Retail. After my time with Hometown Story, I have a new found appreciation and admiration for those folks at Tesco, whether they're working on the tills, stacking shelves or standing outside, whatever the weather brings, keeping an eye on the trolleys. You see, it turns out running a shop can be stressful, unpredictable and at times boring - and the hours can be long. Dilemmas about what to stock, how much to sell it for and how many, say, umbrellas you have left are all too common, not to mention the sheer confusion when an old lady walks into the store telling you she's looking for bookshelf materials, before minutes later leaving with an egg in her pocket and a smile on her face.
Hometown Story, the latest game from the man behind Harvest Moon, tackles the harsh realities of running a shop and wraps them up in a cute and cuddly exterior, with a sprinkling of Animal Crossing-esque socialising for good measure. Unlike the real world, with it's struggling businesses, bankruptcy and debt, in the world of Hometown Story, your biggest concern is likely to be that of how to shift a piece of fruit you picked up in the forest or where to find a lost witch's cauldron, rather than dealing with shoplifters.
In a similar way to last year's Harvest Moon: A New Beginning, the game opens with a rudimentary character creator, where you get to choose your sex, facial features, hair colour and clothes, before a cutscene gives you a bit of background. Summoned to a quaint little town by a badly written letter, you discover your beloved Nana has passed away, leaving her store in the lurch and a little floating ball of fluff called Pochica all alone. Becoming your assistant, friend and mouthpiece, Pochica follows you around everywhere as you begin running the shop in your late grandmother's stead. And, much like it's sister Harvest Moon titles, that's about as far as the tale goes - but where Hometown Story really comes into it's own is in the stories of its inhabitants.
The game may claim to have a hundred characters for you to interact with, but many of these are simply identikit folks to fill up your shop during the day - only around thirty or so inhabitants play a major role in the game, although it hardly feel like an insignificant number. Spanning all ages and professions, their cheerful and quirky conversations, stories and requests help break up what would otherwise be a bit of a monotonous shopkeeping sim. Whether it's the hilarious borderline hatred shown between your Pochica and the witch's similarly puffball-like assistant, a child that needs rescuing from a strange monster on the outskirts of town, or tales of blacksmiths-in-training Cling and Clangs search for their missing mentor, Hometown Story has a surprising amount of stuff going on. Marriage is also an option, with a choice between three bachelors/bachelorettes - a bit of a scale down compared to the Harvest Moon games, but Hometown Story's focus is more on friendship than family anyway.
At first, the game seems very empty - given nothing but a shop, some shelves and a few items to stock, you're mostly left to your own devices, perhaps to the game's detriment. You see, somewhat confusingly, you're not supposed to spend every waking hour slaving away over a cash register - you need to go out and explore, talk to the townsfolk and generally be a bit of an irresponsible retailer. That, somewhat oddly for a game about shopkeeping, means leaving your shop unguarded and unmanned - although thankfully, the folks of Hometown Story think nothing of hanging around in a queue for hours on end waiting for you to get back. Nor do they think anything of all flocking to my store come 11pm for some last minute groceries or paying three times the RRP for a simple weed.
Patience truly is a virtue when it comes to Hometown Story. Slow-paced almost to a fault, your first few in-game weeks are likely to be a bit of a drag, with little money to spend on new stock, few customers and a largely empty town to explore. But as with many games of this ilk, the more you put into it, the more you get out, and once your fame grows, new characters, events and requests start coming in thick and fast. Once you save up enough for your first shop expansion, managing to keep your shelves topped up against the tide of customers is no mean feat.
Patience is also a necessity when it comes to progressing through each of the key characters' stories, as there's not really any way of triggering many of them except for happening to end up in the right place at the right time. Occasionally they'll stop off at your store with a request for you to stock particular items, or ask you to bring them something specific (paint and wood for a shop sign, for example), but even completing these requests can be a bit unclear, as characters will often visit your store and trot out unrelated lines about the weather instead of mentioning what they actually want - for the aforementioned shop sign, we just happened to walk through the right area at the right time to trigger the cutscene, despite having had the constituent items in our inventory for the past week. Still, with the items in stock, and the event triggered, you'll get to fulfil the order, and find out that little bit more about your customers in a little story segment in the process.
Technically an enhanced release of the original game that hit the USA more than six months ago, the European version of Hometown Story comes with a variety of tweaks and enhancements. Perhaps the biggest new feature is the ability to go fishing and supplement your shop's stock - which comes in seriously handy in the early days, when your limited funds prevent you from going crazy when your 2pm trader comes wondering into your store. Other tweaks and upgrades are much less obvious, such as the speeding up of various character events, making them easier to trigger and feel less random (although how well this succeeds is perhaps debatable).
Despite it's cutesy exterior, it's not all sunshine and daisies though - Hometown Story's tendency to switch camera angles at odd times can leave you disorientated and crashing into trees, whilst the single looping tune that plays in your shop will drive even the most stoic of you crazy after a while. It's lax attitude to tutorials is also a fault, and may mean that many potential players get turned off too soon, not really understanding what it is they're actually meant to be doing. Ideally, some kind of quest log, hint system or even a built-in note-taking option would have been a god send - if only to help jog our memories as to what folks have asked us for.
All in all, assuming you take the time to get past Hometown Story's slow introduction and get used to its quirks, you'll find a charmingly addictive game hidden underneath. It may not be a game for everyone, but fans of similarly slow-paced games, such as Harvest Moon, Rune Factory and Animal Crossing, will likely find a lot to like here, as they build relationships with the townsfolk, expanding their store, and by extension the town, as they go.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS