The mere idea of Recettear: An Item's Shop Tale is exciting for any gamer who plays role-playing games, be they Japanese, Western, Massively Multiplayer, Narratively Driven and so on. The shopkeepers in these games come off as operating not under any recognisable capitalist economic principles but rather under abstract Soviet ones. They have an endless demand for garbage such as Boar Tusks, Mushrooms, or freshly picked Flowers and their prices are absurdly static, escalating as you progress through the game. One wonders how high the cost of living must be in endgame areas where the developers aimed to starve players of items by jacking up prices considerably.
Imagine a game where you play such a shopkeeper, buying the byproducts of level grinding and poorly designed quests. Exploring the absurdities of the genre from an unusual perspective sounds fascinating, and an opportunity for a uniquely styled economic simulation.
Instead Recettear is a hybrid of flash game small business simulators and a bargain basement PS1 action RPG, wrapped up in cutesy animesque stylings. At least it's designed well enough to be addictive, I suppose.
The driving core of Recettear is the Action RPG section, not the item shop mechanics. To show one of the scenes more conventionally used would be disingenuous.
There are fundamentally two very separate parts to Recettear. The first is the item shop management, which is remarkably simplistic. Enveloping this section like a Matryoshka doll is the dungeon delving section, where one plays one of several hired adventurers in a quest for loot. This is the fundamental root of my disappointment with the game; it plays less as an "Item Shop's Tale" and more as "Recette: The Young Girl Who Sponsors Adventurers Using The Easy Money She Makes From Running An Item Shop".
To give the game some credit, the adventuring is at least initially entertaining and contains some strong design elements. Enemies have different methods of attack, which makes the later devolution into palette swaps somewhat less egregious. The adventurers themselves all have their own quirks, from dashes to differing attacks to specials costing MP. There's enough here to at least make sure each character is distinct in gameplay.
Boss fights are a highlight of Recettear's dungeon delving, a rare scripted sequence in a game where randomness makes for extremely poor design.
However, while the individual elements of the game are amusing in a Newgrounds/Kongregate sort of way, when the game tries to unify itself it falls flat on its face. The main reason for adventuring is to gain ingredients, which are used to create powerful items. SO THERE IS A REASON WHY YOU WANT ALL THIS VENDOR TRASH, SHOPKEEPERS! However, despite these being common drops, they are only available through dungeons: no adventurer will ever sell you the Fur Balls he/she presumably gets by the tonne. Instead, you can buy a scarf slightly cheaper than it would be at the marketplace. This is such an obvious misstep in an attempt to link into RPG conventions it hurts. Even more painful is the fact that these drops, despite their low monetary value, are incredibly useful due to the fusion process. Add in the fact that these are random drops and I find myself getting extremely frustrated at the game as I hire adventurers on an epic quest to find Charred Lizards and Slime Fluid.
Furthermore, after you have paid off the debt that drives the story of Recettear [which I will discuss later], the game becomes solely about the dungeon delving. Before, you had to manage time to make sure you sold enough shit at a profit to meet your deadline for an arbitrary amount of money. Dungeon delving is optional, a way early on to get product with minimal investment, later becoming a costly indulgence. As the game progresses, the adventuring becomes pointless until you've paid off your debt, when it becomes the sole focus of the game. Money can't buy you what you need to create fusion items, so questing is more important than maintaining an absurdly fat bank account. And fusion items become little more than boxes to tick off in your item encyclopedia, with the upper tier stuff being purposed solely to deck out your adventurers.
The randomness in this game is a cripplingly huge flaw. Randomness is a tool that can be used to two ends in game design:
1. Forcing players to adapt to new situations and develop new strategies. This is the root of Roguelikes: given random items and challenges in a dungeon, how does the player optimize what he has available to defeat what he must face?
2. Adding easy but tedious game length. This is the bread and butter of MMOs and most RPGs, as you kill endless numbers of faceless creeps to find the one that gives you the rare drop you need.
Recettear goes balls-to-the-wall in favour of randomness for the second reason. There are no choices to be made here, apart from which deity you will pray to in hope that the weird rabbit thing drops another Fur Ball. What's stupid is that the game has a decent depth of content without this randomness. Sure, there are probably 100 hours of content in Recettear as it is, but I'd take 40 gladly if the game didn't make me feel like a rat pushing a button for food whilst playing it.
The story does even less than the gameplay to work with the potential of the concept. One imagines that shopkeepers in role-playing games would be driven by entrepreneurial spirit and a crippling lack of knowledge about such current events as the incoming obliteration of the world by the Villian of the Week. Instead, the game is about a girl named Recette reopening her idiot father's item shop to pay off his excessive debt. This little ditz is joined by snarky fairy/loanshark Tear, and TOGETHER THEY HELP YOU FIGHT TEDIUM
I wish I had the Photoshop skills required to make this joke good. Instead, here's a vague reference to a thing I think is similar. Fill in the blanks yourself. Pretend this pathetic attempt at a joke is instead a commentary on Recettear's complete failure to achieve its obvious potential.
All of this combines to make me feel irritated at Recettear and its developers. A game about managing an item shop should not fundamentally ignore what makes gamers so excited about the concept of managing an item shop in the first place. It should not become the grindy, maddening slot machine RPG that the concept seems tailor-made to parody. I can't think of a concept that could properly make the camel that is Recettear feel like a tailored, smooth game. The concept it does have seems to belong to some much more stylish, self-aware stallion.
I think we take for granted just what a well-suited creative concept can do for one's desire to play a game. The Mass Effect series angers me partially because I think a universe that throws back to classic space opera should lead to gameplay far more based in space combat and planetary exploration than sludgy barrier-fondling shooting. The perfection of the surreal nature of Mario games make them the archetypical platforming experience, and this weirdness is replicated in almost all quality platforming experiences. The solving of bizarre layouts using strange physics whilst under assault from enemies with the memories of stereotypical goldfish makes a more realistic approach a decidedly unwise approach. That Bioshock wrapped itself in Randian fable and reflexive meta-commentary is what makes that game so important to me, and what draws me back in despite the stupidity of the U-Invent Stations, my inability to play FPSes competently, and my irritation at myriad other elements.
Recettear is a serviceable game, but it is a mongrel. It lacks a purity of concepts and the gameplay is flabby, untouched by the pruning a developer should have done to make it a more cohesive and enjoyale experience. As videogames evolve as a medium, we discover elements that make games enjoyable that players and developers had never previously consciously considered. The importance of working around human psychology to create an enjoyable experience is becoming ever greater. In the indie sector, many games are defined by their concept, and fail or succeed based on their ability to live up to such a concept. We're drawn to play Recettear because of what it could offer, a satire of videogame quirks that works through gameplay. Instead it fulfills those tired tropes, and ultimately I feel like it's merely a blueprint for a better experience because of it.