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Wot I Think - Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale

Shop-keeping/monster-biffing indie RPG Recettear is out at last, following Carpe Fulgur's elaborate translation of EasyGameStation's 2007 Japanese game. It arrived on Steam, Impulse and Gamersgate yesterday, and I've been playing it on and off during the last week. It seems prudent to report my findings.

What I think is that this whimsical indie tale of manning the tills of a semi-stereotypical RPG item shop is about ten times bigger than I'd imagined. I thought I'd got the measure of it from the demo, but what seemed a small and simple thing unravelled and expanded throughout - every time I sat back and thought "that's it, I'm ready to write this up" it threw in a little something else.

The key effect of this is that "An Item Shop's Tale" isn't all that accurate a description. "A Surprisingly Enormous, Sprawling Roleplaying Game" would be far more relevant, if less neat.

Let's do the context thing, anyway. Recettear is the tale of Recette, daughter of a hapless and now missing adventurer, whose only legacy is a nauseating amount of debt. To pay this off, Recette's talked into running a loot shop for an apparently kill-crazed (but otherwise rather genteel) town. Advised by scowly fairy/bailiff Tear, the girl must master buy low, sell high, plus the rather more complicated acquisition of rarefied swords, helms et al.

It's a translation of a Japanese title from a few years back, which explains the love it/hate it/oh grow up and just accept it look. J-RPGs generally inspire boredom and oh-get-on-with it impatience in me, being as I am something of a PC gamer archetype, but that's not something Recettear ever inspired, in either its play or its big-eyed, oft-sexualised cartoon characters. Look, I'm about to show you the trailer, just to demonstrate some of the game's broader features, and it's only fair to warn you that it's going to play you a really awful song. But I promise you, I promise you that kind of thing does not define the game, and you do not need to worry about it for even a second:

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Recettear is massively compulsive, having successfully blended the twin deadly obsessions of earning more money and upgrading characters. Its great deception is that while shop management is the skin around its surprisingly immense bones, it ends up occupying only a fraction of your headspace. Partly that's because the other mechanics are so cleverly intertwined with the broader need for profit anyway, and partly it's because Recettear is Diablo in disguise.

I've been all over the place in my thinking on this. That so much of the game becomes dungeoneering, levelling up, accruing special abilities and mastering boss fights can seem to ruin the joke. The stereotypical RPG shop doesn't know where its stock comes from or what in God's name its scarred, near-suicidal customers are really up to. By doing the dungeon runs yourself, and especially by getting the keep the loot rather than the adventurer trying to sell it to you, the fiction and the gag become a little flimsy.

Ultimately, though, it makes sense. Buy/sell by itself would have quickly become tiresome, and ensured Recettear wouldn't constitute much more than a mini-game. It's the RPG element, slightly thin and not entirely serious as it may be, which justifies both the game's size and its price. With around a half-dozen distinct heroes - some of which are semi-secret - and a fat hierarchy of loot and abilities, running the dungeons gradually turns from a slightly confused chore into a diverse pleasure unto itself. From rote, inauspicious slime-ball and kobold beginnings, the enemies evolve into clever, thoughtful creations that each require slightly different tactics to best.

The bean-shaped rabbity things that must be backed into a corner before you can attack them, the tendril-waving horrors that absorb your health if they get in range, the flying eyeballs that spam Mysteron-like doom-circles at you, the God-so-annoying flying pumpkins... The bosses shine marvellously too - I'll resist the urge to spoil them, but again it's about Recettear being quietly surprising for all the simplicity of its core mechanics.

It's clearly a game that its developers enjoyed making. Don't expect something super-slick, as rigid controls (play with a gamepad if possible) and an erring towards the unfair means it can frustrate, but the evident enthusiasm and desire to entertain more than compensates. The great perversity of Recettear is that the pull to go beat up some monsters gradually outgrows the cheesy thrill of shop management.

Throw in the creation of uber-items - both for profit and to equip your hired dungeon-runners with - and it's almost fully into Proper RPG territory. It suits the game entirely, and elevates it from good-natured gag to something that's better than half of the RPGs it's affectionately lampooning.

Surprisingly, given the satirical nature of both the concept and the dialogue, Recettear can get pretty brutal. The debts to pay off every in-game week (which take an hour or two to complete) become immense, and seems quickly damned near impossible unless you're the type to write lengthy FAQs and tell everyone else that they're useless noobs and it was too easy anyway and you're so alone, God so alone.

The mistake I made, and one of the reasons this WIT didn't hit ahead of Recettear's release date, was in thinking that failure means game over, take it from the top. So I reloaded and replayed loads, desperately selling everything I had for crazy, knock-down prices in the vain hope of somehow raising 200,000 gold before day 29. By Christ, I got angry.

Then I realised that the game loops. Fail to pay off the debt and you'll be bumped back to the start of the whole process- but with your Merchant level (which affects what you can buy, create and modify, essentially), shop upgrades and much of your inventory intact, as well as the first of the available heroes retaining his level and gear. This means you start off with a massive advantage, and the fun of the fantasy comes back, rather than being chased away by the stressful deadlines.

That's what I wanted from Recettear - to enjoy the silliness and to explore its surprising depths, not to have the axe hanging over me. But for those who do thrive under ultra-pressure, beating the game first time around is entirely possible. I suspect more so once you've been through the campaign at least once and learned some of the less-documented finer points, or have already spent time on forums learning some of the more oblique tricks.

A trawl through the Steam forums dug up a ton of nuances I wasn't aware of during my early forays - it is, after all, in the Final Fantasy vein in that respect. Secrets and tricks and mega-stuff abound, while the really high-end abilities, items and upgrades are unlikely to crop up until you've either looped a couple of times or beaten the campaign (i.e. paid off the debt) and moved into the sandbox profiteering that follows.

So it's the hugeness and complexity that sings - but not quite so much the dialogue, which surprised me. I was tickled and impressed by the cheerful chatter of the demo, but it gets pretty flabby over the 15-odd hours of the full game. Which isn't the fault of the translators, but of the game itself - it's too heavy with time-wasting cutscenes and incidental vignettes which, once the pressure's on, simply steal focus and irritate. Some of the characters and lines really shine - explaining the concept of commercialism to a baffled robo-woman, for instance - but there's a lot of filler conversation, repetition and over-stretched humour that's very hard to avoid skipping. Which, again, moves Recettear surprisingly far into the J-RPG conventions it's spoofing. Not that that's a reason to avoid playing it, but it's most certainly a game that stands prouder in deeds than words.

Recettear, essentially, is not what I thought it would be. I thought it was this slim, charming gag, but in fact it's one of the most unusual and ingenious games I've played this year. It's a shoe-in to be revisited regularly, mined for new challenges, new items and the heroes I've yet to use. It's splendid, it's compulsive and it's far more than the sum of its simple parts. I'll eat my Warrior's Helm +2 if I'm not jabbering wildly on about it in whatever we do for our Games Of The Year stuff come December. Capitalism, ho!

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