Ever want to get away from the bustle of high-tech society and retreat to an easy-going life in the countryside? In The Good Life, enterprising photographer Naomi Hayward wants anything but to tromp out to a small British village where the sheep outnumber the people. But that’s her assignment from the Morning Bell News, and with £30,000,000 in debt hanging over her head, she doesn’t have much choice.
Members of designer SWERY’s (Hidetaka Suehiro’s) cult following should feel right at home in The Good Life, especially those who have played Deadly Premonition (minus the survival horror segments). As Naomi, you are tasked with uncovering the strange secrets of the tiny town of Rainy Woods, U.K., known as the Happiest Town in the World. While Naomi is a photographer rather than a detective, she must put on her investigative hat to solve the town’s mysteries, especially once she stumbles her way into a bizarre plot. The Good Life allows for free exploration of an area that’s much denser and larger than it appears to be at first glance. Along the way, she’ll have to learn to ride sheep and transform into various animals.
Despite Naomi labeling Rainy Woods a “hellhole,” this quaint village is full of charm and odd but friendly characters to make acquaintances with. SWERY has always had a propensity for creating worlds and situations suspiciously closely resembling a David Lynch movie, but The Good Life feels like his closest effort to something that stands on its own. SWERY does stick to his usual habits by populating Rainy Woods with a host of quirky characters. William Dickens is an author obsessed with the perfection of circular objects, and Douglas McAvoy is the town handyman who wears full knight armor and speaks in old English, m’lady.
In Naomi, SWERY has captured the frenzied, extremely online existence many of us live ensnared by — the hustle of social media and the internet — then ships us off to a world less beholden to that life of techy busyness. This juxtaposition of intrusive online culture with more rural surroundings almost unbesmirched by technology is most succinctly felt as Naomi logs onto her photo-sharing app from the town’s sole, decades-old computer that’s still running on Windows 95. It’s a reminder that there are still people in the world blissfully unaware of the hellhole the internet can be at times.
But what do you actually do in this game? You could classify it generally as an adventure game, but that doesn’t explain anything. The game could be defined as a life sim. You must eat, sleep, and keep up your health in other ways (though the game is pretty forgiving about this), and much of what you do is running errands for yourself and others. If there’s such a thing as core gameplay in The Good Life, it would be exploration. It’s fun to pack snacks and supplies for a day trip through the country to the far edges of the map, then hop on your trusty “shteed” (that’s sheep steed) in pursuit of your next objective or to just explore freely. As all open-world games do these days, The Good Life takes after Breath of the Wild in letting you loose in a massive environment and allowing you to pursue your main objectives at your pace.
While you do have story quests to finish, you can also learn to cook, craft clothing and upgrades for your house, and complete an endless and ever-growing list of sidequests, many of which involve finding specific scenes and photographing them. You can also make your camera more versatile with wide-angle or telescopic lenses. Naomi eventually picks up the ability to transform into a dog or cat, each of which grants her associated skills. As a cat, Naomi can climb certain walls and hunt small animals. Her skills as a dog are ampler. That’s her best form for fighting, as well as being able to track scents, dig through trash cans or in the ground for items, and also mark her territory, if you know what I mean.
There’s such a wide variety of activities that you could say the core gameplay of The Good Life is minigames. They’re all relatively simple yet entertaining for what they are, and the range of things to do keeps you active. But none of those minigames were interesting enough on their own to carry a whole game or to make me want to devote considerable time. There are so many of these things, everything from a drinking game to sheep care, and the way they’re introduced through your main quests makes the story almost feel like it’s a series of tutorials before setting you free in the sandbox. For instance, at the end of the story, I was just beginning to collect something close to the stash of materials I would need to get into crafting. The game does have combat, but I can only recall two points during the main quests where I needed to fight anything. Tracking scents as a dog was probably my favorite activity, but I wish the game had given me more opportunities to do that.
While that variety makes for a fun, light experience, it seems like the game may be hoping for more post-story devotion than players are willing to give. I didn’t have any interest in honing Naomi’s combat abilities, and though I wanted to get into crafting, the amount of repetition needed to gather materials for most of the items dissuaded me. There’s no real core gameplay beyond exploration and photography, though it seems like The Good Life is attempting to occupy the same spaces as Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing; unlike those titles, there’s no hook to keep me coming back for the long term. So, the game feels at odds with itself, trying to be lighter in some ways while requiring heavier investment in others and only partially succeeding at either.
It would help if there were more to the story. While the weird situations Naomi finds are fun jaunts, plot progression generally feels disjointed or rushed, especially in a game where slowing down should be one of the key themes. For example, Naomi discovers early that the townspeople disappear on certain nights. She finds that her nearly immediate deduction that they’ve all turned into the cats and dogs is a big logical leap even though she’s correct. When the game made it clear that the story was reaching its conclusion, I wished there were more of it and slowing it down to fill in the gaps wouldn’t have felt like padding. And, much like a Lynch movie, every Big Reveal only served to muddy my understanding of situations. For Lynch, it can work that many story threads essentially end up being rabbit trails, but The Good Life doesn’t feel substantial enough to make that sort of storytelling feel earned or to deviate enough from the Lynch pastiche.
Similarly, while the characters’ quirkiness gives them a certain charm, their quirks are all they have. They are likable, yet I didn’t feel particularly connected to them emotionally when things happened to them. Naomi, especially, never develops beyond being a grumpy American tourist (though I, too, would be grumpy if I were £30,000,000 in debt). She’s a fish out of water, yes (no, she doesn’t literally transform into a fish), but she never seems to discover any appreciation for her situation. It’s not that the game is unpleasant or dull, but beneath the fun sights and sounds, it feels like something’s missing.
The visuals evoke a period in video game history I’m fond of: the PS2/GameCube era. The simply designed yet distinguishable characters have the look of overly detailed Miis. In contrast to similar detective games, particularly Deadly Premonition, The Good Life is generally much brighter, reflecting its lighter tone. Even though there’s a day/night cycle and shifting weather patterns, the general brightness across such a vast open area contributes to the joy of exploring.
Controls are on the rough side. When you’re not sprinting, Naomi looks and feels like she’s jogging in mud. Maybe riding the sheep was supposed to be difficult, but there was nary a fencepost that was safe from me because of how poorly they handled. Nice, if standard, jaunty tunes evoking a countryside adventure fill the soundtrack. One highlight is a highly twisted version of “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” The actors perform well enough in cutscenes, even if their contributions are mostly cartoonish and light. Rebecca LaChance as Naomi has a few moments to sparkle, but she feels held back by the shallow character. “Goddamned hellhole” isn’t the most invigorating catchphrase.
I enjoyed my time in Rainy Woods, but I wish The Good Life would have given me more reasons to stick around longer. It’s a refreshing experience that encourages you to slow down for a minute and take the time to smell whatever it is that grows out there. And for SWERY fans, The Good Life feels like his most polished effort to date and probably a greater realization of what he had attempted to do with Deadly Premonition, at least in terms of free, exploratory gameplay. As for the likelihood that I, and perhaps even you, are spending way too much time on the internet, maybe it is time for a break. Let’s try something together: I’ll count down from three, and when I hit zero, we all power down our devices for a while. Ready? Three… two… one… Just kidding, I can’t do it. I’m not going anywhere.