White Owls Inc. really buried the lede in their Kickstarter description of The Good Life. We’ll do the same here and see if you can spot it: The Good Life is a “daily-life debt repayment RPG” in which you play as an American woman in a pastoral English village, enjoying day-to-day activities such as taking photographs, running errands, shopping, chatting to villagers, paying off debt, remarking on the weather, going to the pub, and urinating on lampposts when you turn into a dog to solve mysteries.
Anyone catch it? It was the last bit, about transmutational criminology.
The Good Life was Kickstarted in 2018, fronted by some impressive CVs: apart from director Hidetaka “SWERY” Suehiro's Deadly Premonition games, his team members have worked on Panzer Dragoon, Rez, Hatsune Miku Project DIVA, Final Fantasy XII and lots more. Reaching 135% of its funding goal, it has ridden onto Switch on a wave of quantifiably impressive fan support. And all that cash has gone to produce something big. The scenario places Naomi Hayward, New York photojournalist, in a sprawling open-world patchwork of English countryside. Centred on a small village of stone-built houses, it covers rolling fields with drystone walls, farmland, stately homes, and assorted middle-of-nowhere places of interest, to be explored with Naomi as human, cat or dog, with associated balances of stamina, speed, acrobatics and special skills.
Although the fascination with Britain is clearly authentic, the recreation of it is more whimsical. The wacky story starts by pondering the whereabouts of Dick Whittington’s cat, veers off in the direction of Excalibur, and at some point along the way misplaces the decimal point in the pounds sterling debt that is supposed to justify Naomi’s involvement in the whole affair. £30,000? £30,000,000? Who’s counting?
Along for the ride are a loopy brigade of loudmouth acquaintances, a supermarket-brand compendium of Classic Accents of the British Isles, and a Brit-load of UK references from “to see you nice!” to “soggy bottoms”.
There are two main aspects, on playing The Good Life, that show real potential. The first is its strangely retro feel. In some ways, it’s simply old-fashioned: animations are janky and deployed unquestioningly in cutscenes, the cinematic context highlighting the inadequacies we overlook more readily when we’re in player mode; Naomi or her feline/canine counterparts will charge obliviously into walls and keep running slipperily, as was once the norm. But with all the style and quirk on top – especially the deliberately big-polygon art and the well crafted but repetitive music – it feels like a hidden Japan-only gem of the PS2 era, discovered in a bargain bin on a holiday to Tokyo. Sure sounds like a SWERY game, then.
It’s also retro in its take on open-world gameplay. For example, at one point in the game, you hear a strange sound and are instructed to follow your ears. Navigating by audio cues isn’t exactly a new idea, but that doesn’t even happen. The source of the sound simply becomes yet another dot on your mini map, inviting you to shut out the 3D game world completely and look at your little petri dish version in the screen corner – the opposite of the attentiveness the situation seems to ask for. This is pure open-world-as-genre thinking: the same rudimentary mechanics that made GTA 3 function 20 years ago.
The second aspect that shows some potential follows from that point: there are new opportunities in how dissimilar this is to the GTA series. Set in a rural English village, there is a quiet daily routine, rather than a city that never sleeps, a few local residents versus a metropolis of strangers, and of course no cars and no guns.
And that’s where things get interesting. Having fewer people populating the game world means more of them can be real characters. Most people you meet have routines, jobs, homes to go to, relationships with other villagers and basic character arcs you can join them on in side quests. Oh— and they turn into cats and dogs. (Turns out it actually is easy to forget that!) The rural setting justifies the very small population, which allows the people to be more real and makes the world more meaningful. When you put it like that, a city is a crazy idea for an open-world game – and yet this game’s approach is the exception.
Adding to the feeling of a meaningful world is the range of options for you to interact with it. Instead of Object Type A that you can steal and Object Type B that you can kill, The Good Life invites you to have conversations with substantial characters, photograph your surroundings and share your pictures online (in-game), run and jump and skip around the world, forage, craft, cook, decorate your home, dress up, and all the while solve the bizarre mysteries of Rainy Woods. You’re participating in a rural British community and appreciating England’s rolling hills around you.
And boy did they hit the Britishness out of the park on this one. The cricket park, obviously. We have Scotch eggs, John Peel, Downton Abbey, “bloody” this, “bleedin’” that, Marmite, Stonehenge and sautéed hedgehog for breakfast. (Country folk eat sautéed hedgehog for breakfast, right?) And you use the real money of the United Kingdom: grab a pair of running shoes for 90p, refuel with a pub-counter cottage pie for £25, then, for the run home, pick up some stomach medicine for £90. Yep, the economy's all over the place. Ah, Blighty…
As all these elements come together, there are some unfortunate collisions. Those retro gameplay ideas manifest as fetch quests galore. Naomi herself comments, “Ugh… this is really starting to feel like an old, decrepit RPG now…”. Pleading guilty may reduce the sentence but doesn’t lessen the crime. You will need a very high tolerance for walking back and forth. Despite the potential masterstroke of limiting the world to fewer characters and having them all more fully realised, there do remain some wobbly mannequin types who just recite ad nauseam a couple of lines about varieties of mushrooms or whatever.
Performance, which players of previous SWERY Switch titles will certainly be scanning this review for, is not great. It’s no Deadly Premonition 2, but there are frequent frame rate drops, some low-res rendering, and recurrent pop-in as you run the fields. These usually hit in specific areas or in certain weather conditions. It’s entirely bearable if you’re not a stickler for fluid motion at all times, but it reminds us again of that Tokyo PS2 bargain bin.
The Good Life knows where its strengths lie. Its functional open-world model and mostly-dated gameplay systems sit quietly in the background and allow its quirky charm to take the spotlight. That charm is piled on thick, with absurd characters (and absurd accents), a plot that digresses so wildly it seems unable to remember where it started and, lest we forget, the whole dog/cat transmogrification thing. The charm and atmosphere have to be seriously compelling if they are to excuse the well-worn mechanics, repetitive tasks and frequent slowdown and pop-in. If Japanese old-school gaming whimsy × twee Englishness isn't for you, then neither is The Good Life. But if you're a SWERY fan and that sounds like your cup of tea, get dunking.