There are very few game developers who I would describe as an auteur, but Japanese director Hidetaka Suehiro (AKA Swery65) is absolutely one of them. Like Hideo Kojima or Suda51, Swery is a director whose games break the traditional mould, folding countless hyper-personal ideas and references and artistic traits into his titles that separate them from pretty much everything else on the market.
Swery65 games are messy and clunky, yet personal and endlessly charming. Cult hits of his like Deadly Premonition and The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories are perfect examples of this – games full of charm and potent storytelling at the cost of clunky visuals and frustrating gameplay that, honestly, just add to the charm even more. The Good Life is very different from both of those games on paper, but at the end of the day it’s another flawed and endearing Swery65 gem.
Actually, even on paper, The Good Life shares a lot of DNA with Deadly Premonition. Crowdfunded as the debut title from newly formed independent studio White Owls, The Good Life is another Swery65 game about a small town haunted by dark secrets and a mysterious murder, and a bizarre protagonist sent there to investigate what’s going on. While the Twin Peaks-inspired adventure of Deadly Premonition took itself seriously and created an absurdly delightful experience you’d laugh at, The Good Life is in on the joke from the first minute – it’s a sillier, more light-hearted game that you’re meant to laugh with. And I laughed my ass off, but it was definitely a situation where I laughed with and at the game.
It’s easy to laugh along with the game, thanks to the colourful dialogue and refreshingly ridiculous protagonist. Naomi Hayward is a crude photo-journalist with a one-track mind and a mountain of debt – she’s the kind of character to do exactly what someone warns her not to do, but also the type to excitedly ditch her current mission when a witch in the woods offers to make her a potion that’ll get Naomi high as a kite. She’s a lovable idiot, and the rest of the town is full of equally lovable weirdos. There’s dozens of them, in fact, who you’ll meet, photograph and get quests from ad nauseam during your time in the cheery English town of Rainy Woods.
The Good Life is stuffed with a boatload of game mechanics, but the most satisfying is the one that the entire premise is built around: photography. As you wander around the modestly sized open-world environment of Rainy Woods, you’ll get missions from townsfolk and your editor at The Morning Bell to photograph various things around town. You’ve also got access to a photo-sharing app that lets you track daily trendy hashtags, hunt down things in Rainy Woods to snap pics of that match said hashtags, and then upload the trending photos to rake in likes that cleanly convert to cash in your pocket. The macro-management of quest objectives and the micro-management of daily bonus hashtag hunts create a fun loop that constantly gives you different reasons to explore the town and really get to know not just the layout of the area, but the Animal Crossing-style day-and-night routines of everyone in town.
The potential monotony of endless photo tasks is broken up by plenty of other tasks and challenges, but they’re all equally monotonous in their own right. You’ll be managing your hunger meter or tackling fetch quests or growing crops, but you’ll also be engaging in even wilder activities thanks to the use of a vaguely-explained ability to transform into a dog or cat at will. There’s clunky combat, cave exploration, building climbing, and just about a million other ideas that, while adding to the variety of adventures and experiences, stray far from becoming a consistent gameplay experience. At times, it’s even a slog. Your default movement speed is slow, rare combat encounters are a bore, and the dialogue and items available to you in the game world change depending on which quest you have active, causing you to have to constantly shift your active quest around in order to try and trigger new developments.
Still, if you’re here for the wacky writing and bonkers plot developments that come with a Swery65 game, it’s worth suffering through some clunky and repetitive gameplay to get to all of that. The story goes through a mountain of twists and turns that’ll leave your head spinning, and the hyper-exaggerated cartoon art style only helps emphasize how absolutely nuts the story and world are. The Good Life is everything you’d expect, and while it’s not as downright broken and unpolished as Deadly Premonition, it carries that janky passionate charm that makes even the lowest points of the journey worth it for the wild, wild highs.