This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews The Good Life.
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Since it no doubt won't be long before the government has to start rationing breathable air, and Fox News calls us all socialist cucks for wanting more than three sucks a day, it's obvious why there's a growing niche for cozy life simulator games in your Stardew Valley sort of mold that let us live out unrealistic fantasies of being able to earn a living, own property, and make new friends as an adult. The Good Life is a take on that genre from our old pal, SWERY, the quirky Japanese auteur developer behind Deadly Premonition, J.J. Macfield and the Last Crusade, et al.
If you want my quick estimation of SWERY, if, say, Hideo Kojima was a bag of Cheesy Wotsits, SWERY would be a knockoff corner shop own-brand corn snack that sells for about 10p a bag, tastes like packing material, and clings to your teeth with the resilience of Jean Valjean. But he is an auteur, and worth celebrating for that, even if he's never let himself be held back by little things like "lack of game design competence or original ideas". You can always tell from SWERY's new games what TV shows he's been binging lately: with Deadly Premonition 1 and 2, it was Twin Peaks and True Detective, respectively; with D4, I think he just took a fistful of mushrooms and stared at untuned static for an hour; and now, with The Good Life, he seems to have gotten into Midsomer Murders or something.
It's set in a sleepy little English village in the countryside, with the usual SWERY flavor to it: looks the part convincingly enough until you get too close and notice all the characters are kooky weirdos who talk too much, and all the shop names look like they've been mangled by Google Translate. The open world reminds me a lot of the open world aspect of Deadly Premonition, but with a cartoony, exaggerated artstyle, which is a positive step, because the realistic look combined with being animated on the cheap always made Deadly Premonition look like watching Captain Scarlet while you were home from school with a life-threateningly high fever.
But while the basic trappings of a genteel rural life sim are all here - day/night cycle, planting crops, cooking recipes, house upgrades, a selection of local hotties whom you might aspire to seduce into sharing your idyllic life of waking up at five to ram your fist up a cow's arse - this is all illusion; it's mostly a story-based game, and an all-over-the-place story, at that. We're still wondering where the hell it's even going when we unlock the gameplay ability to transform into a cat and a dog, which is never adequately explained or considered worth worrying about by most of the characters. Then, because it wouldn't be a SWERY game without the tone lurchingly shifting about like a circus seal driving a school bus, a major character shows up bloodily murdered, and again, most of the characters don't consider this worth worrying much about. Indeed, the murder mystery is acknowledged only tokenly, as the circus seal oversteers back and forth between government conspiracies, aliens, Arthurian legend, and a large man who shows up after every chapter to scream at you about lobsters.
But again, like Deadly Premonition, all of the nonsense is held together by an engaging protagonist. Naomi Hayward is an obnoxious New York photographer who has recently come to small-town England to pay off a massive personal debt, and openly hates it and everyone in it at first glance, but her constant status as the butt of all the world's jokes while routinely bouncing back like a hedgehog in a squash court lend her an endearing quality, as she complainingly rides from one fetch quest to the next on the back of a speeding sheep. Yes, your primary fast traversal method is riding a sheep, because fuel prices in modern Britain have long eclipsed the cost of thwacking some fluffy testicles with a stick. It's a fun idea, and a funny image; it's fun being inside your head, SWERY, but every time I'm in here, I wonder why the wallpaper's so badly-hung, and why there's no furniture besides a TV and a piss bucket. How to put this gently? Hmm... You can't design games for shit. Too harsh? You have the game design instincts of a circus seal who has recently been in a horrific traffic accident.
What is even supposed to be the core gameplay loop of The Good Life? Taking photographs is pretty centralized, and there's a mechanic where uploading pictures of trending things earns you money, but you'd make money faster from sucking on the return slot of the vending machine outside Ebenezer Scrooge's house. And I'm not even sure money is supposed to be our motive; the most elaborate thing you can buy is a house upgrade, and it doesn't even cost much. Oh, come on, SWERY! I was with you on the dog and cat transformations and crashed UFOs, but affordable home renovation in today's market?! Now you're just taking the piss!
So money can't buy much, but there are a lot of things you can craft. Trouble is, every crafting recipe calls for an esoteric blend of rare items from all over a field, because SWERY's open worlds are always too bloody big and empty, so everything's spread out like a line dancing class for sperm whales in social distancing season. Oh, this jacket recipe needs two aluminium chunks, does it? And each chunk can only be crafted from fifty aluminium cans that are only found randomly in rubbish bins, and there aren't even fifty rubbish bins in the game, so I guess we just have to wait for everyone to plow through another six-pack. You know what? My default plain white blouse suddenly feels a lot more fetching; thanks anyway.
But this is just the start of the fundamental design fuckups. Time me; I'm going for the nitpick speed record. The interface is confusing; the vital hunger meter is barely noticeable, and there's a percentage under Naomi's face whose purpose I never figured out. Sometimes, it went up when I slept or ate; sometimes, it didn't, so who fucking knows? The map is criss-crossed with fences and walls that your sheep can't jump over, but you can just get off, turn into a cat, jump over it, turn back, summon your sheep again, and press on, and somehow, just giving the sheep a "Jump" button never occurred to anyone. Oh, and some of the walls are too high to jump, but your map will be buggered before it tells you which. Stamina doesn't drain in mid-air, so your cat can sprint infinitely while bunny-hopping.
Combat as a dog is as deep as a gnat's twat; you just dodge the enemy attack by moving slightly to the right and then bite them in the bum. I took down a bear this way, and it didn't hit me even once, 'cos whenever it attacked, it just lunged straight over my tiny, impish hitbox. Some quests need to be tracked to progress in them; some don't. Some of them mark the location of relevant NPCs; some don't, and good luck finding any of these wandering fuckers without a police stakeout unit. Oh, and there's a fucking limited inventory, but the limit's so big, you won't know until fairly late in the game, when you're blocked from picking up yet another piece of random bullshit that you don't even know if you fucking need. Give us a low limit that we hit early in the game, and then flog us a pack upgrade, SWERY! This is all basic fucking stuff!
"And so on and so on, Yahtz, but you were engaged enough by this game to finish it, so all this shit can't have been that important." Yeah, I finished it; I'd be pretty distracted by roadkill if it was wearing a funny hat. That's what you are, The Good Life: you're a dead squirrel in a little, tiny fez. Don't want to get too close, but it raises interesting questions, like, "Is that actually a fez, or did you just fall out of a tree while trying to eat a yogurt?"
- YEEEEAH BABYYYY: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Alternatively maybe The Good Life was inspired by the TV show The Good Life, but that felt a bit needlessly confusing as a gag
- My dog's hitbox gets very small indeed when it's time for his bath