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In the early days of videogame adventuring, heroes like Link would embark on quests carrying nothing but the clothes on their back and a wooden sword passed on by a village elder (or an old hermit living in a cave). These days, however, enemies are much more tenacious and journeys last longer than five hours. It takes a significant amount of funds in order to save a princess, and even more to save the world. Ever wondered how much those conveniently-placed item shops make during the big rush of heroes looking to make a name for themselves? Well, one developer did, and now we have Recettear, an RPG where you must slay the most evil and merciless of all dark lords… an outstanding bank loan.

Developed by indie RPG maker EasyGameStation, Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale tells the story of Recette, a young girl living by herself while her father takes off on some all-important quest. Visited by a spectacled fairy named Tear, Recette learns of the tremendous loan taken by her father before his disappearance, leaving his daughter with the bill. With the threat of losing her house from foreclosure, Recette and Tear turn the house into an item shop to pay off the weekly increments laid out by the bank in order to repay her deadbeat dad’s debt.

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It’s up to the players to control Recette as she feverishly stocks up on items for display at her budding store, attracting customers with her variety selection of food, clothes, weapons, armor, potions and all sorts of everyday items…in RPG land. Building up stock can be done in one of three ways; you can make a trip to the local Merchant’s Guild or Market, purchasing items at a set price and reselling at a profit; customers will sometimes also try to pawn off their own goods, at which you can buy at a drastically low mark-up and sell it like new to the next poor sap; lastly, you can cut out the middleman by exploring one of many deep dungeons with a fellow adventurer, collecting all the fallen items and hidden treasure that you can carry.

Indeed, Recettear isn’t all about buying and selling goods. For anyone in the mood for some old fashioned dungeon crawling, Recette can request the assistance of an adventurer, who will accompany her into dungeons and fend off the many enemies found within. At this point, players control the selected adventurer while navigating corridors in an oldschool top-down style dungeon trek, attacking enemies in eight directions which drop off experience gems and the occasional loot. Each of the adventurers possesses slight advantages and disadvantages, from attack strength to speed as well as special moves and magic spells. For that extra advantage, Recette can also equip each adventurer with her items from her stock, but be forewarned: if an adventurer falls in battle, they will retain all of their experience points, but will be forced to leave all items behind save for one of your choice… this includes whatever items you chose to loan.

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While it is technically possible to avoid the dungeons and merely engage in market trading, making the occasional dungeon stop has its own benefits, including tax-free treasure as well as ingredients for creating new (and more valuable) items to sell. Eventually you will come across more adventurers to recruit, which means more potential customers who will visit the shop, and a chance to make more money. Making those daily wages is instrumental, as Recette will be faced with an ever-increasing bill at the end of each week that must be paid in full. Failure to do so will have Recette facing the poor house and players facing the Game Over screen. Similar to Capcom’s Dead Rising games, however, you can also restart from the beginning while keeping all of your items, levels, and money from where you last failed.

Concept-wise, Recettear sounds like one of those customer service games that have been growing in popularity in the casual market, such as Dinner Dash. Unlike Dinner Dash, however, Recettear remains fun after five minutes. Each transaction with a customer feels like a random encounter from an RPG, where sales tactics must be used in order to net that huge profit; each item is listed with a base price, but you’ll never get anywhere just selling exactly what its worth. Players can choose to increase the price of an item to double, triple, or even quadruple its value. Go too high, however, and the customer will throw a fit and leave the store. Go just slightly above their price range and they’ll try to haggle it down. Since selling an item just slightly above base is better than not selling it at all, it’s important to gauge how much a customer is willing to spend, and come to a conclusion that will leave both of you happy.

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Over time, more factors will be included to keep things fresh. Occasional news updates will be posted above the screen, listing the increase or decrease of a certain type of item. While you can choose to handle that information however you want, the smart way is to hoard items that are currently low in price, and sell them back up when they become high in demand. As long as you learn to buy low and sell high, you’ll get the hang of this game, even as it continues to add more mechanics that can easily be learned (placing advance orders, showcasing high value items in the window to attract attention, etc). Everything the game tosses at you is seamless and, most importantly, fun.

Much of the entertainment value can also be attributed to the utterly charming visuals and dialogue. Characters are rendered as sprites (ever the popular graphical choice for hardcore fans) and feature full body portraits while speaking. The dialogue is also written extremely well, possessing better localizations than most professional RPG companies, and helps to flesh out the characters. Recette in particular is utterly adorable, spouting all manner of random phrases from “Yayification!” to “Capitalism, ho!”. If the cute visuals and silly dialogue are too much for you to stomach, there are several games starring bald space marines for you to play. Also, you need to lighten up.
While the game also contains many streamlined features to easily manage the managing of your store, including a list of collected items (and their prices), outstanding orders from customers, and a calendar for keeping track of the next payment deadline, there are a couple of setbacks that keep it just short of perfection. The ingredients required to fuse items are usually high, which adds unwanted attention to the rather low drop rate enemies give. This adds a bit of grinding to the game, which would normally be acceptable for most hardcore RPGs, but is ultimately unwanted in this one. Also, while it is usually easy enough to discern how high to set a potential transaction with a customer, in the end it’s really just a guessing game, with the occasional penny-pincher refusing to buy from you even when sold at base price. There are also those odd moments of monotony whenever a customer wishes to sell you a random object, adding a description like “a precious family heirloom” when pawning off a box of crackers.

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Whether you’re a hardcore otaku who can’t resist all things kawaii, or a gold digger who always wondered what it would be like managing their own store, Recettear delivers an addicting and charming combination that feels like a forgotten PS1 game, and one of the most pleasantly surprising Steam releases this year. With many hours of gameplay, a large list of items to collect, and a host of endgame extras (including bigger dungeons and further adventurers to discover), the turnaround profit is well worth the investment.