Whether it's the demonic menagerie of Shin Megami Tensei, the lovable pocketable monsters of Pokémon, or the goofy ghosts of Yo-Kai Watch, creature-collecting games have been a staple of the JRPG genre for years and show no signs of slowing down. One of the latest takes on this trend is Aksys' Moco Moco Friends, a whimsical, child-friendly experience that sees sentient stuffed animals called 'Plushkins' standing in as your furry fighting friends. Absolutely adorable and stuffed full of heart and charm, it's both a great starting point for younger RPG players and an enjoyable outing for anyone up for an arts-and-crafts adventure.
Set in the world of Dreamtopia, where Plushkins and humans co-exist, Moco Moco Friends stars the eponymous Moco, a young Plushkin Master who's just barely (in every sense of the word) graduated from Plushkin Magic School. Kind, bubbly and mildly obsessed with all things edible, she's an unlikely hero, but after returning to her mentor Michiru's tower with cat-staff assistant Neko in tow, she's given quite a task: to make friends with all the world's Plushkins and become the world's greatest Plushkin Master.
Though that seems like a perfect set-up for a world-spanning 'Gotta Catch 'em All' adventure, in terms of gameplay Moco Moco plays out more like a classic dungeon crawler, along the lines of Etrian Odyssey or Conception II. You'll set out from Michiru's tower to various 'dungeons' via the 'Wherevergate', pack of Plushkins in tow, and comb through multilevel collections of top-down rooms and corridors, picking up treasure, battling wild plushy enemies, and finding magic doors to transport you to the next floor. At the end of each area a bigger boss typically awaits, and knocking their stuffing out will let Moco get her hands on whatever object — like a macaroon, waffle, or flower pot, in keeping with the Lisa Frank vibe — she's searching for before beaming back to town.
There are resources to gather along the way (cotton fluff and buttons, of course!), and plenty of supplemental activities to spend time on between dungeon runs, like stitching together new Plushkins from special thread, growing cloth from seeds in a garden, and crafting new items in the sewing shop. All together it's a singularly sweet take on a tried and true formula, and the short dungeons and accessible difficulty level actually make Moco Moco a wonderful entry point into this enjoyable but often rather daunting genre.
That same ease of accessibility carries over into the turn-based combat system as well, which is easily one of Moco Moco's highlights. Each time you run into an angry Plushkin in a dungeon the camera will switch to a Dragon Quest-style first-person view as your three-Plushkin team squares off against up to three enemies. Battle commands for each of your party members are issued in sequence via the D-Pad (shown on the touchscreen) in a wonderfully streamlined contextual setup: starting out with a four-way choice between 'Fight' (Up), 'Item' (Right), 'Auto' (Down), and 'Sort' (Left), you'll pick options in branching paths from there. Choose 'Fight', for instance, and you'll then be able to select from up to four different moves, each mapped to a direction, and then pick a target, using Left, Up, or Right on the D-Pad according to the enemy's position in line. It's a fantastic, instantly intelligible system, and something we'd be happy to see picked up in more RPGs; we loved being able to fight full battles with a cup of tea in hand, or quickly dial in different attack plans through muscle memory.
In addition to standard attacks, your Plushkins have access to elemental magic, healing and buffs/debuffs, which take a certain amount of Magic Power each. But rather than each move pulling points from a pool of MP, your whole team will draw on Moco's four-point magic meter at the top right of the screen. Moco's meter refills every turn, similarly to the Boost bar in Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light, and when a 'Fever' gauge fills up she'll enter 'Moco Fever' and enjoy unlimited Magic Power for a single over-powered turn. It's a nice simple system that's easy to understand and, along with other features — like the D-Pad controls, a smart auto-battle option, and full EXP gains for your benched fourth Plushkin — helps keep everything accessible for younger players.
If Moco's gameplay is reminiscent of dungeon crawlers, and its battle system sits firmly in the Pocket Monsters mold, its monster recruiting takes a page straight out of the Yo-Kai Watch playbook. As in Level-5's latest, there's no way to come out and 'capture' a Plushkin; rather, from time to time after you best one in battle they'll come up to you and ask if you'd like to form a contract with them. If you accept, it will bounce on over to the Plushkin House in town, where it will be ready to join your party whenever you like. Though you can give Plushkins 'heart items' during battle to increase the chance they'll ask to tag along, as in Yo-Kai Watch, there's no fool-proof way to make friends, which can be frustrating when you see a Plushkin you'd really like to raise. Luckily, most monsters are relatively plentiful within the dungeons they appear in, and among the hundred-plus plushies their designs are almost all appealing — we had fun stitching together our squad from the Plushkins who approached us, and generally managed to form contracts with most monsters in a given area after a few runs.
While the Plushkins you'll encounter vary in terms of stats, strengths, elements, and attacks, a huge part of the fun of collecting them comes from how cute they are, and players looking for overall adorability will not be disappointed here. Cuteness overflows into the entirety of Moco Moco Friends' presentation; this is a lovely looking game that makes the most of its arts-and-crafts aesthetic, with Yoshi's Woolly World-style fabric menus, cloth curtains that drop down to signal the start of a battle, and — in a particularly nice touch — stuffing visibly popping out of Plushkins when they take damage in battle. The 3D models look great, and the animations are smooth and full of cuddly charm. Our only complaints are that the stereoscopic effect serves mainly to differentiate foregrounded text and character portraits from the polygons in the background, rather than adding any depth to the world itself, and that the text alignment looks a bit off — you can definitely tell that Japanese was Moco Moco's first language.
That carries through in the audio department as well, where the original Japanese audio track is fully intact. The voice acting is modern moe and hyper-saccharine; whether that will have you reaching for headphones or slamming down the volume slider is up to personal preference, but the production quality is high and everything sounds well done in context. Another prominent feature of Moco Moco's dialogue is the translation — it's decent, but feels a bit manic, and very reminiscent of B-tier anime subtitles; the script throws in words like 'tsundere' without explanation, which seems like an odd choice for its younger target audience, and delivers a sort of unintentional surrealist charm with its totally grammatical but not-quite-right sentence structures. Still, it's so relentlessly positive that we couldn't help but love it, and we suspect kids will appreciate the optimism as well.
Relatedly, it's worth noting that Moco Moco is a very, very chatty game. Moco, Neko, Michiru, and the rest of the gang can talk in shockingly thorough circles around the tiniest mission detail, and the running joke that Moco needs things explained several times is driven home in a maddeningly meta fashion. This is one point that has the potential to grate on older players in particular, so if you're not one to 'Hey, listen!', be prepared to mash the 'A' button quite constantly.
The soundtrack matches the vocals in its sugar-coated salvo of cheery tunes and sproingy sound effects, and it fits the theme perfectly; theme-park theme songs, jaunty jingles, and merry melodies all contribute to the overarching feeling of lighthearted fun.
Moco Moco Friends is a sweet, snappy, and engaging game that does what few of its ilk manage to: craft a genuinely high-quality experience that's tailor-made for younger players. That's not to say that Moco's friendly atmosphere and accessible gameplay are just for kids, of course; while its low difficulty level and boundless verbosity will put off some players, the young at heart, JRPG junkies, and anyone pulled in by the idea of a needlecraft-themed dungeon crawler will find a ton of fun stuffed into Moco Moco's pastel package.