Wednesday 11 July 2018

Switch Review - Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop ?!

With a title like ‘Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!’ You’re never going to expect a sensible game. But with impressive depth and addictive  gameplay this is one management sim you laugh along with rather than at.  

Developed by Daylight Studios 
Release by Rising Star Games
Published in 2018

Reaching the destination is satisfying, but any true RPG fan knows that it’s the journey that’s more exciting. No one can save the world alone though, a hero needs a party and they need to be armed for the task at hand. This is why the merchants in an RPG are the real unsung heroes. After all, you can’t vanquish a screen filling end-game boss with a wooden sword.

 But while we depend on these “Armoury Retail Assistants” to stand a chance at success, how much do really know about them? Do they tend to a store filled with expensive weapons, discreetly praying for an apocalyptic event to occur so they can finally shift the Holy Arrows they bought in bulk? Do they spend their downtime regretting establishing a potion shop in a cave that is only accessible once a bomb is used to expose the entrance? Has there ever been an occasion when accounting books have had to be fiddled to disguise where they acquired their rare unique stock?

It’s clearly something that Singapore-based Daylight Studios has pondered and in this “wacky” simulation game they foreground the true heroes of the RPG genre (albeit it potato form). “[its] is a look at an RPG from the other side,” says Don Sim, CEO and executive producer at Daylight Studios. “We wondered: ‘What do NPCs do when they’re not repeating the same lines over and over again?”. Faizan Abid, the game’s producer, however recalls that it wasn’t specifically RPGs that inspired the game mechanics. “Our team members really loved games like ‘Game Dev Story’, and ‘Game Dev Tycoon’. It was around April/May [2014] when we were reaching the end of our other projects that we decided to really work on one.” Evidently Don Sim, Faizan Abid and art director Julian Futanto sat in a coffee shop and discussed how to fuse the two thoughts. “What we all agreed on was that a team simulation game about making and selling weapons would be awesome. The RPG references were a natural part of it since heroes in any RPG world needed weapons!”

Given that the JRPG genre’s origins were the 8Bit era the visuals for the game could have been inspired by early ‘Final Fantasy’ and ‘Dragon Quest’ games. “The producers suggested pixel art. I vehemently disagreed” says Julian Futanto.” As much as I love pixel art, I wasn’t, and still am not, a trained pixel artist. I handle a lot of 2D stuff, illustration and animation, but never pixels. But there was another more personal reason. As an artist, I wanted to create something with a strong identity [and] it’s not easy to create a pixel world that has that unique identity that people will remember”.

“So I sketched and pushed for something else. Something mine. Something cool, something cute, and something awesome” says Futanto. The resulting design-concept, showed a line of round cartoony characters, arm-in-arm, influenced by Japanese shorts like ‘Mameshiba’. “It became an instant hit in the office, and I just called them ‘the dancing Potatoes’” recalls Futanto. “Suddenly, we had these potato smiths, potato heroes, and potato bad-guys; and pretty soon we were building the whole game around the potato folks.”

“We started to get so serious about the whole potato thing that we created a whole RPG potato universe” Adds Faizan Abid. “We didn’t really know if the art would work out but [...] we started posting our potato people on social media and, to our surprise, we gathered a large following of people who had no idea why we were posting pictures about potatoes!” Even Futanto was surprised by the popularity; “those dancing potatoes turned out to be way more successful than they had any right to be” he says. “I’m just glad people enjoy the characters”. 

The team embraced the idea, and the final game features 70 potato heroes to meet, 200 weapons to forge and 30 different potato smiths to employ. “From the absolutely ridiculous look of these potatoes, it spun open an entire universe of puns, jokes, references, and humour” says Faizan Abid. “But once you unleash the kraken, there is no going back. Crazy puns and the most ridiculous jokes become daily life in Daylight Studios. Every great idea was then thrown into the game”.

In this madcap world hardworking potato blacksmiths called Laura Craft, Bulk Bogan, and Russet Peters end up creating an excessively large sword for Claude to help him save a "flower girl." It’s ludicrous, but it amazingly works. Fittingly you play the game as Potata, who starts by meeting a potato version of ‘ Hitman’s protagonist. According to Agent 46 your grandfather, a legendary weapon smith, has passed away, leaving you his business. It transpires this would be assassin was your grandfather’s business partner and owns 99.9% of the shop. However Agent 46 is a lazy potato, demanding you run the place; hiring staff and making every management decision. 

With a screen full of icons and text boxes, ‘Holy Potatoes!? A Weapon Shop?!’ initially seems quite daunting. Thankfully at the start of the game a lot of the more complicated managerial aspects aren’t accessible. The surprisingly deep game mechanics are gradually explained, starting with the most basic and continually building on them. 

The main thrust of the game is obviously weapon forging and this is relatively easy to get the hang of. To start you choose one of the weapons from your available recipe list. Each requires specific materials to create and if you have the ingredients in your inventory your team begins work immediately. While every employee can do all the tasks in the workshop, some are more adapt at improving specific weapon characteristics: Power, speed, accuracy, and magic. Once made a designated smith must then take the weapon to a nearby area to sell it to the heroes waiting there. Each hero needs a certain types of weapon with specific skills and the closer your produce is to meeting these requirements the more they’ll pay. Once armed the hero will take your weapon into combat. The better your weapon performs the more XP an adventurer will gain using it, which in turn builds your company’s reputation attracting more customers. Sadly apart from explanatory text boxes you won’t get to be part of any of the life outside the shop. As a character says in game “there’s no adventuring here. You’re a blacksmith!” 

Of course you can’t craft weapons without resources, so your potato employees will also have to go out on shopping trips to pick up materials. Continued weapon Research should also be a priority, as you’ll need stronger weapons to keep impressing the heroes as they level up. Researching new weapon will require the use of relics collected by sending characters out on exploration missions.  Along with their forging stats, smiths can gain levels in exploration and merchant skills. So while every potato starts out largely the same before long you’ll have specialists in certain fields reflecting the tasks they have done most. 

Like all the best management simulations, ‘Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!’ has plenty of depth and complexity. It’s vital that a player is judicious with their finances; continually judging if they should buy materials to keep the forges active or instead spend cash on shop furnishing and advertising. Temporary freelance staff can be bought in to enhance weapons but enough $tarch must always be kept in reserve to pay core-staff at the end of a month. Failure to do this is the easiest way to fail in the game but the potato banks aren’t the only institutions you need to keep onside. Players also have to make sure profits are high enough to satisfy the elusive and clearly sinister Agent 46 who routinely pops-by to take his cut. 

However while it’s exciting to unlock new regions and spend money on shop upgrades, this doesn’t really change what you spend most of your time looking at. As they explore the surrounds and bargain with heroes, there’s a lingering sense that your employees are potentially having a more exciting time than you are. Most of a player’s time while playing ‘Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!’ involves staring at progress bars; waiting for a status report to pop up on your in-game “WhetsApp” screen. There are three speeds you can cycle between to reduce the waiting, but that doesn’t stop the game from feeling slightly monotonous on long play sessions. You’ll almost certainly enjoy playing the game little and often; Dipping into it to compete a few of the varied objectives, before taking a break only to realise you’re itching to play again. The persistence is worth it though, as there are literally hundreds of weapons to be researched and forged. While the initial line up is heavily influenced by fantasy role-playing games, later you’ll get access to more science fiction inspire guns. These are the weapons that’ll win the yearly award ceremony, presuming of course you don’t simply bribe the judges, an expensive practice that’ll absorb a huge amount of your $tarch funds . Not that money will be in short supply after the first few years however. Countless hours invested in the aforementioned ‘Game Dev Story’ management sim has taught me that gradual expansion pays off in the long run. Applying this approach to ‘Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!’ also yields good results. You’ll never really feel that cash strapped provided you don’t get too ambitious too quickly. In many hours of play I’ve never been in a position where I was unable to pay my staff. Even Agents 47’s demands felt like loose change at times, especially once I’d realised how lucrative meeting specific weapon request could be. 

According to the developers, ‘Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!’ has been their most successful title so far, selling over 150,000 copies on the PC. However while it’s been generally favourably received the majority of the criticism was aimed at an overly fussy User Interface, as well as a lack of resolution option. Knowing this, Daylight Studios have endeavoured to make the console port more elegant. “Changes include revising the UI to be bigger, as well as optimising the speed of gameplay on Nintendo Switch” says Faizan Abid. “Come hell or high water, we’ll be doing our best for this release!” However, even now enhanced, ‘Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!’ on the Switch still feels like a game bogged down by an excess of menus. For example, one activity you’ll do a lot is selling weapons. To do this you must first select the world map from the icons at the bottom of the screen - a new menu appears. Now you must select the sell option - a new menu appears. Then you must which weapon - a new menu appears. Now you must press A to select a potato merchant which is confirmed with a Y button press. Then as another new menus appears you must select where you wish to hawk the weapon, after which you sit tight until eventually a range of customers is offered. You have to sell every weapon you make, there’s no benefit to hoarding them, but every time you wish to do this you must literally press 9 buttons. While it’s fantastic the game is versatile, the process of completing the most common activities should have been streamlined. Many have said that ‘Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!’ resembles a mobile game and in Switch tablet mode this is understandable. I’ve always preferred the precision of buttons but the touch screen controls in this game work well, even if some icons are so small they’re hard to press. It’s a game that’s perfectly suited to portable play due to its pickup-and-play nature. Playing the game on a TV produced howls of laughter in my house though, mainly because the potatoes are so much easier to see. There are all sort of comic details you miss on a small screen; my youngest child in particular was in fits of laughter when she caught sight of a shop full of living Potatoes with their arms flailing about. 

While it may have a child pleasing aesthetic this is certainly a game for an older audience. As the hours pass and the number of things that must be considered increases, ‘Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!’ becomes an exercise in time management and discipline. Coupled with this is the simple fact that the parodies reference mature adult TV and games, that children hopefully haven't seen.

Of course ‘Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!’ isn’t the first game to be set in an RPG item shop.
“We mentioned explicitly in our game’s description that the game was inspired by ‘Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale’, and ‘Weapon Shop De Omasse’” Faizan Abid, said to Siliconera. “We were greatly inspired by these games but the key [difference] was simply that no one has ever made a ‘team management’ style game for a weapon shop.” It’s a fusion that works. Criticisms of the game are really criticisms of the genre. The very nature of a management sim equates to continually completing very similar tasks, but the strength of individual games within this genre can be measured by how hooked a player becomes. Yes, ‘Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!’ does get monotonous but it’s equally addictive and a great deal of this comes from its wacky humour. You play on to see which familiar character you’ll stumble across next. Hours pass because you’re eager to see what other legendary weapons you'll research and craft. On top of this there’s also the drive to see the story cut scenes; not because they tell an engaging narrative but because there is no restraint. It simply doesn’t seem to matter to Daylight Studios if the jokes have no relevance, characters will even point this out. If a joke is deemed funny it’s gone in the game and while some references may be missed by some players there is so much humour in the game it seems impossible that every player won’t laugh at least once. Fans of ‘Adventure Time’ will be very much at home here, and I never would have imagined a deep but accessible management sim would make me giggle quite as much as ‘Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!’ has. According to executive producer Don Sim, ‘Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!’ is a game for gamers, and if it can appeal to them, it will succeed.

After the success of this first game, the ‘Holy Potatoes!’ Series was born with two follow up games. Both ‘We’re in Space’ (sci-fi exploration) and ‘What the Hell?!’ (a cooking game) would fit perfectly on the Switch and I hope Rising Star Games are again able to bring them to an appreciative audience. But for now there’s lots to love in ‘A Weapon Shop?!’. It’s a game that draws you in with character and charm but keeps you playing. Who ever knew NPC RPG Potatoes lived such busy lives. 

A copy of this game was provided by Rising Star Games for review. They have not seen nor had any influence on the content of this article prior to publication.
Its worth noting that my copy of 'Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!' had a game-breaking bug in the fourth workshop. After an auto-save the game crashed and all subsequent reloads only lead to crashes.
Its impossible to know if this is limited to my review copy of the game, but hopefully if its not unique to me it can be fixed quickly.
It was very frustrating to have to start an entirely new game; losing 8 hours of play.

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