercantile grinding that you’ve been using to good effect throughout the whole game to generate a wealth of experiences, interactions and discoveries suddenly seems not to wield any discernable result anymore. The flow of cutscenes dries up and becomes a trickle, new wares stop appearing, you keep selling and selling to no avail and this last piece of feather stubbornly refuses to make an entrance. To see the pace and modus operandi alter so brutally towards the end of the game, de facto nullifying everything the player has been learning dutifully and applying with great success before, is an offence that comes indeed dangerously close to being a deal-breaker—and actually was for a number of players. I was nearly one of them, and only sheer willpower and an awful lot of internet research took me through that trudge. But whether you give up or not, this last unfruitful, frustrating segment of Hometown Story is bound to alienate you from the village, its inhabitants, your shop and the game as a whole. Instead of following your instinct by putting whatever you want for sale and leaving your shop whenever you fancy it to frolic around, fully confident that it will reap results anyhow, you will find yourself calculating, poring over every option and desperately trying everything you can think of to make things progress. Gone is the spontaneity of the beginnings, as well as the heart-warming feeling that you’re connected to the rest of your world—sadly ironic, knowing that the game’s primary goal was to elicit that very feeling.
I think Wada and his team are fully responsible for this debacle. Making the last piece of the Blue Feather so difficult to obtain was a dramatic mistake, and it’s quite irksome to know that this mistake could easily have been avoided in various ways. If they wanted to have this last piece tied to the viewing of some custcenes, be it: but in that case, the said cutscenes should have been much easier to trigger. But an even more clever option would have been to tie the last piece solely to some pecuniary requirements: hitting the one million mark, for instance—with a cutscene cleverly letting us know that this was the goal to reach. It would have been a fantastic piece of grinding, a frenzy of buying and selling that would have crowned the game beautifully, like the last sprint at the end of a long-distance run. Some new wares could have been added to the mix to make it even juicier, along with a lot of interesting cutscenes to keep the player fully invested in the process. It would have matched the flow of the game quite perfectly to boot, given that when you reach the six pieces of Feather mark, you’re bound to spend a huge amount of time in your shop by sheer virtue of its enormous size. (My, I’m really just describing my dream vision of Hometown Story here, aren’t I?)
To Wada and consorts’ defence, and to end this section on an upbeat note, I must reassert that despite all my fuming, I do not consider this flaw to be a full-blown deal-breaker. It certainly comes close, but it can fortunately be overcome with a lot of patience, numerous trial-and-errors or dedicated internet research. Most importantly, it’s bound to be a first-run-only hindrance: once you make your way through that obstacle, any future playthrough of Hometown Story will be incomparably easier and smoother. Last but not least, it would feel quite ungrateful and really unfair to dismiss the game entirely for tripping along the way after it offered me so many hours of giddy joy.
All in all, my feelings about Hometown Story remain unashamedly warm and positive, and I will undoubtedly play it again in the future. I know now how to make my way through the game, and I will put that knowledge to good use both in my next run and my next post, in which I will lay down Hometown Story’s mechanics and give useful tips to progress fluidly. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!