A few hours in
At time of writing, I’m currently about… six hours into Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!. I have crafted a variety of weapons, from dagger and bows and axes to shuriken, magical staves, and actual rifles. And that’s not even counting the weapons I crafted that were straight from the hoary mists of legend.
I currently have eight smiths in my employ, two of which are actually classified as legendary. I’ve swapped shops twice, and upgraded my tiny no-fame shack into a weapon-producing powerhouse. I’ve opened up and explored enough mystical islands to rival ancient Greece, and supplied enough heroes with marvelous artifacts to earn my place on Mount Olympus. I’ve swept the coveted Golden Hammer awards twice. I may have a decent idea of what this game is all about.
And my judgement of Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?! is…
…that I’m not entirely sure about it?
The thing about Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?! is that… if I describe the sec game flow to you, if I tell you how playing the game went about for me, it’s probably going to come across as a bit boring. In fact, let me try to do that right now:
Unsurprisingly, the core activity of a weapon smith’s day is going to be weapon smithing. But I don’t just start smithing random weapons. The choice of what to make is actually intrinsically connected to many of Holy Potatoes’ systems. Weapons need heroes as much as heroes need weapons, so each weapon should be crafted with a particular hero in mind. But when selling weapons, you can only send one smith to one island at a time. So before I start making weapons, I first decide which island to hit. I look at the heroes on display, and pick two or three of them to craft for — three weapons is the selling limit. I make note of which weapons they like and dislike, and which stats they prefer, and then I immediately forget about all that.
Fairly early into the game, the weapon-and-hero systems settle into a rhythm. Each hero likes two stats, one best and one second-best, and they each like and dislike a small set of weapons. There’s no reason or incentive to deviate from that script. So, for every weapon, I divide my smiths across the store: half of them to the primary stat, half of them to the secondary stat, with the choice of who goes where determined by what those stats are. And then, it’s crafting time! I boost the primary stat, using my highest-skill smith to do so — or occasionally an outsider, if I’m feeling fancy — and then I sit back and watch the progress bar fill up.
At the end of the crafting, I can use the Enchantment system to add a stat boost to the completed product. It looks all complicated and expansive in theory, but in practice, it just makes the coloured numbers go up higher.
Then, the weapon is done! Sometimes I’ll name it, sometimes I don’t. Much more stuff to craft, after all, can’t get sentimental over every dagger.
I craft one or two more weapons this way. Select a hero, shuffle the shop, apply the boost, wait, apply the enchantment. Done, done, done. I’m tempted to call this the Crafting Cycle, though ‘Waiting Cycle’ would also be appropriate.
After the Crafting Cycle is spun out, the Busywork Cycle starts. Here, I follow this simple flowchart:
First, I send one smith to the island of choice, to sell the weapons I made. I have two smiths designated as merchants, so they make extra money from this.
Second, I send one smith into the Research Dimension. Through a complicated system of Relic shards and mix-and-matching, you slowly unlock more and more fancy weapon blueprints. And even whole new weapon categories! Doing research is slow work, though. So I send my best-fitting smith to cut down the waiting time a little. A high-Attack smith is good at researching an Attack weapon, a high-Speed smith is good for Speed weapons; you get the idea.
Third, I send the remaining smiths out for island work. If some of them are stressed-out and low on motivation, I send them on holiday. If some of them just switched to a new class and their skills are lacking, I send them out for training. And if none of that applies, I send out my one or two designated explorers to find me free items, relics, and enchantments.
And fourth, finally, if enough undeclared smiths are left in the shop, I’ll have them work on Contracts to pass the time. Contracts are like regular weapon-crafting, except you don’t spend resources to make weapons and you don’t go through the whole sales-trip final step to get money. You open a contract, assign your smiths to stations, wait until the bars fill, and collect money and fame.
I can usually run through one or two Contracts before the sales/vacation/exploration crews return, and then one or two more before the researcher du jour is done. And then, the Crafting Cycle begins anew.
And… that’s it. As you play through more and more of the game, you’ll see all the numbers go up, and the weapon and hero graphics change. But when you boil Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?! down to its core, what I just laid out really is ‘it’. Crafting Cycle, Busywork Cycle. Crafting Cycle, Busywork Cycle. Eat, sleep, rave, repeat.
Holy Potatoes does occasionally try to mix up the predictability of its core game flow. Random binary choice events influence life in your shop, and random no-choice events hit during crafting. Every now and again, something will happen to upset one of the island in the region you’re currently in, tempting you to sell weapons there for increased $tarch and hero EXP gain. Legendary Heroes present special weapon-crafting challenges, that your equipment and your smiths need to be up to in order to fulfill. And every now and again, later in the game, a (regular) hero will actually seek you out: they’ll barrel into your shop, and request a particular weapon with particular stat requirements before a particular deadline.
They’re all neat systems on paper. But in practice, none of them manage to dislodge the core game flow to any real degree. The random events, both the binary-choice ones and the declarative ones, only result in some of your smiths’ numbers temporarily going up or down. The same holds for the island states: gaining 10% more money or EXP isn’t really that much, particularly when their short durations mean that taking advantage of them involves restructuring my entire two-week plan. The Legendary Heroes challenges are interesting, but in no way time-limited, so you can tackle those at your leisure. And while the random hero requests are limited, the rewards that you get from them aren’t in any way significantly more substantial than just selling the weapons the normal way.
I actually think the game intends for you to have a whole stock of weapons lying around? Just in case these random heroes show up with their spur-of-the-moment demands? Which is strange, because I don’t remember opening a fast-food chain.
Despite its best efforts, Holy Potatoes’ gameplay core is undeniably a massive Skinner Box grind. You craft weapons for money and fame, which you need to advance in the ‘storyline’: a sequential list of mission objectives, most of which are variations on ‘obtain this much money’ and ‘obtain this much fame’. And advancing through the storyline gets you access to new crafting materials and stations and new heroes to sell to… which you can use to obtain even more money and fame. You see the general shape of it, no?
What’s surprising about Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?! is that I voluntarily immersed myself in this grinding cycle for six straight hours. And more than that… I was actually having fun?
I don’t quite get it either. I don’t usually get drawn in by the numbers-allure of the Skinner Box model. But there’s just something about Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?! that makes it… well, enjoyable. I was well-aware of the repetitive, iterative nature of what I was doing throughout my play sessions… it just didn’t matter very much.
Part of it, I think, is the simple joy that you can get from keeping a well-oiled system running. It’s no surprise that games like Factorio are so popular in certain crowds. Particularly for those of us with more obsessive-compulsive oriented brains, it can just be nice to do things well. And for all my earlier belly-aching, Holy Potatoes does a pretty good job of making you feel cool when you run the shop well. ‘Yeah’, it goes, ‘look at how high the numbers on this weapon are! Look at how cool this new model looks! Wow, that hero leveled up seventeen times!’ It’s always incredibly optimistic, and enthusiastic, and bright and colourful, and I can’t help but think that every S-rank on one of my weapons is another dopamine shot directly to the brain.
As you keep your smiths busy, they’ll slowly increase their smithing prowess and class levels. Holy Potatoes features a relatively simple ‘smith class’ system, where smiths who master the basic classes can go on to more advanced classes. Here, I can show you the whole thing in one screenshot:
It’s simple, and silly, and strangely unbalanced: once you get about halfway into it, you’ll find that almost every smith can do Speed or Accuracy work pretty well, but that Attack and Magic never really overlap. And, honestly, I still haven’t wrapped my head around how the actual skill system works. You don’t need to have a particular class to work anywhere, so you can totally let your Designer do Magic-boosting work… and that’ll boost their Magic stat over time. Except that stats don’t transfer to new classes… do they? But high enough stats do bleed into Boosting attempts… At least, I think they do?
I was honestly slated to write a whole bunch of critique on this system. But then I realized: it doesn’t matter. The numbers go up over time and the weapons get better almost regardless of what you do. The reason the class system exists is to give you something to strive for. To watch your smiths grow and improve over time. To see the numbers go up, not just as a function of time passing, but because of meaningful choices that you made. And believe me, I felt pretty good about myself when I got Laura and Bulk and Russet — my faithful starting smithing crew — up to the third tier of advanced classes. I did that. And with enough targeted work, so help me Spud, I’ll get them into the master classes too!
Another part of Holy Potatoes’ appeal is the sense of visual progress. As you move through the game, your store gets larger, cooler, and fancier. You can add decorations to your shop, statues and carpets and wallpapers, that all serve to make the numbers go up even more — and to show you just how well you’ve been doing. And the weapons you craft go from a simple dirk to, well, stuff like this:
And finally… it’s just fun to do things right! I can’t help it. Holy Potatoes isn’t ‘just’ a Skinner Box, it’s the Skinner Box model in optima forma. It’s a grind that makes you feel good about being in a grind. It throws everything at you, fancy numbers and visual reinforcement and a continual sense of personal improvement on several levels, all to keep you playing. To keep you going through the same cycle of weapons-crafting and busywork over, and over, and over. And, as my playtime can evidence, it works pretty well!
I do think Holy Potatoes could have worked even better. Particularly in the story area, the game really drops the ball after about the first island. There’s hints of a story that are being teased, about your grandfather’s disappearance and Agent 46’s involvement, but that just… never really materializes. And while the objective-driven gameplay could have served as a good vehicle to get snippets of tale across, it’s instead used as one more set of progress bumps for you to attack. Ludic reinforcement, not narrative reinforcement. The objectives are honestly the most blatant of the play time extenders: as I’ve mentioned, most of them are either ‘obtain X money’ or ‘obtain X fame’. Sometimes, multiples of these in a row! ‘Obtain X fame’ makes immediately way for ‘Obtain Y fame’.
What Holy Potatoes lacks in story, it’s more than happy to make up for in pop culture. You’ve probably noticed this in the screenshots throughout the review. Almost everything Holy Potatoes says or does is some form of pop culture reference. The Legendary Smiths and Legendary Heroes are pretty blatant examples of this, and all the Contracts you can fulfill reference something. But this leaning on pop culture exists in more subtle forms, too. Your own potato smith character does a lot of singing, for example, in more or less blatant degrees of rip-offery:
And I was honestly pretty amused by this little early Recettear-burning exchange:
And while I’m hesitant to call Agent 46 ‘subtle’, but at least he’s not as blatant about his origins as some other spuds.
Speaking of which, and rounding out my criticisms: I’m none too happy about the ‘give Agent 46 this much of your money’ objectives, either. I mean, I get why they exist. It wouldn’t be much of a challenging game without any challenge. But the way the objectives work, you never know one of these money pits is coming up until it’s actually here. And once the objective appears, and you have enough money in your bank, it’s immediately completed… regardless of whether or not you need that money for anything else.
Still, overall, I can’t deny that the game works… for a certain length of time. As it stands, I have noticed that I’ve been less and less tempted to jump back into Holy Potatoes. Has the progression grind Skinner Box run its course for me at long last? Was the weapon I crafted at the start of this page not just the most magical weapon ever, but also the last weapon I’d ever touch?
I’ll be honest: I had quite a lot of fun with Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!. I disparage the pop culture stuff a little, but the reality of it is that existing in this bright, happy, nonsensical world of references was fairly enjoyable. I liked running the weapon shop with maximum efficiency, I liked crafting and exploring and researching and discovering, and I liked seeing what kind of less-than-subtle stuff the game would throw at me next.
Simultaneously, it’s becoming more and more clear that most of Holy Potatoes is a grind without end. I have no doubt that the story concludes *somewhere*, probably in some dramatic and overtly-ripped-off manner. But while I enjoyed manning the production lines for short while, I’m not so committed to seeing it through that I’m willing to invest six more hours into reaching the end. I have other games what need playing. Maybe even games that also involve weapon-crafting. Who knows?
Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?! is currently 15 euro-equivalent on Steam. For that price, I’ll say that I had a good amount of fun with it. So if you enjoy primary colours and nonstop references, and if the idea of lording over a weapon shop staffed by potato celebrities appeals to you — and to whom wouldn’t that appeal? — consider giving this game a shot. Who knows? You might be surprised by how versatile potatoes can be.
Boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew. Jarenth actually prefers his potatoes baked or fried, but tastes differ. Share potato recipes on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?