Hokko Life review

With games such as Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley both being classic life sims, it will be difficult for current and future developers to hold a torch to their legacies. Hokko Life gives it a good try, clearly drawing strong influence from both.

We fall asleep on a train and alight at an unmanned station currently disabled for outbound journeys. We wander to the village where we impose ourselves on the local humanoid elephant innkeeper. They offer us a permanent room with little to no questions asked, and we are unceremoniously shoved off to bed to begin the next day of our new life. 

The following day, we built our own home by upgrading one of the derelict sheds in the meadow, and thus we are now interred fully as a resident of Hokko. Obviously blown away by our ability to hold tools with hands that have opposable thumbs, the other villagers waste no time setting us to work in building new homes so more residents can move in. Two days into my new life and already the village gofer. 

The local real estate pig (that’s not a dig – she really is a pig) moves into Hokko, where you’ll be able to pick from a small selection of housing styles, all requiring their own resources and a small sum of money to build new homes. Gather the resources, pay the fees, and direct her to the spot where you want the new home. A couple of days later the construction is complete, the resident moves in, and the town grows with more friends. Hurrah. 

The villagers want things too, whether it’s for you to drop off an item to someone, find them an item or for something to be crafted. Their requests become almost non-stop. After all the work I was doing for them, I was still nearly penniless, with no storage and rapidly diminishing backpack space, sleeping on a sleeping bag in the corner of my one room house pouring every bit of cash I had into building new homes for everyone else. I had nothing more than a chair and two houseplants.

When my neighbour asked me to make him a cupboard to store his things in, I may have suffered a psychological break. When he asked me to place it in his house for him, “Because, you know…” went a little bit ballistic. I don’t know Benny. I truly don’t. What is preventing everyone from deciding where their furniture goes inside their own homes?  Is it because you’re all, as I suspect, secretly old people with bad backs? (No.) Is it because you are animals and don’t have the right anatomy for interior design? (Maybe a little.) Or is it because you’re all slave driving ********? (I got nothing.) Please explain. I went into his house after I had told him I’d placed it for him, stole it back, and put it in my own. Then I went back for his bed and TV. Since there is an element of interior design, I felt Benny suited a significantly more minimalist home. 

I think this is one of the first areas that Hokko Life doesn’t manage to elicit the charm and coziness of games like Animal Crossing well, despite its obvious influence; not because you can walk into anyone’s house and take anything you want, but because there is a distinct lack of community feel. Rather than feeling like a member of the community, it almost feels like there’s an unintended subplot by which the villagers of Hokko couldn’t wait for some able-bodied person to wander into their midst, that they could run into the ground. 

The largest thing that breaks this community cohesion is probably the villagers themselves. They don’t interact or acknowledge you in the world, and even if you invite one or all of them to follow you around for a while (still haven’t quite figured out why this is an option) they don’t care about anything you do. Catch a fish? Great – they weren’t even looking. Caught a bug? Sorry, they’re busy staring down that guy over there. It just makes the world feel empty no matter how many critters you stuff it with. Like you barely exist for any reason other than running their errands.

Nothing you do matters except for serving their needs and wants, and even then, there doesn’t seem to be any penalty for not fulfilling them. It’s too difficult to imagine that this is on purpose. As mentioned above, it feels like there is an underlining but completely unintentional story that just wants to use you as a redevelopment slave. No one cares where you’re from, no one has asked me when my birthday is. No one cares about anything. 

The closest comparison to Hokko Life would be Animal Crossing, and it would almost feel unfair to do so given the tenure of Nintendo’s long-established franchise, but it’s clearly supposed to be this way. There have been more than two decades to polish and refine a game about animal towns, but Hokko Life isn’t there yet. It oversimplifies in small degrees while overcomplicating in others. It’s as though developers Wonderscope took the shell of Animal Crossing and what makes it unique and then tweaked it to a degree so it was just different enough to not be called an outright rip-off, which is to be expected to avoid a big bouncy Nintendo lawsuit.

Unfortunately, some of those areas where it tries to stand apart are just passing as half-hearted. It has frequently crossed my mind that if you’re going to go this far and draw so much influence to such a degree, why not just go all in? Don’t muck about so much with trying to make mountains out of your molehills and go with what you know works. 

There is a big emphasis on crafting and designing. Where Animal Crossing: New Horizons has both (which it does it well,) there is still a big focus on hoarding tonnes of money to buy new decorations and town development upgrades, but Hokko Life encourages you to create them yourself. There are two types of crafting: from a blueprint or from scratch using shapes. I hope it works better on PC, because it’s a bit of a horror show to implement your own designs with a controller. It quickly started off as one of my least favourite aspects of the game and began to stress me out any time a villager asked me to repair or build them a customised piece of furniture, but I found ways to learn to enjoy it. One such example was a table, which should be unbelievably simple – four legs and a flat surface. The controls made it so difficult to place the surface on the legs correctly. In the end, I built it upside down with the surface on the bottom and the legs sticking up in the air. The villager loved it because he was programmed to, but I didn’t feel particularly proud of my creation. I’ve half a mind to go into his house and steal it back and destroy it, actually.

With enough time and fiddling about in the clunky build UI, you are able to craft something passably functional and familiar, and you can upload them for other players to download. There are also public in-game events encouraging you to submit designs toward a theme. I’ll probably spare the community my abominations, but I have managed to spruce up my own home with some user-created content. And since Hokko Life is cross-platform, I can almost guarantee most of this content will have been made by PC users.

There is a small redeeming factor in that once you buy the other crafting design materials and shapes, you can build some weird things. If you want a chair with a human head and arms sticking out of it, I’m your gal. This is an area that could work in its favour overall if they go down a similar route to the Nintendo Mii competitions. 

It became difficult to stay invested before the first season was even finished. Things both simultaneously began to feel rushed but also too slow. Little things started to annoy me. The villagers want things all the time, and you’re constantly trying to manage resources and feeling like you’re making no real progress in other areas. There’s also a matter of progress being locked behind Mayor Merits, even though you’re not really the mayor – because there was no ceremony and no one gives you a lovely hat or chain to wear. Mayorship is just thrust upon you. Merits are awarded for performing several certain tasks, and they unlock things that make life easier or more efficient.

It’s not always clear that Merits are needed before you can do certain things, so I had to look them up online. The fisherman bear tells you it’s better to bait your hook with worms to catch improved fish, but you’re not told you need the Merit to use bait. Even though the issue of the bait is solved relatively early, this is an ongoing issue for the rest of the game. A vague silhouette suggests what the Merit unlocks, but you can’t be sure until you’ve finished the tasks that unlock it. So, you could be running around for a day or two just waving at people or digging holes and other menial tasks just in the hope it pushes you forward somehow. And some of the tasks seem ridiculously slow-paced in comparison to others.

One such Merit requires you to participate in 10 fishing tournaments, and with one tournament a season/month, it equates to playing two and a half years in-game before completing it. At the rate I’m currently playing of around 15 hours per season (!!), if I am understanding what the Merit system wants from me correctly, this works out to 150 hours of gameplay just to unlock…magnet bait. This feels so incredibly unreasonable since fishing is easy. But the next unlock after that requires participating in 20 weekly fishing challenges, and those are currently broken in-game. Derris, the fisherman bear challenges you to catch a certain number/types of fish within a time limit, but the timers and counters currently don’t work properly. So, what now? 

And “So what?” pretty much sums up my overall experience with Hokko Life so far. I’m barely two seasons in after more than 20 hours. There is little to keep me interested at this point. The weather doesn’t seem to change, it rained once on the first day of summer and not a drop since which left me crying for a watering can upgrade much sooner than is available, especially once the food requests begin.

The music is repetitive and doesn’t change with the times of day or the season and it wears thin enough to have to turn the sound off. The seasons don’t seem to influence the appearance of the town so the only variation you can expect to enjoy will come from placing your own things down to look at and admire. Archaeology seems to have been missed off the Merit system entirely as you can find geodes, but there’s apparently no way to smash them open – unless it requires your own workbench, but as this is one of the last Merits to unlock. It’s a mystery.  

There is still work to be done in Hokko, but not by me. The only times I started to get into Hokko Life were when I wasn’t playing it as likely intended and even then, there’s no real draw to go back to it. It’s not like anything will be different in the game tomorrow than it was today. The potential is there, but it either must double down on making it as much like Animal Crossing as it can get away with while also polishing those areas like crafting and archaeology, or stick with what it is, and develop those areas that they’re trying to make it stand apart more.

The characters are somewhat unlikeable in all honesty, and not very endearing. Just the way the game begins in such a vague manner, not even the playable character themself seems to know or care why they’re there, and that makes the task of renovating some town for a bunch of animals just a little bit pointless. 

It’s just bland. It lacks meat and gravy. And that sets the tone for the whole game, why exactly are we doing all of this? What reason do we have to care? My own imagination took over making up storylines, and the one I’m currently running with is that your character mistakenly gets off the train at a town that the train doesn’t usually stop at, for people who have been turned into animals. All the residents are victims of a curse that they don’t want lifted, and they just want to live together in a harmonious commune. Developers: if you use this idea, please contact me. 

Right now, this is a below-par experience. But there is potential for redemption. Believe me, it hurts me to write this as much as it would probably upset me to be the developer reading it. The very small indie team in Sweden, Wonderscope, has clearly already put a lot of work in and I am a huge champion for indie developers. Yet I feel this could have gone another development iteration round or two before being pushed for release, and I would hate for a game with this much potential to be measured for review at the current version it’s at now. It just doesn’t feel fair at this point given the measuring stick it has chosen to rival.

Having said that, at the same time, I don’t think gamers, or any consumer, should have to buy something in a state that doesn’t work as intended on the promise that it could get better later. This is what Game Previews or Early Access is for – so you can simultaneously pay for development as people buy to play test it for you; so that you can add things like musical variety, and a weather system that works properly by the time the game is ready for its full release. Maybe a future patch will resolve some of the issues while redefining what brings you to Hokko.  

Published by Team17, Hokko Life is available both digitally and at retail on PS4, Xbox One, and Switch.

SCORE
4