First Impressions: Tomodachi Life

Life is what you make it

Since the surprise announcement that Tomodachi Life is coming to the West on 6th June, gamers have been trying to figure out exactly the game is all about. Given that it's a Nintendo project, comparisons to Animal Crossing have been bandied about, while others have confidently placed the game in the same basket as EA's Sims franchise.

The truth is, while Tomodachi Life has elements which are featured strongly in both of those titles, it is very much its own beast — and is a game that has to be experienced first hand for it to really make any sense. As Nintendo of America's Bill Trinen has already stated, Tomodachi Life isn't really a game at all, nor is it your basic life simulation. It's almost a product which defies accurate description, yet since we've had our hands on it, we've played little else in the Nintendo Life office. Something here obviously works.

The first thing you'll do in the game is load up a Mii which serves as your presence in Tomodachi Life. However, in a neat case of breaking the fourth wall, this character isn't actually you, but an independently functioning clone — it still operates like any other character in the game, and even refers to you as "my lookalike" when addressing you. You're essentially an omnipotent overseer, and aside from your doppelganger have no physical representation within the game itself.

You can import characters into the game from your Mii Maker, but you'll need to fill in additional data fields to make them a full Tomodachi Life resident. You need to decide how swift their actions are, how direct they might be when talking to others, and so on. You also need to give them a voice by either selecting from some preset options or tinkering with elements such as tone, pitch and accent. We're playing the European version of the game in English, which means that all characters speak with British accents, but other language options are available and the North American edition will feature American accents. The voices are intentionally robotic, and can make the most innocent of sentences sound side-splittingly funny.

Created characters swiftly move into the game and start to make demands. These are fairly basic to begin with — the desire to eat or play mini-games for entertainment — but they quickly escalate to new clothing, taking a bath and companionship. Relationships quickly develop between each of the Miis, with many buddying-up for late-night chats; the game does follow the day/night cycle along with the real-world time, but isn't prohibitive in terms of accessing all that the island offers. Male and female characters can potentially take this to another level by becoming a couple and eventually having children, although there is the option to switch off procreation if you so wish. On a side note, it's possible to specify your clone's relationship with other characters — for example, should you add a family member of the opposite sex to the game, you can make sure no illicit relations occur by clearly marking them as such.

The ultimate goal of Tomodachi Life is to ensure that your Miis are as happy as possible. Giving them food they like, playing with them and exchanging gifts fills up their level bar, and when they progress to a new level you can give them a special item, a new room design, a catchphrase to utter, a song to sing or just some spending money. These rewards — combined with the money you gain from each successful encounter — are your incentive to keep your Miis contented, but you're by no means obligated to do so; sometimes, it's just as much fun to watch them suffer. Fights can break out between certain characters and these will persist until you step in and smooth things over, and characters which are left hungry and alone in unfurnished apartments can often be seen sat on the floor, staring absently-mindedly into space. If you get a kick out of being cruel to virtual people, then Tomodachi Life has you covered.

The more Miis you have the more potential cash there is to earn through pandering to their needs and desires, and thankfully adding new characters is a breeze. Other Tomodachi Life players can send you their Mii either via a local wireless connection or a special QR code, but it's possible to use a standard Mii QR code — generated by a Wii, Wii U or 3DS — to populate your island paradise. You can also import any Mii you've previously met via StreetPass by copying them across to the 3DS Mii Maker from StreetPass Plaza. The bottom line is that it's very easy to add in new people, even if you don't want to invest the time in creating them within the game itself.

The island is dotted with different shops and locations which are opened as you fulfil certain criteria, such as a attaining a set number of inhabitants or solving a particular number of problems. You'll find that most of these are relatively easy to unlock, while others take a little more effort. Access to the entire island can be gained in a short space of time, but certain locations offer more content over time — for example, the various stores are periodically restocked with new items for you to purchase.

As you'll no doubt have noticed from the Tomodachi Life Nintendo Direct, a large part of the game's appeal is its offbeat humour. The dialogue in the game is fantastic, laced with stand-out one-liners and plenty of comments which are sure to raise a smile. There are various moments where the game charges headlong into totally bizarre territory — for example, it's possible to peek into the dreams of your slumbering Miis and the results often border on the downright disturbing. Characters will picture themselves as anything from a dangling skeleton key ring to a troubled soul permanently tormented by ninjas. Discovering all of the various dreams is naturally part of the challenge, and the variety on show is mind-boggling — but then this is from the same developers who cooked up the WarioWare franchise, so we probably shouldn't be all that surprised.

However, while the game provides plenty of incentive to have a good chuckle, a lot of the humour comes from the characters you've created yourself. The fact that it's your friends and family which are engaging in these often ridiculous pursuits adds a whole new layer of amusement, and placing these familiar individuals in the same environment as custom-made Miis for famous pop stars, actors or historical names only amplifies this. As a result, it's not too much of an exaggeration to say that every player's experience with Tomodachi Life will be wholly unique to them; so much of the game's allure is tied to the people you put into it, how you interact with those people and how you view them in the real world. Seeing a grumpy family member play on the Wii U with Reggie or witnessing love blossom between two friends who in reality don't care very much for one another lends the game an entirely new dimension.

Nintendo is keenly aware that social connectivity played a massive role in the success of Animal Crossing: New Leaf and has wisely incorporated the same screenshot tool into Tomodachi Life. Pressing X or Y will snap the top and bottom screens respectively, and you can quickly share these images to Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr by tapping the Nintendo 3DS Image Share option on the island menu. It's not as streamlined a process as we'd like — you're dumped into the 3DS web browser in order to post the image — but it is sure to be a popular way of sharing your progress with friends and other players. In fact, it could well be the vital ingredient which transforms the game into a social media phenomenon, just like stable mate Animal Crossing.

In fact, from what we've seen, Tomodachi Life has the potential to eclipse even New Leaf when it comes to ensnaring a mainstream audience. New Leaf was accessible but could also be quite obtuse, with lots of hidden items, secrets and time-specific content that was seen by only the truly dedicated. It required a massive investment of time on behalf of the player — not a bad thing, naturally — but Tomodachi Life doesn't make the same demands. It is a game which can be picked up in short bursts, or can be allowed to happily swallow hours of your time almost without you being aware of it. It may not be the hardcore experience seasoned Nintendo fans are holding out for and there will be more than a few veteran gamers shaking their heads in dismay at such casual-focused software, but when a game is as charming, amusing and downright addictive as this, it's genuinely difficult to come away without a broad, Cheshire Cat-style grin across your face.