Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review: Homework Salesman

Title: Homework Salesman
Developer: Star*Cadets
Homepage: http://rpgmaker.net/games/3892/
Genre: JRPG
Program: RPGMaker VX

Homework Salesman is a strangely named game given that it doesn't have anything to do with homework and salesmen, so hopefully no one has let the confusing name put them off. Notably, this game comes from the same people who brought us last year's Misao Star Stealing Prince and, just like that project, what you get here is a game that takes basic JRPG stock and crams it full of interesting mechanics, charming visuals and ridiculously cute characters.

One of the most important elements of this game - both in my experience and in terms of how the game is described by the developers - is how many different professions there are for your character to tackle. Adventuring, smithing, crafting, alchemy, and more mundane tasks such as cooking and foraging are all featured in this game, and each is tracked using its own level system. Although most of these professions work the same way in terms of their gameplay (collect required items, go to appropriate work-bench, create respective products), what makes the system impressive is that every profession seems to be useful no matter how you choose to develop your character. It's easy for a given system to become irrelevant when so many are present, but this game manages to avoid that, something that it achieves through a combination of making tasks a required part of quests (which are one of the best ways of simultaneously making money and earning experience), allowing money to be farmed through the sale of items produced using professions, and limiting the number of items that are cheaply sold to you by vendors in the game's main town.

On the negative side of things, I would probably point out that the limited number of actions you can take per day (you have a certain amount of energy per day, energy that is used up by battling, cooking, foraging etc.) can make things progress too slowly for my liking, because I personally believe that most actions have an energy cost that is a little too high. Should it really take one sixth of my energy to cook a meal? I don't know that it should, and I also believe that reducing the cost of some of the more basic actions would make this game a little easier to get into as it is quite slow-paced at the outset. Another minor complain I have with the profession system is how repetitive some of the quests are. I don't mind that the innkeeper always wants you to cook something, or that the smith always wants you to bring him ore, but alternating what needs to be cooked or delivered more often than is currently done would make things a lot more interesting. Ultimately, these are very minor complains, and I think that the professions system is an integral part of this game that has been very well implemented; just how well it integrates with other elements of the game will become apparent as this review progresses!

On first inspection, Homework Salesman's battle system seems to be very traditional JRPG fare, with the usual mix of elemental weaknesses, status effects, HP, MP etc. Fortunately, there are plenty of things to keep you interested. First of all, there is plenty of variety in how you can set-up your heroes to tackle the monsters you'll encounter on your journey. The heroes that you can recruit are usually capable of using more than one type of weaponry so, although these characters generally have one option that stands out from the others based on their base stats and characterisation, there's plenty of combinations to try. Importantly, a character's skills will level up independent of their overall level based on how often you choose to use the skill, which means your characters can be as one- or multi-dimensional as you're willing to put time into training them. I personally chose to keep my characters fairly one-dimensional so that I didn't have to waste too much time grinding skills, but those who are willing to put more time into grinding skills are going to have much stronger parties as a result.

Might not look very threatening, but you'll have to work as a team to take it down!

Another important element of the battle system, and what really ties several elements of both the battle system and the other systems together, is the way that weapon durability is used to perform both magical skills and physical skills. On the face of it, what this does is essentially put a secondary limit on how much you can explore before you're forced to head home (in this case to either repair or replace your weapons, as opposed to requiring sleep), but it's actually has a far more reaching impact than that. For example, one way weapon durability works well in this format is by forcing you to be economic with your skills, as every overkill you perform is weapon durability that could've been better used elsewhere. This is especially prevalent for physical skills as they often cost many times more than a basic attack, so using a skill to finish off an enemy when a basic attack would've done the job is always a big misstep.

A further way that weapon durability works quite well is the way in which it makes you think carefully about your weapon upgrades and how you choose to use them. Because weapon durability depletes quite quickly relative to energy, it's often ideal to take many versions of the same weapon-type (eg. five swords, five quivers of arrows, five staves etc.) with you so that your characters don't have to trudge back to town for repairs before your energy runs out. What this goes on to mean is that, because you're unlikely to upgrade multiple weapons of the same type due to how money/time consuming it is, using your most upgraded weapons isn't always ideal. You have to pick and choose your moments because durability management really is serious business in this game! In support of the idea that this type of durability management is important, the game even allows you to change equipment during the middle of a battle, and it doesn't even cost you a turn to do so. This is cool because it means that you're allowed to you to enter a fight and then decide whether or not you want to use your +9 Baller Sword or a more basic weapon to take out the enemies that you're facing.

Of course, this function isn't just important for durability management, as it actually has a range of other possible uses that add a great amount of potential depth to the battle and skill systems. For example, given enough time and money to implement such a strategy, you could use the enchanting profession to create a range of different elemental swords for a swordsman character, which you could switch around dependent on enemy weaknesses, which you will know because of the bestiary present in the game. Another example would be the possibility of creating a "paladin" type character by switching between a stave for healing/support spells and a sword for physical attacks as you happen to require them. Although the relationships between these systems are very simple, and although the systems themselves seem quite common and cliché, they fit together quite spectacularly. In terms of gameplay, this game really is greater than the sum of its parts.

Dem professions...

Ultimately though, what this game does best from a gameplay standpoint is protecting the player from themselves. It would be easy to assume that so many professions, skills, classes and weapons being present - alongside considerations such as durability and energy - would result in the player being overwhelmed with options early on. However, the game does a good job of preventing this from happening by linking the way that new game elements are introduced and the amount of progress you're allowed to make through the game's major dungeon with how far you've progressed through the game's major storyline. By linking these things together, the game manages to time how quickly new professions etc. become important as a function of how efficiently you've been using your current professions etc. to explore, which in turn means you get used to the features you have access to prior to additional features becoming available. This is really important, because introducing all the elements this game has to offer at the same time would be a total clusterfuck! The developers have manages it really well, and without the need for any condescending tutorial sequences!

I've mentioned the storyline a few times now, so I should probably point out that the storyline is actually quite minimal and light-hearted. Although the game makes up for it through the colourful and humorous interactions Reniat has with the characters around her, it's undeniable that most of the story points are basically excuses to introduce new professions or to unlock levels of the games major dungeon. Fortunately, the gameplay more than makes up for the limited storyline depth present in this game, as do a colourful cast of entertaining - if sometimes shallow - characters for you to interact with on a day-by-day basis. This is definitely a light-hearted game and should be treated as such, so those looking for something story-driven would be beast served looking elsewhere!

Serious story content! Honest!

People who've played Star Stealing Prince probably don't need to be told that this team of developers are amazing at making their games look pretty, and this game is no different. Aside from a few tile-errors, the graphics used are very well put together and they fit in perfectly with the light-hearted nature of the game. Special mention should be made of the monster graphics for being suitably goofy; more than one of the enemy graphics made me laugh out loud, which isn't something that happens often. The only problem I had with the graphics - which is more a problem I had with the mapping than the graphics themselves - is the random way that treasure chests and other such objects (such as herbs to be picked or ore to be mined) are placed around maps. Usually it works as intended, but it can sometimes spawn items into unreachable locations or, much more annoyingly, spawn items into locations that flat-out block your path. Leaving and re-entering a map will fix this problem, and it isn't a problem that occurs very often, but it can be annoying when you have to backtrack any large amount to re-enter a map as a result of this happening. As for the music, I would say that most of the tracks are pretty well chosen, but it is true that some tracks could do with being rotated so that they don't become too repetitive. Specifically, I'd pick out the music used in the main town as a track that can be a little grating after a long period of play, but it's a very minor problem that I'm sure the developers can easily fix for future instalments (this is an episodic game, after all).

Get out of the bloody way!

This game has some niggling problems that could be improved upon in future episodes, but they don't take too much away from how well the systems this game utilises fit together. Hopefully this game will steal even more Misaos than the Misao Stealing Prince, because I personally think that it's much better. 9/10.

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