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The Good Life review: A messy RPG as unique as it is ridiculous

The Good Life throws you into its offbeat little tale without much preamble.

After a cute storybook introduction, New Yorker photojournalist Naomi Hayward is dropped off in an Untitled Goose Game-caliber sleepy British hamlet called Rainy Woods, the self-proclaimed “happiest town in the world.” Why is it the happiest town in the world? Nobody knows, but that’s what Naomi is there to find out. The place supposedly has an earth-shattering secret that her employers at the Morning Bell want her to uncover—though because she’s drowning in debt it’s less of a request than a mandate.

Regardless, in the game’s first five minutes, an enigmatic woman in an electric wheelchair gives Naomi a house. Not long after, the Bell has her uploading pictures of the town to an Instagram-esque site, Flamingo, to earn “emokes” (likes). Each is worth mere pence on the British pound, a mechanism used to slooowly pay down Naomi’s debt. In the next hour, she learns everyone in the town (except the woman) turns into dogs or cats at night—and that’s it’s not the million GBP scoop she thinks it is.

Finally, she gets her own feline-canine transformation powers, allowing her to sniff out scents as a pup or climb up walls as a kitty. Each of these by-turns-loopier developments are dumped rapidly and unceremoniously into Naomi’s lap, a less-than-ideal method for getting you used to The Good Life‘s goofy concepts. Coupled with some dated design choices, it’s an awkward way to start a game.

Uh, what did I just read?

For players who have never heard of director Swery65 (actually Hidetaka Suehiro, or just Swery to his fans) this combo of narrative lunacy and often endearingly rough-around-the-edges technical presentation is nothing new. A David Lynch megafan, Swery released Deadly Premonition in 2010, an open-ish world survival horror adventure that starts out as an unapologetic homage to Twin Peaks before veering off in its own wonderful and strange directions. Since its release on Xbox 360 and subsequent ports, the game has become a meme-worthy cult classic as much for its unrefined gameplay as its absurd humor and delightfully eccentric Dale Cooper stand-in, Francis York Morgan. (Also like Twin Peaks and Lynch, Deadly Premonition is really good at being deeply unsettling when it wants to be.)

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Swery’s games have since all had equally weird ideas: a canceled-midseason episodic series about a time-traveling detective trying to piece together his wife’s unsolved murder (who also may or may not have a woman who thinks she’s a cat living in his apartment); a college student with the ability to horribly dismember her body to solve normally-deadly puzzle-platformer challenges; a sequel to Deadly Premonition that’s full of (spoiler-y) new happenings in the bayous of Louisiana (with a newly-skateboarding-riding York). Almost all of them have also been unfortunately hampered by performance issues, bugs, and at times clunky implementation.

So it goes with The Good Life, a game that has its fair share of charm, if you can get past the old-school shortcomings of this so-called “debt repayment RPG.” With its bucolic setting and easygoing nature, The Good Life is modeled on life sims like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing. It looks modern-enough mostly, not that you play a game like this for its visuals. But its stiff controls, repetitive in-game dialogue samples (please patch this), and an inefficient cadence that can get gummed up in selection menus in places like shops feel like relics of a game dating from anywhere between 2001 and 2005.

Uneven systems, imaginative ideas

As it is, The Good Life follows in the footsteps of Swery’s penchant for sophisticated systems working under the hood and impressively humming in tandem. To name a few, all of Rainy Woods’ citizens have their own daily routines and schedules they keep to on the game’s day/night cycle. Meanwhile, Naomi can get hungry, fatigued, sick, or otherwise injured, and her charisma can go down if she doesn’t take a shower and practice basic hygiene, which affects the price of goods… and eventually attracts flies.

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All of this upkeep fuss boils down to making money. That means requiring you to upload new pics of objects and people you’ve taken around town to Flamingo in order to refill your wallet with the means to take care of yourself. But aside from the expenses of keeping Naomi fed and healthy, most of these everyday components are largely ignored in the increasingly outlandish adventures she finds herself on through the main thrust of the game.

This is actually where you find most of The Good Life‘s heart. You find her investigating an out-of-left-field murder mystery that Naomi is tasked with solving. When the mystery is not busy being too fetch-quest-y, it’s also when Swery’s clever personality shines the most through his writing.

Here you’ll meet and tame wild sheep to ride. You will find NPCs who speak in Elizabethan English (or seem to be talking sheep), encounter bizarre chickens, a violinist who communicates through musical echolocation, and a brick-faced rival Bostonian journalist who constantly yells “LOBSTAH!” among others. Finally, you will, er, mark your territory in doggy form.

Naomi’s dog and cat abilities also come into play more here across a number of varied scenarios, even if their devices aren’t particularly deep. The debt collection still plays its part, too, though it’s not especially centralized to the story, much like the overlooked insanity that, again, everyone inexplicably turns into dogs or cats at night. (Snapping pics for Flamingo with your upgradable camera is fun enough on its own, though.)

Enlarge / Swery’s games are always self-aware.

There are things about The Good Life I wish were fleshed out or improved. Naomi moves too slowly, for one, and controller inputs can be hit or miss. I hope to see some much-needed quality-of-life additions patched in, particularly in overhauling the UI. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to a toggle to turn off the always-on objectives that take up a sizable chunk of the screen and being able to skip inconsequential cutscenes that occur when you, say, fail a minigame segment and have to replay it.

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But these issues shouldn’t really be too much of a deterrent. While it won’t win any awards for its moment-to-moment rhythms, and its execution is a bit patchy, The Good Life‘s ludicrous turns and the central mysteries of Rainy Woods are reasons enough to stick with this adventure. It as a reasonably sized jaunt that doesn’t wear out its welcome.

As the first game out of his studio, White Owls—Swery left Deadly Premonition‘s Access Games in 2016 to form this new Osaka-based outfit. The Good Life was a primarily crowdfunded affair. Swery is, in general, very open on social media about pouring his soul into his work, and this project is no different. Its conceptual creativity probably shows only a microcosm of what he might do with more resources at his disposal, even if it bites off more than it can chew.

With any luck, his next game may be Hotel Barcelona, a horror collaboration with No More Heroes creator Suda51, another iconoclastic director who brings his own flavor of madness to the Japanese indie scene. The duo hopes to pitch the game to Hotline Miami and indie darling publisher Devolver Digital, a move that could be exactly what White Owls needs to find a larger-than-niche audience. Let’s hope they can make that deal happen—Swery deserves as much.

Verdict: Though technically rough and uneven, The Good Life is memorable and anything but predictable.