Review – The Good Life

Overview

Developer White Owls Inc.
Publisher PLAYISM
Genre RPG, Life Sim, Open World
Platforms PC, Xbox Series X/S/One, PS4 (reviewed), PS5, Switch
Release Date October 15, 2021

What’s your favorite pastime? If you answered “debt repayment,” then, first of all, I have several questions regarding your mental health. But secondly, you’re apparently not alone. The Good Life, by White Owls Inc., is a self-described “debt-repayment RPG.” What does that mean? Well, after playing through the whole game…I’m still not sure I can answer that question.

Content Guide:

Violence: Near the beginning of the game, a character is found murdered, covered in blood with a sword still stuck in her chest. Naomi must fight off other animals in her animal forms.

Language/Crude Humor: Naomi, your character, is rather fond of calling the town of Rainy Woods a g****** h***hole, which becomes one of the game’s favorite punchlines. Other than that, d***, often paired with God’s name, s***, h***, a**, a******, b****, and p*** make frequent appearances, along with the UK profanities feckin’ and bloody. In her dog form, Naomi is frequently tasked with peeing on various objects, including in bottles to trick someone into thinking they’re full of whiskey.

Alcohol/Drug Use: Various characters smoke cigarettes and cigars. Naomi frequently refers to herself as the “DrinkQUEEN,” and talks about how much she enjoys drinking. There’s a bar in town where you can buy drinks and get drunk, which will affect your stats. There is a “drinking battle” minigame that is essential to story progression. The vicar is the town drunk and can be found at the bar when he’s not preaching. A special brand of whiskey is a major plot point. The “Witch of the Woods” can make you potions and drugs from materials you find around the landscape that boost your stats. At one point, a character feeds food laced with catnip to one of the children of the town while the child is in her cat form in order to kidnap her.

Spiritual Content: As mentioned before, the vicar is also the town drunk. As such, he is convinced that “wherever there is alcohol, there is God.” At one point, he goes so far as to say “every drop of alcohol is a drop of His blood.” A novelist describes himself as, quite literally, God’s gift to mankind, bestowed with divine creativity as his burden. At one point in the story, an ancient spirit communicates through a magical sword. A character recommends prayer for rescue from a snowstorm, then says that “the mothership” has heard their prayers. Various mentions of mysticism and the occult. Naomi prays at cat/dog shrines to teleport around the map.

Sexual Content: One character wears a crop top with some slight cleavage showing.

Other Negative Elements: Naomi is primarily concerned with one thing: money. She demands payment for the most mundane task performed, and is consistently rude, demanding, and dismissive of just about everyone she meets. She’s never really called out for this, and she doesn’t change much over the course of the game.

Positive Elements: For all of their quirks and squabbles, the people of Rainy Woods are a tight-knit community. Several characters show real concern for others, asking Naomi to check up on people and deliver food and other goods to people in need. The overall message of the game is looking out for the “little guy” under the boot of big corporations.

Review

The Good Life has to be one of the strangest games I’ve ever played. The visual style is reminiscent of paper dolls, while the gameplay is a blend of Harvest Moon-esque farming simulator and Breath of the Wild-style open world exploration and side quest manager, with the aforementioned debt repayment taking a page from the Animal Crossing series. And on top of all that, the story feels like it was written by someone who binge-watched Twin Peaks followed immediately by Phineas and Ferb. I can’t say I’m surprised, given that this is a game directed by SWERY, or Hidetaka Suehiro, the same man who directed the Deadly Premonition games. All that to say…there’s a lot to cover here, and I think the best way to do so is to break my review up into several categories: presentation, storytelling/writing, and gameplay.

Presentation

The first thing you’ll notice about The Good Life is its unique visual style. I mentioned before that it reminded me of paper dolls, but despite the simplistic design, I was impressed at the characterization the team was able to pull off with a relatively simplistic artstyle. The characters are expressive and easily readable, especially when paired with the wealth of voice acting the game includes. The talking animations leave a lot to be desired, ranging into downright uncanny territory at times, but overall, the residents of Rainy Woods look nice.

The environments, on the other hand, are…passable. Obviously, the main area of Rainy Woods had the most time put into it, and it shows. Every shop has its own character and environment that sets it apart. However, once you venture out of the main town area, everything begins to blur together. It is the English countryside, so it’s accurate to the source material, but a little variety as I was exploring would have been much appreciated.

I think the biggest win here as far as presentation goes is the music. The soundtrack consists of some beautiful acoustic tracks with some Celtic influence to set the mood. Some of the later tracks are wonderfully atmospheric, lending a much-needed sense of gravitas to the story near the end. I want to give a particular shout-out to the main theme, titled, appropriately enough, “The Good Life.” It’s a great soft rock track that nails the blend of lighthearted and somber that the story touches on.

You know…I feel like the game is trying to make some kind of statement here…

Storytelling/Writing

As an RPG, the story of The Good Life is a pretty integral part of the experience. As the game opens, you meet Naomi Hayward, your player character. She’s on her way to the town of Rainy Woods, the self-proclaimed “happiest town in the world.” She meets Elizabeth Dickens, who shows her around a bit, then takes her to the house she’ll be staying in as she explores.

As it turns out, Naomi owes a considerable debt to Morning Bell News, a major media corporation based in New York City. By considerable, I mean something to the tune of £30,000,000. In order to pay it off, she’s been assigned to discover just why Rainy Woods is the happiest town in the world. If she’s able to uncover the town’s greatest secrets, her debt will be completely forgiven. In the meantime, she can complete some odd jobs for Morning Bell’s news coverage to chip away at her monumental debt.

One of the first things Elizabeth tells Naomi is not to venture out at night. And so, naturally, that is the first thing Naomi does. When she does, she discovers one of the town’s biggest secrets: all of the residents turn into animals under the new moon. Shortly after that revelation, a murder shakes the town to its core, and Naomi embarks on an adventure to discover whodunnit, as well as what on earth is going on in Rainy Woods.

The storytelling in The Good Life is strange. It starts out somewhat lighthearted, with the jaded New Yorker Naomi lending a stark contrast to the laidback, quaint countryfolk of Rainy Woods. The addition of the animal transformations adds a mystical layer, with the murder sending the game on a decided turn towards the macabre. However, the game never really sticks to any of these tones, choosing instead to jump back and forth so often it’s disorienting. One moment, you’ll be talking to a grieving family member, and the next, you’ll be delivering a golden egg to the local restaurant so you can give a novelist with a god complex a “perfectly circular” food to inspire his next masterpiece. One second you’re riding a sheep that can run faster than the speed of sound, and the next, you’re learning that an ancient aristocracy periodically partook of the blood of maidens to maintain eternal youth. It never really feels like The Good Life settles into any tonal identity. While that did inspire me to keep playing just to see what would happen next, I couldn’t help but get frustrated by the constant back-and-forth.

The writing itself is also somewhat lacking. The actual dialogue is fairly entertaining, with each character distinguishing themselves well by the way they speak, but it’s the actual methods of storytelling used that baffle me. There’s a Storyteller character who chimes in every now and then, speaking directly to Naomi from an omniscient point of view, but I’m not entirely sure why he’s here. He’s constantly baffled at Naomi’s greed and arrogance, but he can’t actually do anything about it. In fact, he never says anything of particular importance, and at times, his presence is downright jarring. At one point late in the game, in the middle of a rather somber sequence, he interrupted the story to remind Naomi that she can always go home to take a nap if she gets tired, completely disrupting the flow.

And then there’s Naomi herself. She’s…well, she’s awful. She’s rude, arrogant, and dismissive of the entire town and its people. She’s obsessed with money, refusing to do anything without payment, and brags about how great she is at drinking alcohol. And she never stops swearing. Her phrase of choice is g****** h***hole, and the game likes this phrase so much, there’s a specialized voice clip to go with it. It got to the point that I was just as sick of her as the townspeople are.

The townspeople are a bit better. In fact, they reminded me a lot of the NPCs from the Professor Layton series. They’re all unique and set themselves apart very well in design, voice, and dialogue. I had a good time getting to know them, and they were a nice change of pace from Naomi’s brashness.

I do have to say one thing about one particular townsperson: the vicar. I’m not sure if he was intended to come across as a satire of religion, but his entire character left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s not necessarily that he likes alcohol, but the way he talks about it rubbed me the wrong way. He constantly refers to alcohol as his “holy water,” and he repents of his sins by getting hammered. What really got me, though, is when he said that “every drop of alcohol is a drop of [God’s] blood.” I don’t mind if someone disagrees with religion, but I did not appreciate the equation of alcohol with the blood of Christ. That’s a step over the line.

Overall, the story itself was just weird enough to keep me engaged, but the writing and characterization was too inconsistent and shallow for me to really get into the story. Part of what I love about RPGs is really feeling like you’re a character in the story, fully invested in what’s happening. In The Good Life, I felt more like I was just babysitting Naomi as she threw tantrum after tantrum when things didn’t go her way.

Gameplay

So the story leaves a bit to be desired. That’s fine, as long as the game is fun to play, right? Well, unfortunately, The Good Life doesn’t really keep the player engaged even in this aspect.

I mentioned how The Good Life attempts to mix together several different genres, including life simulator, open-world exploration, and story-driven RPG. I’ll cover the life sim portion really quickly: it’s negligible. You can plant things in your garden, and essentially forget about them until they’re completely grown. You can customize your garden too, but here’s the catch: there’s no convenient edit mode like in Animal Crossing: New Horizons to make customization fun and engaging. Instead, you have to physically carry any decoration and maneuver Naomi just right until you can place it. And heaven forbid the decoration be heavy, because the controls while carrying heavy objects are easily some of the worst I’ve ever encountered in a game. There were times I wasn’t even pushing the stick and Naomi was still plodding forward. I couldn’t place anything with any sort of precision, and I gave up on customizing my garden after placing just one item.

The only “life simulation” aspect that really matters is managing your stats like hunger, fatigue, and health. You can do this by sleeping, eating, and relieving your stress with alcohol. This does get a bit annoying at times, as you have to constantly run back to the main hub whenever Naomi is hungry, since you can’t carry dishes in your inventory to eat later. But overall, it’s not a bad way of including these elements; they just feel superfluous to the rest of the game. I feel like the game would have been better served by cutting them, especially since there are some stats, like stress, that you can’t even check yourself.

There is the “debt repayment” part of this debt repayment RPG, but it’s more of a money management aspect, as you can only repay your actual debt through completing main story quests. You’ll have to keep an eye on your money in order to buy food, camera parts and repairs, medicine if you get sick, and other various items you’ll need as you explore. If you’re short on cash, you can complete the plenteous side quests that the game’s characters offer you, as well as upload photos to the game’s social network, Flamingo.

The majority of the game is spent exploring Rainy Woods and the countryside surrounding it. You do this in three main forms: human, cat, and dog. Every form has its strengths and weaknesses, and you’ll have to be aware of all of them to explore most effectively. Cat Naomi can climb up walls wherever she sees a special symbol, as well as jump higher than any other form and run along walls without falling off. Human Naomi is relatively slow, but this form is the only way you can talk to people, as well as take photos to complete quests and earn money. Dog Naomi can run the fastest out of the three forms and can use her nose to sniff out NPCs and animals to hunt. In addition…she can pee on things to mark her territory. Why do you need to mark your territory? I’m not sure, and the game never really explains it. There are several side quests that involve urinating on an absolutely unholy amount of objects, though, so I guess it’s important.

There’s a charisma element to the game, taking several forms. First off, your overall hygiene will affect how people treat you, so it’s important to shower and do some beauty care every now and then. But there’s also a “team” system, where, by gaining favor with villagers on either Team Cat or Team Dog, you can net better prices in shops. You do this by playing with villagers in your cat or dog form, or by offering cat or dog offerings at shrines. I never found this mechanic to affect the game all that much, but I suppose I could have really netted some good deals if I’d gone all in on one of the teams. Once again, though, this mechanic feels more like it was just thrown in as one more “cool idea” rather than being adequately woven into the gameplay.

The world of The Good Life is relatively open, and more expansive than I was expecting. You can get around by riding a sheep or by teleporting between various dog/cat shrines you can activate across the landscape. But far from feeling like an exciting new world to discover, the prospect of exploring the world of The Good Life just felt exhausting. Exploration is bland, with nothing to discover other than more hills and trees. More often than not, I just rushed from point to point to complete my current mission rather than take any time to find secrets. The world felt boring and random, and once you’re out of Rainy Woods, there aren’t any interesting NPCs to encourage talking to the few people you do encounter. In Breath of the Wild, there was always a shrine or even an abandoned building with loot to discover. Not so here.

The side quests, too, boil down to essentially running from one place to another talking to people, or occasionally buying an item. The main bulk of the side quests are basically fetch quests with little variation. The game tries to soften the blow with some self-aware dialogue from Naomi about venturing into “super old RPG territory,” but breaking the fourth wall doesn’t make boring fetch quests more fun. In addition, the game doesn’t seem to be able to decide how much help to give you. Some side quests tell you exactly where to go, leaving you no room to figure anything out on your own. On the other hand, some side quests give you no direction at all, and you’re left scratching your head as to where you’re even supposed to begin.

Another rather frustrating aspect is the fact that quest NPCs only exist in their proper locations when the side quest involving them is active. This means that you can’t passively complete side quests, and you have to manually switch to another one, watch the quest animation play out, and then proceed on your new quest. In addition, sometimes quest NPCs will be where they’re supposed to be, but you won’t get credit for doing the quest action unless the quest is active. Once, I spent money on an item to finish a quest, only to realize that I didn’t have the quest active and just wasted my money.

I get it, game, you’re super self-aware and clever. Just don’t start any robot uprisings on me.

The side quests are also where the cracks in the programming begin to show. There was at least one side quest that I simply couldn’t complete because the game refused to acknowledge that I’d completed one of the steps. In another, the game pointed me in the right direction, but I was only able to collect half of the macguffins I needed. I looked everywhere in that spot, but there was nothing else to be found, and there weren’t any other areas to explore. In addition, sometimes the dialogue boxes straight up don’t match the lines that are actually being spoken. Forgive me if I sound like a broken record, but it again feels like the developers included a lot of things they thought would be cool, but never took the time to make sure they actually worked.

And finally, the controls. Overall, movement feels sluggish and heavy, making it a chore to get around town without a sheep. Naomi’s run still feels way too slow for its own good, and it consumes your stamina bar, meaning you can only use it for a couple seconds. Her dog form is the best way to get around small areas, as its run is probably the fastest you can go on foot. Once you unlock a sheep, you’ll be able to get around much faster, but at the cost of navigability. You will crash into the plenteous walls that are scattered around the world, because turning on a sheep feels like trying to reel in a hammerhead shark. And once you do crash, you can dash to get back up to speed, but you’ll hear Naomi yell out “YEAH, BAYBEEE!!!” Every. Single. Time.

Conclusion

Despite my gripes, The Good Life is a surprisingly robust game. I wasn’t expecting it to have the open world, gameplay styles, and storytelling that it does. However, I think the game would have been better served by the developers reining themselves in and delivering a smaller, but much more polished, experience, because the final product feels like it’s constantly having an identity crisis. Is it a goofy, lighthearted romp through the countryside, or is it a murder mystery RPG? Am I repaying my debt, or am I ignoring it as I tromp off on a woolly steed? The story’s progression feels disconnected and haphazard, and the gameplay piecing it all together is overall dull and repetitive.

The thing is, there is charm and heart here. I can tell the team really loved what they were doing. Their passion shows in the sheer character the game has, even for all its flaws. But the game doesn’t do much to move past that charm and actually deliver an engaging experience.

I get the feeling that White Owls Inc., and specifically SWERY himself, had grandiose visions for this game that were just too high to achieve. This could have been something great, but its lack of focus and shallow mechanics leave too much to be desired for me to return for the post-game content, even though there are some mysteries that really intrigued me. Perhaps some distance from the game will change my mind, but for now, I have to say that The Good Life might be best left unlived.

The Bottom Line

 

The Good Life is a charming and unique "debt-repayment RPG" that sets itself apart with its humor and character, but its lackluster gameplay, bizarre tonality, and overall lack of polish make that charm wear off quickly.

 

6.0

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Wesley Lantz

Wesley's first memory of video games is playing through Super Mario World with his mom when he was 3 years old. Since then, he's been a classic Nintendo kid, but has branched out to the far lands of PlayStation in recent years. He enjoys the worlds that video games create and share with their audiences, and the way video games bring together collaborators from so many different disciplines like music, visual art, literature, and even philosophy. He is an advocate for excellency in all things, but isn't immune to a few guilty pleasure games, which may or may not include Disney's Party for the GameCube.

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