Yasuhiro Wada has spent the past 17 years knee-deep in his most famous creation, Harvest Moon. In Hometown Story, he drops the hoe and watering can to break into the shopkeeping business. The parallels to Harvest Moon are clear, with a heavy focus on interacting with townspeople and building a livelihood from nothing. Unfortunately, much like the farming sim's first entries, Hometown Story has potential, but plays it too simple and safe.
As a business newbie, you won't have shopkeeping 101 to teach you the rules; instead, you're thrown into the action and must learn the majority from experience, from tracking down rare items to learning the customers' tastes to maximize profit. The biggest challenge isn't the financial struggle, but balancing your time between running the shop and getting to know the townspeople. Everything revolves around the community and needing them to get by, so you're dependent on the villagers for crops and fish to sell. While you're earning money to expand your shop, you're also investing it back into the people by saving up for special items that bolster their relationships. Lending a hand for someone else's benefit is clearly the point. The main goal isn't merely to succeed, but decide if you want to put your efforts towards the happiness of others by choosing a character and fulfilling their biggest wish. Despite the intent, this tone is more campy and preachy than uplifting.
With these main concepts, Homestown Story starts off strong, but each day feels too much like the last. The customers mutter the same, tired dialogue, often making contradictions. They'd say they're looking for a tool, and I'd put it on the shelf immediately, only to have them buy cake instead. The faulty AI is confusing, as it makes you wonder if it matters if you listen to these random NPCs, which goes against the premise of the game: Getting to know your customers.
The pacing is also painfully slow. I didn't expect to be an overnight success, but more meaningful interactions would have made it less humdrum. For example, I was helping the restaurant owner learn new meals to bring more people to her establishment. She'd request I get special ingredients for her to practice. I'd stock the shelf with them, which would lead to a cutscene. With multiple requests, I watched that cutscene of her prepping a meal and failing numerous times. Although this advanced my relationship with her, it still was boring to watch the same exact cutscene without any progression. Even if one meal didn't taste as bad as the last or she cooked me something different, it'd be a great small step to show she's at least developing somewhat.
The other problem with the townspeople is that they should lend Hometown Story its spirit, but the characters are mostly archetypes, like the grouchy old man or the mysterious girl - with unimaginative predicaments. Not many stand out, which is disappointing when I'm supposed to want to help this community. To Hometown Story's credit, new characters enter the town as the days wear on, which is a nice touch. This changes the dynamic; for example, a newcomer may now provide an item, like jam that you can now stock. The progression extends to your shop, which becomes more populated. How the town grows with your success is by far the best part of the journey.
While unpopulated houses steadily become inhabited, the town itself isn't all that interesting. Without varied dialogue and plenty of wide open, barren space, I didn't feel compelled to leave my shop, but forced myself to in hopes I'd unlock a new cutscene with one of the villagers or find free goodies to sell. The game itself is repetitive, so to have a town to explore that doesn't have much appeal only makes it feel that much more.
I can't deny Hometown Story has charm with its premise and I love the ideas, but the execution needs work. Owning a shop should be more frantic and rewarding. If the developer, Toybox, can smooth out the rough edges, it may one day match the lure of simulation games like Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing. Sadly, it's not in the same league.
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