Hometown Story (2): It’s actually quite good

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. 

Atmospheric cosiness

‘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!     


Hometown Story (1): Is it really THAT bad?

Hometown Story, or the innocent tale of a comeback on familiar premises, spiced up with a zesty, tangy touch of capitalism. A game that promises to rekindle those childhood entrepreneurial moments spent trying to sell discarded toys, home-baked cookies or flowers freshly picked up from the garden to neighbours, school friends or whoever else, with a heavy load of puppy-dog looks for good measure and sales’ sake. A game that looks sweet, lovely, comforting.

A game universally hated by reviewers, and vilified in nearly every single review it elicited. Turns out that saccharine capitalism may not be so sweet after all, if the critical cry of outrage is to be believed—but is it, indeed? Could this innocuous game really be that horrendous, that bad? Well, let’s delve into the matter. 

First, let’s have the usual bite of data. Hometown Story was developed by Toybox Inc. and released in 2013(na/jp) and 2014(eu) for the 3ds. It has been described as being in the same vein as the Harvest Moon and Rune Factory series—so much so that its very box is emblazoned with the caption “The Family of Harvest Moon”. However, this was mostly a pigeonholing forced on the game for marketing purposes, for Hometown Story is actually quite different from its elders in a number of ways. But more on that later; for now, suffice is to say that this oversimplification isn’t fair to the game and doesn’t serve it well, driving the potential player to expect something that they won’t find.  

Anyone who’s been remotely interested in Hometown Story’s fortunes had to notice that the game somewhat went through a downward spiral. It had been slowly but surely building some hype prior to its release, thanks to a carefully orchestrated marketing campaign that saw the game’s creator himself, Yasuhiro Wada of Harvest Moon fame, grant appetizing interviews to various medium, and the 3ds community was eagerly waiting for the release of this announced masterpiece. However, all that hype promptly deflated and collapsed like an overcooked soufflé, as Hometown Story was universally panned by critics the very second it was released. See for yourselves: 47% on Metacritic and 45,80% on Gamerankings. It’s bad. It’s really, really bad

To be honest, I had been picking up the hype like many 3ds owners, and I was really eager to play Hometown Story; however, when these horrendous reviews started blossoming in every gaming media, I was utterly dismayed and found myself balking at the idea of purchasing that game that I had wanted for so long. It took a handful of glowing user reviews on Amazon to make me reconsider the idea and finally purchase Hometown Story—and boy, am I glad that I did so. 

I have to be very honest here: I’ve played Hometown Story at length during the last month, and I strongly feel that this game has been treated unfairly by critics. Reviews were unbelievably rough towards that newcomer, which I feel is a trifle inconsiderate: when a new game formula is introduced, the least critics can do is approach it with an open and tolerant mind and try their best to identify and absorb what the game stands for and what kind of experience it wants to offer. This was not the approach favoured as far as Hometown Story was concerned, since the game was immediately lumped with the Harvest Moon and Rune Factory series, and came across unfavourably compared to these two masterpieces of farming simulation. Of course, this was a blatant case of whoever was in charge of the marketing digging the game’s grave by presenting it as something it was not; had they introduced Hometown Story as a standalone game with its own rules and as the possible first entry of a new series instead of presenting it as a Harvest Moon spin-off of sorts, it would certainly have fared better in game reviews. Indeed, to read reviews for Hometown Story is a fascinating experience that reveals as much about the current gaming trends as about the way reviews are conceived and written. It’s fair to say that reviewers have some preconceptions and expectations when dealing with a game, and should these not be aptly met, the said game will very likely get a good beating; and that is exactly what happened with Hometown Story. I feel that reviewers over-inflated Hometown Story ’s perceived flaws in order to punish it for not having met their Harvest-Moonish expectations, giving the game a very unfair bit of browbeating. I had no such expectations, for the sole reason that I have never played a Harvest Moon or Rune Factory game; I thus approached Hometown Story as a standalone offering, a game in its own right, and suffice it to say that my vision of that game is drastically different from the picture painted in reviews. A bit of positive writing about Hometown Story certainly won’t hurt, and I would like to shed a brighter light on that game, for I feel it truly deserves it. And what better way to start that by re-examining and reassessing the main critical claims about Hometown Story? I counted five of them, dutifully hammered in every single review I read; and while they may not always be wrong per se, they certainly convey a lot of, well… aggravation.

Issue #1: The camera angles are horrendous and the village is way too big

Let’s start with a minor complaint, and one that actually contains a hard kernel of truth. The camera angles are truly uncomfortable, and they tend to change so brutally and so randomly that roaming the village without getting disoriented or bumping into walls while relying solely on your visual surroundings can be quite a challenge. However, this is an issue that plagues a lot of 3D games with a moving camera—and incidentally the main reason why I dislike 3D games—and there is actually a reliable way to circumvent this issue: by using the bottom screen map of the current area displayed at all times, the player can easily orientate themselves and navigate safely. It’s a pity to have to glance at the map every two seconds instead of drinking in the surroundings, though, especially since these ever-changing camera angles seem to have been designed primarily to treat the player with sweeping views of the lush, picturesque landscapes offered by the game. Oh, well.

As for the supposed enormous size of the village, suffice it to say that this statement is simply ludicrous. The village is made of fourteen screens of various sizes, and that’s all you’ll ever see throughout the game; that hardly qualifies as huge in my book. If anything, it’s rather the opposite: I would have loved to be granted access to extra areas and to discover a couple of new screens to add to the now over-familiar village ones, but the game decided to keep it strictly vernacular and to not expand the player’s vistas. Well, be it. At any rate, even though it may take a bit of time to cross the biggest screens, it’s shockingly far-fetched to call the Hometown Story village “huge” or any other related term.

Issue #2: There is no tutorial

Here is one claim that is totally and undeniably true: apart from a couple of sentences explaining how to position shelves and items in your freshly inherited shop, there is no the slightest bit of tutorial in Hometown Story. Now, the question of whether this is a good or bad thing is quite debatable. Is it really such a big problem as far as that particular game is concerned? I honestly don’t think so. The tasks at hand in Hometown Story are extremely basic and the interface is fairly simple: as a result, figuring out the game’s inner logics and learning how to operate in the game world is incredibly fast and easy and only requires a bit of poking and probing, either with your avatar or with the stylus. I feel that this ‘lack of tutorial’ issue is nothing but a moot point that only underlines the laziness that pervades the game industry nowadays. We’ve gotten so used to invasive in-game tutorials that savagely sever the natural flow of the gameplay that it comes as a total shock to encounter a game that lets us use our brains and figure out what must be done for ourselves instead of brutally shoving game mechanics in our face. Well, I like this approach, and the gentle exploration thrill that goes with it: figuring a game’s logic by yourself is infinitely more rewarding than having to sit through millions of tutorials that you will have forgotten by the time you start playing in earnest. I’m here to play, and if figuring out the rules and logics at work in the game world is part of the game, I’ll take it gladly—all the more so as, like I said, the tasks involved are fairly basic: this is no Final Fantasy Legend II, and the risk of being seriously hindered or stuck because of the absence of tutorials is virtually inexistent. 

Issue #3: The A.I. is off the mark

This claim is but a complete misunderstanding, fuelled by an incomplete knowledge of the game’s rules. It stems solely from the fact that when you talk to NPCs, either in your shop or around town, they will very often comment on the fact that they would like to get a certain item; however, if you put the said item on display in your shop, they will more often than not ignore it entirely and purchase something completely different instead. While this may indeed appear as a case of faulty A.I., it is actually nothing more than a wrong assessment of the importance of the NPC’s babbling and of its relevance in the grand scheme of the game’s mechanics. It doesn’t take long for a dedicated Hometown Story player to realise that these demands for this, that and the other are nothing more than atmosphere elements, sweet little nothings that tap into the game’s trade theme while reinforcing it. As for the genuine demands for items, which actually do exist, they are always uttered through specific cutscenes. There is no exception to that rule, so every other demand can basically be ignored, even if they are repeated over and over throughout the whole game. (I fondly remember that old lady asking me repeatedly for a pedometer, even though there is none for sale in the game. Oh, well.)

Issue#4: The triggers for cutscenes and events are unclear

Once again, this is very much a case of reviewers not doing their homework. While the said triggers may appear ill-defined at first when one is not well acquainted to Hometown Story, they become crystal-clear when enough time is poured into the game. I’ll expand on the subject in a future post; for now, suffice it to say that there are indeed clear and well-defined triggers for cutscenes and events and that nothing happens out of the blue. The only reason why they don’t appear limpid during the first hours of play is because Hometown Story is a game that takes time to unfold and disclose its secrets to the player—and that, incidentally, is the perfect transition to the fifth and last issue of the bunch. 

Issue #5: The game is too slow, too boring, too simple

My, my. We are now leaving practical gameplay issues to venture into the much rockier terrain of game design philosophy. Now, I wonder: is it really up to a critic, no matter how dedicated to their craft they may be, to dismiss a certain type of game design as utter crap just because it didn’t click with them? Games come in all shapes and sizes, especially nowadays, and I feel this variety should be celebrated and encouraged. So yes, Hometown Story is indeed a game with a slow pace and simple gameplay mechanics that doesn’t push a crazy agenda on the player. Does it automatically mean that it’s a bad game? Absolutely not. Just because a game is at odds with its era’s dominant trends doesn’t make it a pile of rubbish. It makes it an outsider, a different proposition, and I feel such a stance should be at least acknowledged and respected. Now, one has to admit that the peculiar brand of slow-motion that defines Hometown Story is very much a hindrance in the way of critical acclaim: most of us gamers want some fast retribution, some immediate pleasure, and most reviewers simply don’t have the possibility to spend dozens of hours poring over a single game to uncover its depth and richness. But that’s the way Hometown Story wanted to play, and we have to deal with it—or not, as most chose to do.

So, I hope I managed to balance things and to give a more positive image of Hometown Story. I feel that reviews have been quite unforgiving with that game, tramping it and giving it a critical beating that was mostly unfair and undeserved. Granted, Hometown Story may have been asking for it by painting itself as something it was not—i.e. a Harvest Moon spin-off—and favouring such an indolent pace, but that critical mauling was still very ungracious and uncalled for. In my next post, I will give my vision of the game, before offering some tips and tricks to progress easily through it. As for now, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Pokemon Platinum: The Empoleon Solo Run

Ooops, I did it again. After inaugurating this blog with a full feature detailing the ins and outs and delights of soloing Dragon Quest IX, I indulged myself with a Solo Run once again, this time using an entry of my newest favourite game series. And boy, was it a total blast!

Let’s be honest: from the moment I cleared my run of Pokemon Diamond and discovered with much joy that Pokemon games could be played with a minimal amount of recruitment, I started fantasizing about a Pokemon Solo Run. However, I was not planning to try it so soon. As a matter of fact, what I initially had in mind for my run of Platinum was the exact opposite: I wanted to create a dream team of six Pokemons of different types that would fight in turn and maintain similar levels throughout the game thanks to regular grinding. This hadn’t worked so well in my run of Pokemon Diamond, forcing me to concentrate solely on four ‘Mons; but I blamed this failure on my lack of experience and I was fairly confident that this time around, I would manage to maintain a unified six-Mon gang. However, things turned out quite differently: despite my best grinding efforts, I struggled quite a lot to progress and found myself in trouble uncomfortably often, up until that fateful moment when over-excited Barry roughed me up in Pastoria City. Huh, seriously? Why, something was drastically wrong there if Barry could get the best of me in battle. After this most unpleasant eye-opener, I called it quits, decided to start all over again and erased my save file with vicious satisfaction. Then, from the depths of my mind exhausted by all the pampering and micromanaging I had just endured, sprouted and quickly blossomed the idea of doing it Solo. Now that was compensation at its finest, and I dove into the process with renewed vigour and excitement.  

Before I expand on my fabulous Solo Run, let’s have a word about the involved material. Pokemon Platinum is an upgraded version of the Pearl/Diamond pair, released in 2008(jp) and 2009(na/eu/aus) for the Nintendo DS; as every other classic Pokemon game, it was developed by Game Freak Inc. and published by Nintendo. It features noticeable changes from the Pearl/Diamond pair in terms of gameplay, storyline, graphics and general presentation, but it remains the same game at its core, albeit more polished and sparkling. 

These changes still make the game perfectly worth purchasing: despite having played Diamond a very short time ago, I was not the slightest bit bored by my run of Platinum. For one thing, the graphics are decidedly finer and crisper, with a higher level of detail and more impressive weather effects; it still remains a fairly simple affair, but it’s definitely more complex than in Diamond. The Sinnoh climate has also been amended to better reflect its real-life model, the very northern Hokkaido, resulting in more frequent patches of snow and characters sporting warmer outfits. The story is meatier, with extra characters and events—as well as the inclusion of a brand-new area to explore, which is every bit as dazzling and intricate as it is beautiful. I won’t keep detailing every single change here, but suffice it to say that there is more than enough to offer a fresh outlook on Sinnoh.  

Let’s now move on to the run per se. I fittingly named my trainer ‘Platine’, and just like for my run of Diamond, I selected a Piplup as my starter, which I also affectionately renamed ‘Piply’. I had chosen a Chimchar for my first aborted run, but I found the performance of the resident Fire starter quite underwhelming, and I didn’t feel like selecting him again for my Solo Run. Now, as far as the Pokemon series is concerned, a Solo Run can translate into several courses of action because of the presence of the HM moves, from the strictest to the loosest. A Piplup can technically learn all the HM moves except for Fly, which would have allowed me to play the whole game while relying solely on that jack-of-all-trades Water starter, providing that I erased old moves in Canalave City to make room for new ones; however, that would have generated a lot of extra travelling, not to mention that I may have been stuck if more than four HM moves were required to go through a certain area. I thus decided to stick to a looser and more forgiving canon for my run, de facto allowing myself to recruit extra ‘Mons in order to learn and perform HM moves. They wouldn’t be allowed to fight, however, and if my Piply was ever to faint in battle, I would consider it a Game Over and start again. The only exceptions to this were obviously the Double Battles, during which another ‘Mon of my roster (i.e. Ponyta, Machop, Starly, Shellos or Pachiru) was forcefully dragged into battle—kicking and screaming, as I liked to imagine it, and only to be wiped out pretty fast as they were all dramatically under-levelled. 

That being said, pursuing a Solo run in a Pokemon game is a bit of a blasphemy: it goes so strongly against the core philosophy of the series that I half-feared that it would turn out to be an unattainable feat. I felt both anxious and thrilled at first, and my trepidation culminated when I reached the second Gym in Eterna City and got seriously roughed up by Gym Leader Gardenia. Despite the fact that I had grinded quite dutifully beforehand to prepare myself for that battle, her deadly mix of Grass and Poison ‘Mons gave me a really hard ride, and my poor Piply was knocked out time after time. It took me no less than six tries to finally beat Gardenia, and it was a hard-earned victory: it took all the Battle Items I had in stock, as well as a good dose of luck, to make it through that ordeal. And remember, this was only the second Gym of the game: at that point, I seriously started fearing what lay ahead and wondering if tackling that Solo Run had not been a monumental act of hubris. 

However, all these fears were unfounded: after Eterna City, I was never again in trouble in a Gym— or in any other battle, for that matter. More than that, I actually noticed a slow but very noticeable shift in the balance of power throughout the game: as I progressed, battles became increasingly easier, and the gap between my Piply’s level and the levels of other Trainers’ Pokemons grew steadily wider. At the beginning of the game, the average gap would be of ten-or-so levels, in favour of my Piply; at the end of my run, I had managed to widen it to a staggering average gap of thirty to thirty-five levels. Talk about a full-blown canyon! The beauty of it is that apart from that initial bout of level-grinding between Twinleaf Town and Eterna City, I never needed to go out of my way again to level-grind: these staggering levels were reached only by fighting all the Trainers I met and by clearing all the random encounters with wild Pokemons. At any rate, this level chasm gave me an obvious edge over virtually everyone, and this time, I approached the Pokemon League with full confidence. I was even a bit boastful, I admit that much; but for all my confidence, I could never have imagined that it would turn out the way it did. My former visit at the Elite Four headquarters had been nothing short of a mess, prompting me to interrupt my run of Diamond; this time, I was determined not to make the fatal mistake of saving between encounters. I was a bit curious, though, and after stocking up a mountain of healing items, I once again engulfed into the building in order to sneak a peek at what was in stock. But what was supposed to be only an appetizer turned unexpectedly into the most epic showdown of them all. My Piply had reached Lv.90 at that point, while the Champions’ Pokemons were around Lv.65: you may imagine what happened next.  

To say that I breezed through the Pokemon League would be a euphemism: I sliced my way through it like a sharp knife through a soft butter pat, taking down most of my opponents in a single, fatal blow. Oh, the thrill! I only used three Full Restores throughout the whole process, and before I knew it, I was hailed as the new League Champion. And blimey, did I feel incredibly proud and overjoyed when I witnessed my own crowning, all spotlights and confetti and celebratory snapshots. Pokemon games sure know how to celebrate a victory and make you feel like a million! Anyway, this marked the glorious end of my Platinum Solo Run, after a little more than twenty hours of play. I visited the Battle Frontier just for the sake of curiosity: I first dabbled in chain battles at the Battle Hall facility, but gave up rapidly as the process was monotonous, uneventful and nowhere near as thrilling as the Pokemon League challenge. And after a couple of trainers implied that I had to complete my Pokedex if I wanted to be allowed to explore the rest of the island, I decided to stop there. I had conquered the Pokemon League already, and that marked the true end of the game; everything else belonged to the post-game realm, and I was certainly not in the mood to venture there if that implied chasing after every single Pokemon in Sinnoh. 

As a whole, my Platinum Solo Run was a tremendously fulfilling experience that further cemented my love for the Pokemon series. It was even better than my already excellent run of Diamond, treating me with a faster pace and smoother battles. It also further proves the glorious malleability of the series: indeed, the very fact that this series centered on collection and completion still allows the player to tackle a Solo Run—with great success to boot—is the ultimate display of flexibility and catering to the player’s desires. I know with absolute certainty that I will solo other Pokemon entries in the future—heck, maybe that will even become my favourite way of playing Pokemon games. 

So, that was my Platinum Solo Run in a nutshell. It was an unexpected turn of events, but I enjoyed it to the fullest nonetheless, and discovered while doing so that the flexibility of the Pokemon series seems virtually limitless. I will absolutely indulge myself in the process again, o yes precious. As for now, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!