When I started writing this playtest, I had been playing Hometown Story for just over 8 hours, and for the first 5 hours, almost every day was exactly the same as the last. Sometimes there’d be a special vignette if I stocked the right item or did a little exploring, but otherwise, I repeated the same pattern day, after day, after day, until I finally bought enough wood for my first expansion. That changed things up for one day, before the same routine kicked in again for the next 3 hours, and stayed that way.
Hometown Story begins with very little exposition. A young man or lady finds out that he or she now owns their deceased grandma’s shop. They arrive in a town in a forest, find the shop, and discover a strange, hovering creature named Pochica inside. Instead of running, or even asking what Pochica is and why it’s there, the two decide to run the shop together. Pochica also gives the player one piece of a magic blue feather that can be used to grant one single person’s wish if it is made whole again.
I’m going to start this playtest out by being honest. I didn’t grant anyone’s wish in Hometown Story. I played for over 24 hours, got into the second month of the game, and I’ve got nothing. I did collect three pieces of the Blue Feather, which is used to grant wishes, but it was rather anticlimactic. My character would wake up in the morning, the feather piece would be on the kitchen table, and Pochica said it must have been a reward for my hard work. I think it’s some kind of conspiracy by this strange creature to keep me in town. It’s doling them out randomly, one by one. Since its whims are impossible to understand, I can’t tell you about that. I can, however, tell you about everything else in the game.
Running a shop in Hometown Story is fairly rudimentary. You start with a small room, that has enough space for seven or eight shelves. If you have 3,000 gold and 10 pieces of wood, you can upgrade to a slightly bigger space. I was able to do this on the second day, and I recommend getting it done immediately. Selling items is as easy as placing an item on a shelf, then pressing X to price it. After that, you go behind the counter and wait. People will come and buy up your stock. Each is willing to wait over an hour in line, sometimes it seems like over two hours, so it’s best to sit motionless, staring at your 3DS until a line of at least 5 people is before you. Ring them up one after another for a combo, which gives a little bonus profit.
I’m not sure what to think about the people of Hometown Story. Most are NPCs, but they all tend to look and sound the same. It’s the townsfolk that stand out, but just barely. Their character designs are almost obnoxiously cute. In many situations, I thought the parents were really siblings of the child characters. It leaves you wondering who’s really old, and who’s just suffering from, say, the Kakashi Hatake effect. It’s all to capitalize on the moe phenomenon, I know, but I think this game takes it too far. For example, you’re supposed to be able to get married, like in the Harvest Moon games. However, I could never, ever see myself pursuing any of the bachelor characters, because they all look like they’re fresh out of kindergarten.
Another part of it is that the characters are difficult to connect with in Hometown Story. Some seem more approachable, and have storylines that do draw you in. The mayor and his wife are a decent example. However, these are the exceptions. The others seem flat and stiff, and revelations about them and their life come out of nowhere. Not because you’re friends, mind you, but because you sold them the right item. Most memorable is a scene that took place with Anna, which highlights not only how difficult it was to feel like I was part of the town, but what seemed to be a messy translation.
Anna is the daughter of the restaurant owner, Rachel. (Though I thought they were sisters for the first 4 hours.) She has never been friendly with me, even though I talked with her every day for the month of Spring, and had sold her ointment to use on Jack and cold medicine to use on Harvey. I was doing my daily rounds, scouting for free stock in the forest, when I entered an area and an event triggered. Anna was looking at some plants and said something like, “Isn’t it amazing how this plant can help heal people?” I was then given a dialogue option. I could have had my character say, “I already knew that.” or “That isn’t so amazing.” Since I wanted to be friends, I figured the former was the correct answer. It seemed like it implied knowledge of plants and a shared interest in herbology. The latter seemed dismissive of something she cared about. So, I said I knew that. And she got an angry look on her face and said we weren’t going to be able to be friends if I didn’t share her interests.
That, sadly, sums up my feelings on interactions in general in Hometown Story. The avatar has no personality, and almost every townsfolk only looks to him or her as a means of acquiring a new item or a sounding board. While games like Harvest Moon and Rune Factory make you feel like friends with these virtual people, the majority of the villagers here felt like either suppliers or customers.
Which made me focus entirely on keeping shop. However, that led to routine for which tedious is an inadequate description. Every morning, I would go into my shop. If shelves were empty, I’d fill them with stock. I’d open the doors, then run around the artifically large and almost always barren town, searching for random items I could sell, like mushrooms, fruit, weeds, grasses, and chesnuts. I’d talk to every character with a portrait I could find, get back to my shop around 2pm, in time to meet with the vendor and buy wood for expansions and whatever key items he had that day. I’d restock the shelves and check out the customers. I’d put up the newly acquired key items temporarily for 30 in-game minutes, to see if they’d trigger a shop event. Then, I’d sell merchandise until about 11pm. Save. Sleep. Rinse. Repeat.
There’s no challenge to Hometown Story, and once you know the “good” gathering spots, no real need for exploration either. The town map is artificially large and mostly barren. I’d even call it a bit spooky, seeing how it’s supposed to be a forest, but you never see or hear any wildlife. Just mostly faceless, nameless automatons that may or may not stop at your shop. I had a set path that would let me step one foot into each area along the way, in case an event would trigger, but then quickly exit and let me stop by the twin blacksmiths, the restaurant, my gathering points, and finally my shop again. Event triggers didn’t seem restricted by time, unless a character specifically told me not to go somewhere until a certain time.
The only thing that changes my affairs up is when I inadvertantly look away from the bottom map screen as I run my errands around town. Hometown Story has the most inexplicable camera angles, and they abruptly shift from one viewpoint to another without warning. They’re disorienting, and even after over a virtual month, I find myself getting confused when I left the shop and head down the left path, because what I’m seeing on the screen doesn’t match up with what is on the lower screen’s map, and it just doesn’t feel right. I only look up when I see an icon of someone to talk to on the lower screen, or know I’m approaching a spot where I can gather items, or a shop I can enter.
It’s all about going through the motions. Yet, after saying everything I can think to say about Hometown Story, I don’t know how to describe my feelings towards it. I know that I don’t love it. There are too many things that nag at me each time I play. I don’t hate it either though, because I ended up clocking 27 hours and 18 minutes between the start of this article and now. It’s like playing Hometown Story leaves you in a sort of limbo. I feel like a Ferengi. (Sorry, I’ve been on a Deep Space 9 Netflix kick.) I’m concerned with profit, how big I can make the store, and what key items the vendor will have for sale each day. I don’t feel any connection with the characters, and I certainly can’t bring myself to marry either of the bachelors. And yet, while I’ve mastered the tasks necessary to keep money rolling in, I persist with my store. Perhaps, I feel I must earn and make that wish for happiness. When I do, it’s going straight to my avatar. Forget these faceless mooks. She’s earned it.
Food for Thought:
1. I’ve found you can always sell an item for 40 gold more than the recommended price.
2. While it may seem more fun and profitable to have the restaurant cook purchased or acquired food items into meals you can sell, it gets to be too tedious after a while. Just sell the items in your shop as is. Someone will buy it, either way.
3. Going through Rachel’s events and buying shop upgrades from Cling and Clang will increase the assortment of items you buy at their shops.
4. Your everyday vendor will sometimes sell fashion magazines that will add new hairstyles, hair colors, and outfits to your avatar’s wardrobe.