I’ve been writing about games for a few years now. It’s never been a full-time job or anything – the opportunity has come up, but read the comments section on any gaming site and you’ll realize what a mistake it would be to serve gamers for a living – but it’s been a nice distraction. One of the first indie games I reviewed was Chantelise: A Tale of Two Sisters, which I enjoyed and eventually led me to check out another of that team’s projects called Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale.
Recettear was unusual for its time; it was an RPG about running a shop in a fantasy world, hoping to earn enough money to pay off some immense debts. You had to balance the day-to-day business of your shop with going out spelunking for wares to sell. At the time there wasn’t really anything else like it, and it made a pretty big splash in the less-crowded indie market of the day. Even today I’d call it one of the most-play indie titles that every gamer owes it to themselves to try out.
Now, as I’ve said in the past, proponents of indie game development like to point to the innovation propagated by developers who aren’t beholden to a traditional publishing model. This is…uh, what’s the word…bupkiss? Indie developers are just as likely to take a concept and run it into the ground as any AAA house, as we’ve seen with the endless iterations on Minecraft and DayZ that have flooded Steam for some five-odd years now. Innovation for innovation’s sake isn’t necessarily a good thing, though, and sometimes even a game that takes some obvious…”inspiration” from another title can still put up a decent showing. That’s the case with AL-FINE, a shop simulator that boasts some striking similarities to Recettear.
Now, I know we’re supposed to look at every game as its own self-contained product, but really: you play Louis, who ends up in the merchanting business when he ends up in debt to a fairy, which…uh, is pretty much the plot of Recettear. With the help of Allie the fairy (er, “sprite”), the usual childhood friend slash romantic interest and some other characters, Louis needs to work on becoming the next great merchant in the vein of Rockefeller, Morgan or Gabe Newell. It’s a happy and fluffy tale that’s all about how friendship can overcome even the most dire obstacles and so on; not necessarily new, but it’s very cute.
Shopkeeping in Al-FINE is simpler than what we saw in Recettear, but it feels a bit cleaner as a result. You control stock, pricing and decorations as you’d like, each of which has some effect on how customers view your shop and what they’ll buy. I’ve seen some reviews complain about RNG-focused sales mechanics that didn’t feel like you had a lot of control over how much you sell, but that didn’t seem to be the case for me; in fact, I found the game to be a little easier in general. I generally appreciated the simpler mechanics on offer here, especially since the game seems more story-focused; it’s a visual novel with some shopkeeping elements rather than a game about running a shop. There are “boss battles” every so often featuring a “fight” against a rival shop as you compete for profits, which is a nice touch.
While I found myself enjoying Al-FINE’s shop management options, the game is hurt by the near-complete removal of dungeon crawling. Rather than going along with adventurers to seek out loot that you could later sell in your shop, here you essentially assign quests to adventurers and wait until they come back. It’s also a fairly easy game on both fronts, rarely requiring you to do much fiddling with prices or inventory; this is a stark contrast with Recettear, which was bound to brutally smack you down and force you to restart until you got the hang of things.
The game’s presentation consists of the typical adorable anime-style aesthetic we’ve come to expect from this sort of thing; it’s cute and palatable, and the game as a whole is probably decent for younger players. I’ve seen reports of some bugs here and there, but I didn’t encounter any of these during my time with the game, which runs for about nine hours. One complaint would be the game’s music, which doesn’t offer a lot of variety and is likely to grate at you before too long; you might want to queue up some podcasts or music of your own to make up for this.
Honestly, the biggest flaw of Al-FINE isn’t even a “flaw” so much as the fact that it’s trying to compete with one of the classics of indie games. It’s like a pixel-art Metroidvania hoping to take on Cave Story; that’s just not going to happen, but it doesn’t mean that the up-and-coming newbie isn’t worth playing. With that in mind, if you go into Al-FINE expecting a simpler capitalism sim with more visual novel elements and a greater focus on character interaction and plot, you probably won’t be disappointed. If you were hoping for Recettear 2, though…well, maybe one day, but not today.