A few hours in
Okay, so. Er…
It’s like this: I don’t like being mean to games. I know it’s been a whole thing this past decade, and I know some people like doing it, and power to them — I can enjoy a good snarky review every now and again. But I personally don’t enjoy being mean to games. Because games are magical! Modern video games are such an incredible conflux of design disciplines and engineering skills and creativity and manpower, it’s frankly baffling they exist at all. If you’re talking about AAA games, that means the concerted efforts of companies larger than some countries have gone into making this happen. And indie games are often even more amazing, collecting all that required skills and training and drive and work into a handful of people, or sometimes even one. Imagine that that’s a thing that can really happen! Imagine if video games are real.
And I can tell that Pixel Shopkeeper falls in that latter category hard. It seems so obviously a labor of love, a game that these people made — sorry, I just looked it up, a game that this one person made because it’s a game they wanted to see in the world. It’s bursting at the seams with ideas, and it’s rich with a particular kind of charm that I assume resonates with the developer’s interests. It’s born under a blessed star, is what I’m trying to say, and it’s exactly the kind of mindset and project that I’d love to see happen over and over.
But all the same, I’m not just a games hype man but also ostensibly a games critic. And from that critical perspective, I have to tell you that I played Pixel Shopkeeper about three times, for about an hour each session, before putting it down with no intent of picking it back up again.
Pixel Shopkeeper has two problems, and those problems are ‘not enough ideas’ and ‘too much ideas’.
Pixel Shopkeeper‘s core gameplay loop is essentially functional. It’s a little lightweight sometimes, more on that later, but the basic idea is there: ‘Go to dungeons to gather items, then sell those items for gold’. Or, more accurately: ‘Go to dungeons for items, sell the items for gold, then use the gold to progress in the game and unlock harder dungeons with better loot, all in a mad dash to up your profit margins as an increasingly callous loan payout deadline creeps ever-closer’. So far, so Recettear. This is essentially what kept me playing.
The first issue is that the implementations of both dungeon-running and selling are fairly… light. The dungeon-running in particular has a weird level of almost-no player interaction. All the action happens on the top screen, in a way that’s reminiscent of 10,000,000 and You Must Build A Boat. I’d almost prefer it if it were just that, except with putting items in a bag instead of matching-3. But there’s that little bit of direct interaction to uncomfortably keep your attention divided: When running tougher dungeons, you’ll occasionally have to feed healing items to your mini-me if you want them to survive. Because lose the run, lose all the items. It’s an odd system, in that it never really feels like you have a lot of influence over the success of a run except when you fail. And even then, it might just have been because not enough healing items dropped. Or because you played on the ice map, which freezes items in your bag in place. Or you accidentally used a teleport bag. Or maybe your stats just weren’t high enough. Either way, that’s a day lost and a dollar short, with very little indication of how that could’ve gone otherwise.
Similarly, the shopkeeping isn’t what it could be. Here is what you do: You put your items on tables, adjust prices if you want, and then throw open the doors. That’s pretty much it. There’s some interactivity while the shopping phase is happening: You get access to a few powers, like ‘polish item’ or ‘call a customer from the aether to check out your wares’, but beyond that you’re essentially looking at a simulation cutscene. Which is… not necessarily what I was hoping for. I’m trying not to tap this particular well too often, but one of the reasons I enjoyed the shopkeeping in Recettear is because there was player interaction and skill involved. People came up to buy your items or sell their junk, and you could haggle with them. You’d learn which people had the most money and which people could be pushed around, and adapted your strategy to that. It’s how I won that game! In contrast, in Pixel Shopkeeper, you set prices on beforehand, and then lose any chance to interact with them for the rest of the day.
So the dungeon-running is in need of either streamlining or an overhaul, and the shopkeeping could benefit from more player interactivity — NPCs don’t even enter your store right now, which is disappointing. This is what I mean with ‘not enough ideas’. It’s fun on a low visceral level, the thrill of capitalism and making the numbers go up, but that probably won’t last it long.
Then Pixel Shopkeeper turns around and overcompensates by incorporating oodles of side systems. Character equipment, character leveling. Different shop tables and decorations with different effects. Two dozen different customer classes, each with their own likes and dislikes and affinity towards you. Shop remodeling. Crafting, using recipes bought from a traveling merchant or from the shady restaurant next door. Multiple dungeons per locations, with different loot tables and entry fees. A park you can visit each weekend to make new friends. There’s even a farm, where you grow new crafting materials and herbs over time by planting seeds and watering them every day. And that’s probably not even everything! I still see two locked buttons on the menu bar, so the end isn’t even in sight.
If it feels strange for me to be complaining about systems bloat right after complaining there wasn’t enough interactivity, let me assure you that that’s because it is. But the problem is that ‘more systems’ doesn’t make Pixel Shopkeeper a better game, per se, it just makes it a bigger game.
I’ve got two issues with Pixel Shopkeeper‘s non-core systems. First, they’re introduced rather… I want to say ‘slapdash’. Or ‘haphazard’ might also work. This is not a careful introduction of coherent systems over the first few loops of gameplay. Some systems are introduced after weeks. Some systems are introduced and explained in NPC banter. Some systems are highlighted one day, and you’re left wondering if they just showed up or if they were always there. One day, almost five weeks into the game, a character ran up to me and told me we were friends now, and that I should visit them in some park. Next thing I knew, there was a park on the overworld map! One day a guy stopped by my store to tell me he was setting up a restaurant next door. Referencing, for unknown effect, a character I think I should be supposed to know? The restaurant was there next day, except it turned out to be more of a pawn shop than a restaurant anyway.
But fine. I’m not opposed to systems being introduced over time. There’s an art and a science to making sure it lands, but I don’t oppose the idea. Recettear introduced a whole bunch of stuff late during play, and see how that all turned out.
But second, not all of the systems Pixel Shopkeeper introduces fit. Thematically speaking more than narratively, many of Pixel Shopkeeper‘s systems are only tangentially related to the whole ‘adventure shopkeeping’ thing. This is also the start of a segment I like to call ‘just because Recettear did it doesn’t make it sacred, that game made errors too’.
For example: Why does Pixel Shopkeeper have crafting? I thought the whole conceit of adventure shopkeeping was that you get items from dungeons to sell; if I can just make better boots, why even bother with the whole ‘risking my life’ part? And then you can’t initially even craft very much. You need to buy recipes from the traveling merchant, which, why is there a traveling merchant? If a traveling merchant exists, why don’t I just source raw materials from them, and set up a crafting shop? And why are their recipes so expensive that I’ll need to sell at least three of these boots to make my investment back?
Why is there a leveling-up system and an equipment system, clashing terribly in that both only increase stats and nothing else? It’s not like the dungeon running in this game necessitates a rich involved RPG combat system. I can dig using your own equipment for survivability, that’s alright, but why do I pay good money to level up? For uncertain benefit?
Why is there a confusing and oft-referenced-but-never-explained system of ‘friendship’ with each group of potential clients? Why do they start bringing me random items after a certain level? I’m sure that’s not how shopkeeping works! And why do I go to the ‘park’ in the weekends to hang out with these nameless faceless customers?
Why is there a farm? It’s been days and I’m still hung up on this. Why the farm? I simply do not get how you look at the adventure shopkeeping game you’re designing, and decide ‘what this game needs is a Farmville-themed clicker minigame, right on the main shop screen so you can never ignore it’. And you don’t even grow food on the farm! You grow ‘herbs’, and wool, and horns, and fully fledged bandages that sell for over two hundred gold pieces. Scrap that question, why am I not only farming? But more to the actual point, why exactly does this system need to exist?
I can’t be sure, but I think there’s a big loop of self-referential logic behind a lot of this. Pixel Shopkeeper has crafting because, well, ‘that’s what these games do’, or maybe it really is just ‘because Recettear had it’. Crafting requires recipes, so you introduce a convenient NPC to hold those — and might as well use them for other items you need to get to the player in some way, why not. And crafting needs raw materials, but there’s currently no system in place to get things like wool and branches to the player, you can’t loot those in dungeons. So — how about a pawn shop you can buy them? Or how about a farm, where you can grow them? Or how about particular NPC classes bring you particular items as a gift sometimes? The fighters have horns, the mages have wool… because that ties in to the kinds of recipes they want to buy, see?
I could go on. Why does clicking on birds give me money? Why do my tables get dirty, if the only consequence of that is that I have to click on them all the time to keep them clean? Why can I call customers from the aether? Why can I buy an expensive ‘marketing campaign’, but then not decide which target audience to reach? Why are there dozens of different bags to bring into battle, each with their own unexplained magical bag powers?
I’m not saying these individual systems cannot work. I’m not even saying this quantity of systems couldn’t work. But unless you’re making an abstract puzzle game, mechanics and systems need a narrative-backed theme to stick to. This is the last time I make this reference, promise, but a lot of this stuff worked in Recettear because it made sense. You built relations with individual people because they came into your store, and actually interacted with you. They gave you ‘quests’, except those were just advance orders that you could plan and work towards to fill. There was a world map to explore with non-combat-related activities, but that made sense because you lived in a town, with people, and Recette was a person with human needs. You used equipment in dungeons, but did so by selling that equipment to adventurers, and the equipment often had measurable mechanical impact. And you crafted things… I actually think the crafting was weird and superfluous in Recettear as well. All the same, almost everything hooks together, using the narrative and thematic setup as a way to ground and realize the systems.
Pixel Shopkeeper lacks this narrative/thematic skeleton. It just has systems, a whole bunch of them, lying in an unstructured pile like… like a sentient over-easy egg with a frying pan, I guess. Interesting to look at, and depending on your tolerance it might be fun to play with for a while. But for my money, it could have used a little more time on the fire.
So one thing I didn’t mention much is, you can lose dungeons, and lose an entire day of progress. This is pretty big in Pixel Shopkeeper because that means a whole day of selling down the drain, for no expanded inventory. I’ve managed so far, but with the way the deadline payments ramp up, any lost day right now feels like it could be the kiss of death… If not immediately, then because it kicks me into a viscous spiral of doom.
Another thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that Pixel Shopkeeper doesn’t really autosave. It autosaves when you return to the menu, I think? You can manually save from the World Map, but apart from that, very little is set in stone.
In my last Pixel Shopkeeper play session, I lost a dungeon due to unavoidable bullshit, got angry, and Alt-F4’d out of it to avoid losing a day. I just went back in to take some screenshots, and found that all my progress from that last play session — a good hour’s worth of grinding and selling — had Ceased To Exist. I mention this both as a cautionary tale, and to explain that, no, I will actually not be going back to Pixel Shopkeeper. I’ve had some okay times with it, but grinding my way back up through another shop expansion and three tier-two dungeons is time I could also spend doing almost literally anything else.
Pixel Shopkeeper runs for eight bucks on Steam. It’s a labor of love that I feel falls a little short, but that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it. Who knows, it’s entirely possible you’re much better than me — maybe take a look, and see if it can sell itself on you.
Jarenth doesn’t have a capitalist bone in his body. Attempt swindles on him at 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?