A few hours in
Well. Several hours in, and… the core conceit behind this game never stops being weird. I can’t believe nobody vetoed ‘let’s cook up the souls of the eternally damned into delicious French fries’ in the first meeting. But maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’m the only one who will never not be confused at this.
The good news after a few hours of play is that What The Hell doesn’t get quite as grindy as Weapon Ship, or as punishingly number-crunchy as We’re In Space. The bad news is that doesn’t quite mean it’s good. It’s clear that Daylight Studios seems to understand what made their previous games less-than-optimal experiences, but what they’ve attempted with Holy Potatoes! What The Hell!?! doesn’t quite land in the enjoyment center space either.
Holy Potatoes! What The Hell!?!‘s principal issue (and something that it makes a good case study for) is a type of design that I don’t know the formal name for, but that I tend to think of as knock-on design, or sometimes Babel design. It overlaps with grab bag design, in that it involves incorporating a lot of seemingly unrelated elements and systems. But the issues with this design approach are more structural.
It goes like this: For all the complaining I’m about to unleash, Holy Potatoes! What The Hell!?! has as its core a fairly okay gameplay loop. Receive sinners with certain stats, assign them to stations based on those stats, get ingredients in return, and use those ingredients to cook food for the gods, in order to reach some level goal that — in one form or another — boils down to ‘cook enough correct meals’. There’s some paradigm overlap with the other two Holy Potatoes games, which also revolve around assigning potato people to four kinds of primary-coloured nodes, but I can’t blame someone (or a company) for having a theme. The initial challenge comes from basic matching of supply and demand: Most sin-spuds can be assigned to multiple stations, processing takes time, and the gods are always hungry, meaning you’ll have to decide how to assign who and what colour to prioritize. This spud has super high yellow, but enough red to make one of those, which I need more… But does that mean I won’t get good yellows for a bit? That sort of thing. Waiting for stations to empty up feels like wasting time, and incorrectly assigning spud actually wastes time, since the station still goes through the whole process but outputs nothing. And crucially, once the gods place an order, their divine patience slowly runs, in a very visual and potentially stress-inducing way. From this light, Holy Potatoes! What The Hell!?! is basically Diner Dash meets Simon Says with a flavour-dash of Afterlife: Heaven and Hell, and again, I can’t stress enough how 2017 it is that I get to write that sentence in an article.
The issue is that while this game loop is essentially fine, it’s also not very interesting. The game isn’t very challenging in a mechanical sense: While there’s lots of time-relevant decisions to make, you can (and by default automatically do) pause the game when assigning souls, when choosing meals to cook, and when assigning meals. This reduces Holy Potatoes! What The Hell!?! to a resource assigning and optimization problem. And while those kinds of problems can be fun to solve, as my Twitter timeline the last few days has shown, they generally rely on either complex challenges or friend-seeded leaderboards. Holy Potatoes! What The Hell!?! has neither of those, because it doesn’t intend itself to be that kind of game. But that does mean we have relatively little mechanical meat left — I guess that makes sense in a society of potatoes. There’s no real planning involved in cooking for the gods: They yell meals, and then, you cook the meals. And ‘resource optimization’ in practice boils down to ‘look at whatever I have least of and prioritize that one’. Moreover, since you keep your spud inventory across levels, it becomes far too easy to just Have Enough Of Anything.
There are a few ways you could address something like this, and I’ll try to highlight an idea of mine near the end of the review. But for now, let’s focus on what Holy Potatoes! What The Hell!?! does to spruce itself up: Adding More Systems™.
For instance. Initially, with the systems currently in play, the gods can field two types of requests: They can order a specific dish, or they can order something with a particular colour of ingredient in it. There’s a small window of time at the start of each level where you can cook before the gods start ordering, so there’s some element of hedging your bets against early orders here, but otherwise it’s: Just that. So let’s add a third criterion: A dish can have a certain quality, from D to S+ (if I grow to be a hundred I’ll never understand why ‘S’ overtook ‘AA’ as ultimate rank in common vernacular). Since there’s no player skill involved in preparing dishes, dish rank should be dependent on the ingredients. So let’s introduce different ingredient ranks, let’s say two — no, three! ‘Okay’, ‘Good’, and ‘Epic’. Turning souls into ingredients depends on player skill a little, but we could make that more interesting: Let’s say that there’s one range of values that determine if a spud can become that colour ingredient at all (say, it should be between 0 and 80), and another set that determines if an ingredient goes from Okay to Good or Epic (say, the value should be between 40 and 60).
But! We don’t want these to be general rules, since the player shouldn’t have to bother with this in the tutorial. So let’s make these rules not general rules, but rules related to the individual stations.
Now that we’ve determined that stations can have attributes, that opens up the possibility of different stations for the same colour — like one that’s faster than normal, one that accepts a larger range, one that produces more ingredients… Let’s say the player can buy these with Favor, which is a world-specific resource they get for serving correct meals. But since different stations have different ranges of applicability, it’s not as straightforward as just ‘upgrading’ them: Players should be able to swap between any station they’ve bought on the fly. In fact, let’s say that players can swap out all stations in a given level, regardless of colour.
Now, if any dish can contain between 1 and 3 ingredients of any colour, that opens a possibility space of… I think 86 dishes in total. But that’s way too much. Instead, let’s only give the player 6 dishes initially. They can then later research new dishes, using Favor again, in the research lab we just invented. Every world will add a few more dishes. And hell, now that we have a research lab, let’s also say the player can upgrade their facilities through research, like getting more sinners from their central point or upgrading the amount of dishes that can cook at the same time. Or they could unlock a bar! Where they can turn dishes they don’t want anymore into drinks, Baaleys ha ha do you get it, that they can use to refill patience for gods that have been waiting for too long.
And hey, you know what would be better than four ingredients? Eight ingredients! Let’s add stations for salt, pepper, honey, and spice, which confusingly work off the same basic stats as the normal stations, but without the benefit of colour-coding. They won’t work as normal ingredients do either: It’s still three ‘normal’ ingredients to the dish, but now plus possibly one of the special ones. That does up the possibility space to 430 dishes, and I don’t even know if there are that many potato foods in the world — but then again, if any food goes that far…
Not all upgrades should be permanent, of course. Let’s add a between-level merchant where you can buy temporary boosts, like an increase to cooking speed for the next X dishes or durability protection for the stations. Stations have durability, by the way, I forgot to mention that, but they break after so many uses and you have to manually repair them. And since the player can’t always control the quality of a dish (because they might not get the needed ingredients), let’s also add consumable items that can increase the quality of one dish, like parsley or cinnamon or a whole egg. Let’s not let the player buy these with Favor, but instead introduce $tarch, our baffling running joke money from the whole series, as a second currency. Seriously, it’s like if human currency was called ‘gut$’ or ‘$kin’. At any rate, players can buy these boosts between levels with the $tarch they earn… Which is obviously based on the amount of Favor they gain, otherwise they could stop feeding the gods for a level when hitting the level goal. Let’s also give each god a specific bonus, like a 3% cooking speed increase, that gets better as they level up, which also happens by feeding them over and over.
Oh, and some sinners are actually ‘innocent’, so the player should be able to click a button to release them from Hell and get a Favor reward — never mind the theological implications of this.
Oh, and we don’t want the player’s eyes to glaze over every time they sort sinners, so let’s say that the gods post bounties for specific ones — the player should be on the lookout for these, or else incur big penalties if they turn the bounty target into hash browns.
Oh, and there should also be cook-offs between some rounds, where the player competes against an NPC before a panel of judges to win $tarch prizes! And logos for their customizable flag! Involving a sub-minigame where the player can click on their pet bat-pig for progress!
Oh, and, and, and…
You get the idea: Holy Potatoes! What The Hell!?! addresses the flaws of its core conceit by adding more systems, and then by stacking systems on top of those systems, and then stacking systems on those systems… and so on, and so forth. It’s a good way to get a lot of content in your game, that’s for sure, but it comes at the cost of thematic and ludic coherency. What even is Holy Potatoes! What The Hell!?! at this point? It’s a game where you process souls, cook food for the gods, buy and organize pots, hunt for bounties, do cooking battles, upgrade kitchens, design flags, weigh the pros and cons of different research tracks… When I left, early into the fifth circle of hell, it had just gotten to the point where sorting sinners now also dependent on their age, weight, and height.
The reason I called this approach ‘Babel design’ earlier is because like the tower of lore, this is not sustainable. Holy Potatoes! What The Hell!?!‘s design is taller than it is wide: It’s built on a narrow shaky foundation, and attempts to reach for the stars by stacking on thing after thing. But all that does is put more weight on that foundation.
In other words: Holy Potatoes! What The Hell!?!‘s core gameplay loop is not great. It’s functional, but unengaging, an optimization solution in search of a challenge. The game tries to address this by layering on the sub-systems, but none of those systems fundamentally change the flawed core loop. Adding more criteria and pots and bounties to sinner selection just makes an already simple process more tedious: No matter what you do, I can always pause the game and do the math on a different window. And adding more dishes and drinks and research options to the cooking doesn’t disguise that it’s purely a reactive affair, waiting for the gods to yell something and then chasing that yell. It’s the game design equivalent of putting on a garish suit to distract everyone from your bad hair day. We still notice.
Maybe the later circles of hell do manage this. With the rate that Holy Potatoes! What The Hell!?! changes between worlds, it’s entirely possible that a totally excellent game is hiding just around the corner. Just beyond the next level. I’m not betting my soul on it, though.
I promised I’d end this review with an idea for how to improve the Holy Potatoes! What The Hell!?! core gameplay experience. My two-step suggestion is this: One, the core gameplay loop should be challenging. While What The Hell!?! pretends it wants to evoke the feeling of a lunch hour rush, the mechanics as they are enforce slow, tedious play. Change that, and change the UI to accommodate it. Currently, you have to click on the sinner tube to get to sinner selection and processing (which pauses the game), and you have to click on the cook pot to select recipes to cook (also pauses). Change it so that you always see the next sinner in line, and you can always process them by clicking on a station. Put the recipe book to the side, always open, so you can always select the next recipe to cook. And then remove the pause. It’s real-time all the time now, baby! And suddenly you have that lunch rush. Gotta process sinners, gotta cook recipes, gotta keep the gods happy, the clock is ticking the clock is ticking the clock is ticking, stress is mounting…
And two, pare down the system cruft, and put the good ideas under the umbrella of level design. Recipe research can go, just give me new recipes in each world. Baaleys can go, pot repair can go, selecting and employing different pots can go. I do like the idea of different levels of ingredients, depending on how carefully you select sinners, so make that a factor of the level design: In this level you have these pots, in that level you have those pots. Hell, maybe play it into the theme of each world! Give me exceeding numbers of Apathy souls in the circle of Sloth, forcing me to ration the other colours. Jack up the prices of boost items in the circle of Greed. Give me big, ostentatious pots in the circle of Pride, with incredibly stringent requirements that ramp up the difficulty. Make all the gods want the same dish every time in the circle of Avarice. You get the idea. Don’t build up an ongoing cruft of systems, but swap out different mutators, all built on the foundation of challenging, stressful gameplay.
As it stands — the game that is, not the game that I’m imagining — Holy Potatoes! What The Hell!?! is not great. It’ll only run you a little under ten bucks, or even less if you get the triple potato game super pack. So as always, if you think this is more your jam than mine, support your local indie studios and all that. For my money, though… I wonder how much more or less fun you’d have with a ten-dollar pack of actual potatoes.
I can get like 10 kg of potatoes for that kind of money. That’s pretty hard value to beat, honestly.
Jarenth appreciates the fact that this game was released on Friday the 13th; That’s good commitment to theme. Tell him spooky stories 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?