Game review: Recettear

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale is a Japanese indie RPG originally developed and released by EasyGameStation in 2007, now localized and re-released in English by Carpe Fulgur. The gist is that you play a young girl forced to pay off her late father’s mortgage on the house by converting it into one of those ubiquitous jRPG item shops. Recettear is creative, endlessly entertaining, and above all, truly and painfully addictive.

Recettear feels a lot like a Nippon Ichi game. In case you don’t know what that means, it’s a compliment. The cut scenes remind one strongly of Disgaea, and the setting has an unmistakable La Pucelle flavor to it. Recettear’s engine and game presentation have a Disgaea vibe too, with randomly generated dungeons, menu-based travel and animated 2D sprites interacting in a colorful, low-poly 3D environment.

Mostly, though, it’s the cut scenes. Recettear’s characters are well-crafted, consistent, and comical, with interactions that range from the merely amusing to the downright hilarious. Recettear is not afraid to mock its central cast, self-parody, or name-drop Adam Smith when the moment calls for it. And it all works very, very well. Carpe Fulgur really did a splendid job on localization.

In spite of some qualities it shares with Nippon Ichi titles, make no mistake: Recettear is no tactical RPG. Properly categorized, Recettear probably belongs somewhere in the realm of shop management sim. You do some delving into randomly generated dungeons using hired adventurers, but dungeon exploration is more of an action RPG mini-game than it is a fully fleshed-out game mechanic. The core gameplay here is in managing your shop.

In my view, however, this doesn’t disqualify it as an RPG. In a sense, Recettear is simply an action RPG that–moreso even than usual–is all about the loot. It’s like Diablo taken to its logical extreme, with weak, shallow dungeon-delving and deep, complex options for how to manage and sell the loot that you find there. Except that in Recettear, you don’t technically even need to set foot in a dungeon: you can make a profit buying low and selling high from the marketplace, from the guild, or even off your own customers.

This is important, because the dungeon-diving portion of the game is less than stellar. Though randomly generated, every level feels very similar, with differing assortments of enemies and occasional (admittedly, well-done) bosses providing the only real variety. Though enemies are predictable, it can sometimes be very difficult to avoid taking damage from them. Take rock-throwing gnolls, for example. Unlike the octoroks of the old 2D Zeldas, these creatures don’t throw anything until they see you, meaning that there is no noise warning you of their presence while they are offscreen. Worse, they can see you when they’re offscreen, and throw rocks at you. Which means that you will sometimes be walking down a hallway and randomly get smacked in the face with a rock, leaving you to infer that there are some gnolls hanging out in the next room.

This would all be fine, except that dungeons are uniformly barren of health potions or heart containers. You have no way of recovering hit points inside the dungeon unless you level up or drink a rare and expensive health potion brought in with you from outside. Once you reach zero hit points, you will lose every piece of loot you’ve accumulated to that point except for one. You can’t just cut your losses and exit the dungeon when you’re hurt, either. Your only two options are a) get to the next dungeon exit (they appear on every fifth floor) or b) die.

Even this would be okay, since you will eventually get so used to fighting these creatures that you can almost always avoid taking damage. But then, even on a successful run, the reward rarely justifies the time expenditure. The items you accumulate are seldom worth all that much money, meaning that your haul will consist of low-value items whose margin of sale will still be roughly equivalent to what you could have accomplished by simply buying higher value items yourself at the marketplace or the guild, and you will have spent two time blocks accumulating them instead of one.

Luckily, you can choose to just focus on managing your shop. This is the fun part (in my view, though others may disagree). Every day is split into four periods: morning, noon, evening, and night. In any given period, you can open the store to customers, go out into town to dig around for stock, or visit the adventurer’s guild.

You have a goal to reach every week paying off your father’s bad loan. To this end, you need to buy low and sell high, fill special orders, and improve your store’s selection of high-end goods. You can also earn a good (or bad) reputation based on how you treat your customers, though it isn’t immediately apparent what effect this has on the game.

Recettear’s buying and selling mechanics center around haggling. Your customers each have a hidden bottom line–that is, a percentage mark-up that they are willing to accept on all purchases they make and a percentage price cut they are willing to accept when selling the store their goods. It’s your job to figure out (mostly through trial and error) which characters are cheapskates and which ones you can make a killing on. There is also a small amount of leeway in each character’s bottom line based on how excited they are about a given item, which you can infer from their dialog.

The system works well, though certain aspects of the haggling system are a little wonky. Characters will sometimes walk into your store, sell you a good for 42% of its base value, then return later and repurchase that same good at 130% of its base value while wearing a giant, amnesiac grin on their faces.

Also strange is the fact that you get more haggling leeway with a character after you’ve built up trust with her–which is to say, you can haggle longer before she stomps off in frustration. It sounds intuitive, but it produces counterintuitive results. The player ends up having more room to experiment only after she’s long since figured out a character’s bottom line. It’s a bit like taking an exam and then being handed a cheat sheet on your way out of the building.

These are quibbles, though–none of these things detracts from the joy of squeezing your customers for every last drop of currency they possess. On the whole, Recettear’s design is elegant and well-balanced. Making each payment on your father’s loans feels challenging, yet it is always doable with smart play. If you fail, the game retcons it with an all just a dream, but lets you keep your progress and try again. The upshot is that you can never, ever get stuck in an unwinnable position playing Recettear, no matter how slow you are to catch on to its mechanics. Once the game ends, you’ll want to keep playing: and in what is perhaps the smartest design choice in the whole game, the creators let you.

The verdict: 4.5/5. Recettear is charming, addictive, and astoundingly well-designed. You will begin playing this compulsively. Do yourself a favor and download the demo immediately.

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