Hidden Levels: Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale

In All, Video Games by Matt Morris

In this recurring feature, guest blogger Matt Morris takes us through the lost, the forgotten, and the overlooked video games of yore. Consider him your guide through all the best and most secret Hidden Levels.

Game: Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale (2007)

Genre: Role-Playing, Simulation

Platform: PC

Developer: EasyGameStation

Publisher: Carpe Fulgur (English release)

Have you ever wanted to crush the souls of the miserable, shuffling proletariat using the callous sledgehammer of unbridled capitalism? Do you often wonder what it would be like to be an RPG shop owner, peddling dangerous weapons and magical goods to would-be protagonists and townsfolk day in and day out? Of course you have, and of course you do. That was a silly question. Forget I asked.

Boy, do I have the game for you.

What is this game?

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale is a curious outlier in the field of Japanese dōjin soft games. For starters, it managed to secure a release outside of the usual Japanese hobbyist niches where such games typically thrive. As a matter of fact, it stands as one of the earliest Western sales successes among games of its ilk. And when you look at its subject matter, it may seem like a bit of a head scratcher at first.

Recettear puts you in the shoes of a young girl named Recette Lemongrass, who finds herself living alone and burdened with a tremendous amount of loan debt left behind by her father. Upon being confronted by Tear, a fairy representative of the loan’s financier, Recette is forced to convert her home into an item shop to pay back the debt. The two of them name the new shop “Recettear” (yes, the similarity to the word “racketeer” is intentional) and begin peddling wares to the town’s denizens.

The goal of the game is simple: pay back Recette’s debt in one month. This is accomplished in weekly intervals, and you as the player must manage Recette’s time wisely every day in order to meet each deadline. There are a plethora of ways to spend time in the game, and each serves a specific purpose to further your business goals. You could spend the whole day selling wares from your personal item stock and buying items off customers who wander in and out of the store. As your shopkeeper level grows, you can redecorate your shop to attract certain types of clientele, or feature certain items to take advantage of high demand. But most interestingly of all, you can hire adventurers to go dungeon crawling through the various locales around town, in search of new and interesting trinkets and items to add to your inventory.

These dungeon crawling segments add an entirely new dimension to the life sim gameplay of running the shop day-to-day. When you hire an adventurer, as a player you actually get to control the adventurer as they traipse through dungeons slaying monsters, fighting bosses, and collecting loot. There are a variety of adventurers to unlock in the game, each with their own mechanics and play style, and relying upon them on a regular basis is one of the most reliable ways of obtaining new stock for your shop.

So what makes it so special?

What, the concept alone of the game isn’t enough to pique your interest? Fine then, picky pants. Let’s talk about what makes this game so darn great.

Life sim games like this one–or the Harvest Moon series, or the Animal Crossing games–live and die on polish and efficiency of gameplay. All the item variety and meticulously balanced mechanics in the world won’t matter at all if the process of obtaining and selling your wares is clunky or slow, and the process of managing your shop would be nothing without a solid menu system to drive it. Thankfully, Recettear excels in these areas, making all the procedures and activities in the game a totally frictionless experience. Even the dungeon crawling–a part of the game which could easily have felt tacked on or unnecessary–is a wonderfully addictive pastime. I spent many hours of my own playthrough spelunking through various dungeons, hacking and slashing my way to a top-notch inventory.

The characters have a ton of personality, and the art is whimsical and lighthearted. Carpe Fulgur, who translated the game for English speaking audiences, were a total newcomer to the field of localization at the time of the game’s release, but they did an excellent job writing dialogue that is both endearing and fun to read. Who could forget Recette’s motto (“Capitalism, ho!”) after playing this game?

The scope of the game is nearly perfect. The entirety of the debt-paying action takes place across only five in-game weeks–an amount which sounds short compared to a game like Harvest Moon, but is actually the perfect time window to get a feel for most of the content the game has to offer. There are wide varieties of goods and weapons to collect and sell, a surprisingly dense cast of hire-able adventurers, and a handful of unique dungeons on display which ensure that the experience never grows stale. For that matter, new shopkeeping abilities and mechanics continue to be introduced as Recette’s shopkeeping level increases, which serve to flesh out the experience even further. All-in-all, playing this game offers a nearly perfect example of how to properly pace story content across a “daily life” simulation structure. It’s a joy to play, to read, and to just plain revel in throughout its first five weeks, and after the debt is paid, the game strongly encourages players to experience the remainder of its content through optional New Game+ and Endless modes. The game may end, but capitalism continues on!

From a technical standpoint, the game is hardly a masterpiece, but it works really well within the constraints it was given. This is, after all, a game created entirely by hobbyists instead of professional game developers. A mixture of 2D sprites and 3D environments is utilized here to great effect, and Recettear requires little in terms of hardware to have the game running at a buttery smooth frame rate. The cutesy anime art style is a good match for the game’s level of graphical sophistication, and it contributes to the game’s charm, to boot.

Most importantly of all, this game is addictive. It taps into some kind of primal urge to see numbers increase, and the easy, structured cycle of days and weeks allows for consumption of the game’s content in bite-size pieces. The game can be played as a satisfying snack, or it can be played as a full feast, but either way you’re in for a good time.

Any criticisms?

There are some things to nitpick here, of course. The game has a surprisingly large amount of content in terms of items and dungeons, especially considering its status as a hobbyist project, but the mechanics themselves do wear thin after a little while. For certain kinds of players, repetition in gameplay is tiresome, and the game does little to court that kind of player in terms of changing up the gameplay. There’s only so much you can do to make haggling exciting, I suppose.

The randomness of the dungeons has been a point of contention for some folks as well. As with many other games that employ the use of procedurally generated dungeons, sometimes the random numbers are simply not on the player’s side. Losing progress can be frustrating, especially when it feels like things are out of your control. I do understand the urge to disparage mechanics like these, and I don’t really have an excuse for them.

Ultimately, though, I’ll admit it’s hard for me to come up with too many criticisms of the game that I would consider “fair.” Niggling complaints are commonplace, especially in niche projects like this, but at the same time they’re kind of understandable. It’s not like the developers were replete with cash and personnel, after all. Lucky for you, there’s a demo for the game on Steam, so if you’re worried about some of these things, you could always give it a spin for an hour or so and see how it grabs you.

Why was it overlooked?

I suppose given its surprisingly good sales numbers, it’s hard to argue the game was really “overlooked.” In many ways, Recettear‘s success paved the way for many more niche Japanese games to appear on platforms like Steam.

But at the same time, this isn’t really a game that I hear about too often outside of niche circles. It was never written up to hell and back in the same way that later niche games and indies have been in the years since. That’s a bit of a tragedy, because this game offers the same kind of addictive satisfaction that players have found more recently in games like Stardew Valley.

How can I get a hold of it?

This time, I have the great pleasure of announcing that I’m writing about a game that’s easy to get a hold of.

Recettear is a PC game through-and-through, so the best place to grab it would be Steam. There are a few other outlets around the internet that would probably be happy to sell you a copy as well. Go forth, game traveler! The internet is your oyster!

Final Thoughts

In this column, I know I have a tendency to wax poetic about things like music, art design, visuals, and the like. I know that I personally tend to place a lot of importance on aesthetic elements like these, and often they are the differentiator that elevates a game to the upper echelons, among my favorites of all time.

In the case of Recettear, though, I’m offering up an example of something that’s just plain fun. That’s not to say that this game isn’t visually pleasing or that the music isn’t any good, or anything like that. But the gameplay is the king here, and the whole concept provides the perfect window dressing for the experience. My hat goes off to Carpe Fulgur as well, who managed to bring us a real gem for their very first release, and to give it the love and attention it deserved in the localization process. If you have any love for simulation games or RPGs, Recettear is not a game to be missed. The icy grip of capitalism has never felt so warm and fuzzy.