Fans of retro gaming can lament the changing times and wish for the good old days all they want, but if there’s one thing that I think has gotten indisputably better with time it would have to be localizations. Quite a few times this generation I have been able to play games that a few years ago no one would have expected to make it over to the West, and Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale is a shining example of this trend. This is an Indie JRPG developed by EasyGameStation that no sane Western gamer would ever expect to get to play in English, and yet... here it is, courtesy of Carpe Fulgur. So is this game a shining example of what makes capitalism great, or will communism reign supreme? Yes, those are the only two options.
Recettear is the story of a little girl named Recette who was abandoned by her adventuring father and only left with debt to remember him by. A fairy named Tear, from the financial company she now owes money to, tells her that if she cannot repay the loan she will be forced to sell her house and be thrown out onto the street. In lieu of making Recette a hobo, Tear has hatched a plan to pay off the money in installments by repurposing the house as an item shop. Thus Recette goes from a lazy good-for-nothing, eating whatever plants she can find around town, to the owner of an item shop that she names Recettear in the same way that Bennifer was coined by the media.
I really liked where the story seemed to be heading at first, but in the end it seemed like a missed opportunity. The most glaring pitfall is how a rival for your store is introduced and then completely ignored. Here you have the daughter of someone who owns item shops all over the world as a franchise and vows to send you into bankruptcy, and yet after she is introduced all she does is come into your store to taunt you every now and then or buy something. I had hoped the rivalry would spark all kinds of different gameplay and events in which you tried to one-up each other, but this was not to be. Anticlimactic is the word that comes to mind most. The adventurers you come across and then befriend each have their own little side story, some of which are quite interesting, but the story behind your two main characters is pretty anemic. There's to be more to unearth during the post-game, but you’re unlikely to see it before making your final loan repayment and seeing the credits roll.
Your time is spent somewhat evenly between store and adventurer gameplay. Store gameplay is all about buying low and selling high. You stock your limited shelf space with whatever goods you can get your hands on and try your best to sell them to whatever townsfolk happen to stop in. Since your debt has a due date, time management becomes key. Every time you open your store or go out to buy goods you take up a fourth of the day, and certain parts of the town are only open during certain times of the day (you can’t go to the pub in the morning).
Each week has a monetary goal at the end of it that you must meet in order to advance and then all that money goes to the financing company. Nothing prepares you for the experience of small business ownership like fighting and scraping to put together a sizable chunk of money only to see it disappear in an instant. Luckily, earning the money is quite fun and there's a good amount of strategy you have to get used to when you start out. Haggling with customers successfully earns you experience that goes towards a merchant level. Increasing this gives you access to better, more expensive goods that you can buy from the merchant’s guild and the market, as well as the option to change your decorations, install a vending machine or two, and expand your store to increase your shelf capacity.
Most of my issues with the store gameplay are minor, for example sometimes I can’t tell if someone is buying something from me or selling something to me, so I may end up setting a stupid price. Also, some customers seem to have a far lower budget than others, but there are no individual names or customer stats so you don’t know until you suggest something for them to buy and they scoff at your choices. The biggest issue with the store gameplay is that there isn’t enough variance from day to day. Sure, item prices will go up and down in price, and every once in a while you’ll have some crazy event where masses of people come into your store for one type of item like a Black Friday Furby mob, but these are not the norm. Luckily you don’t have to spend every day in the store, and that is where the adventure gameplay comes in.
Obviously since you run an item shop in a JRPG, at least a portion of your clientele is made up of quest-seeking adventurers. After Recette becomes friends with a few adventurers she can pay one of them to take her to a dungeon. Once in the dungeon you take control of the adventurer and the game plays like a simple roguelike RPG. There are a number of classes to pick from, based on whichever adventurer you decided to hire, but since the adventurers only level when you are playing them I mostly stuck with the basic warrior. Enemies have a number of different attack methods, movement patterns, and defense mechanisms that require slightly different strategies, but there is a lot of re-skinning, so you don’t encounter new situations all that often.
On the other hand, each boss you encounter has a trick that keeps them from just being larger versions of enemies you’ve already seen. The goal of each of these dungeon trips is to get some free stuff to sell in your shop, but your inventory is limited so you’ll have to think hard about what you want to keep as you explore. At first the choice seems overly simplistic, since each item is labeled with its value, but once you unlock the ability to fuse things together you realize that there are some ingredients you can only get by exploring, so they are more valuable than they first seem.
Presentation in Recettear is about as good as you can expect from a low budget title. The characters are pretty well drawn but they don’t have a lot of different emotions and all of the dialogue is presented as still images of the characters talking to each other. Beyond the handful of unique adventurers, almost all of your customers are clones of only about four different body types that have no individual traits. Dungeons are also very repetitive room-to-room explorations with themes, but little else in the way of defining features. Sound design is something of a high point since the music is catchy and what little voice acting there is fits well, though it is all in Japanese so I can't judge if it's well acted or not. I really like how the translators haven’t directly translated word for word, but have instead tried to capture a sense of the character, which leads to some great catchphrases from Recette, like “yayifications” and “gleeitude”.
If luck and skill is on your side you could conceivably beat Recettear in 10 hours, since that’s how long it took me to get to the final loan repayment and fail. Luckily, failure isn’t too harsh and I was sent back to the first day of the game with all of my levels and items in tact, so after playing through the same month again I was easily able to make the payment. With that in mind, it took me 18 hours to beat the game, but the credits don't necessarily spell the end of the game. Optional modes unlocked after the credits include a 'new game+', in which you start the month over with all of your items and levels in tact again, an 'endless mode', where you can continue to sell without any looming debts, and a 'survival mode', which is like the endless mode except the debts don’t stop and you aim to see how many weeks you can pay the piper. All of this for $20 is extremely impressive from a value standpoint.
Recettear is a strange mix of roguelike and JRPG tycoon that makes for quite a fun couple of days, or months, depending on how engrossed you become. It may not be perfect, with its lackluster presentation all-round and gameplay that can easily get repetitive, but the core strategy of how to get your business started is a ton of fun and the level of value is something every downloadable title should shoot for. I commend Carpe Fulgur for localizing it and I hope to see similarly unlikely titles localized in the future.