Thursday, July 19, 2007

Chocolatier Review

Chocolatier, developed by Big Splash Games and published by PlayFirst.
The Good: Delightful blend of economic simulation and arcade mechanics, entertaining and challenging manufacturing process, nicely paced with a good story, helpful user interface, varied side quests, lots of recipes, surprisingly not repetitive
The Not So Good: Market prices in other towns not indicated, can’t accelerate time without traveling, buildings could be highlighted longer
What say you? An amusing confection manufacturing simulation: 7/8

Chocolate is big business. People love to ingest disturbingly large portions of that sweet, sweet candy. I’ve watched enough episodes of Unwrapped to gain the knowledge required to manufacture large portions of black gold (meaning chocolate; please do not eat oil), I just lack the start-up capital and a gaggle (or is it flock?) of elves to do my bidding. And that’s where Chocolatier comes in. Taking place in the olde (with an “e”) country, you must guide a chocolate company back to the realm of greatness.

Despite being rendered at a low resolution (good old 800x600), Chocolatier looks good, especially for a budget-priced game. Each of the game’s cities is rendered in detail with semi-dynamic backgrounds and makes them appear almost like real locations. The user interface is very polished (more on that later) and Chocolatier has a nice antique art style. I like the visuals in the game and they convey the period that the game takes place in well. The music and sound is also well done; the production music is quite entertaining and it gets you in a working mood. Overall, I was quite pleased with the style and quality of the graphics and sound in the game: it’s obvious that a lot of work went into it and it pays off.

Chocolatier follows the re-establishment of a family chocolate business that was torn apart due to infighting. You’ll meet all of the major players (all with ridiculously long names) and other characters along the way as you expand your small business into a global empire. There is also a free play mode in addition to this story mode, although it is generally the same thing but it does unlock things more quickly. You will run your business by visiting new towns, purchasing ingredients, making new recipes, selling your product, and conversing with the locals to gain new information. Across the world map there are a number of cities to visit, most of which have specific goods to purchase and a number of buildings to visit. In fact, you must travel, since you can’t accelerate time staying in one city. Each city in the game, like London, San Francisco, and Quito, contains a market to purchase ingredients, a chocolate store to sell your goods, a bar to meet people for side missions, and a specialty location to acquire unique goods. Large cities may contain a factory you can purchase later in the game to increase production. Buildings are highlighted when you enter a city, but after this short amount of time it can be troublesome trying to click on buildings instead of the background; I would like them to be highlighted longer.

Chocolatier features a good user interface that makes playing the game very easy. The game shows how many more weeks each factory will run with current supply levels and where you bought a particular item, both very useful. You can also see the factory status, inventory, and messages while in a shop to better gauge your purchases. Chocolatier could have run into real trouble making the user memorize which goods they needed to purchase, but the quality user interface avoids this potential pitfall. The only place where Chocolatier falls short is providing price information for other cities; it would be nice if it showed prices for cities you have visited to gauge whether the sugar or caramel chocolate bar prices are reasonable. You can attempt to lower prices yourself by haggling: you are given several responses to choose from, and the owner may choose to lower or raise prices. You will sell your goods in the stores located in each city, but as I stated earlier, the game doesn’t indicate whether the prices are good or not; you are given occasional messages about high demands in major cities if you own a shop, though.

Of course, you’ll have to make chocolate bars before you sell them, and Chocolatier has a fun manufacturing process. A lot of titles have mini-games that don’t make a lot of sense (see Rising Star and Rock Legend), but in Chocolatier the manufacturing process does. You mix ingredients to make chocolate, and here you’re mixing ingredients to make chocolate. Genius! Each product in the game (there are sixty-four to choose from, including bars, squares, infusions, and truffles) requires a specific mixture of ingredients (like cacao beans, sugar, cashews, cherries, and a bunch more), and you must match this mixture by shooting ingredients at containers rotating around the conveyor belt. More expensive confections are more difficult to match as they require multiple ingredients to make. The process speeds up when you make a lot of matches, and slows down when you mess up. Once you reach the time limit, the factory counts the number of complete matches you have made and then produces at that rate every week. The mini-game is well designed and it has a relevance to the game that most titles lack. Although it sounds like it may become repetitive after a while, you only need to match a particular product once and the variations in each recipe decrease the tedium.

Chocolatier features a good number of quests to grow your company, such as manufacturing a particular item, delivering a letter, or playing a gambling game with dice. You can only undertake one quest at a time to reduce confusion, and the details are always displayed on the messages display. The game has a good pace that unlocks new recipes at a nice rate, and the quests will require you to visit your factories and change their production to meet your customers’ demands. Chocolatier does hit a lull in the middle of the game as no new recipes appear for a bit (I think I was outgrowing the game a bit), but in general the game is quite entertaining to play. Chocolatier has a great combination between the economic simulation and the manufacturing mini-game, as well as a decent story to keep the action moving along.

Chocolatier shows how a casual game can be quite entertaining, more so than a lot of full-priced titles. The story is engaging and the mechanics are simple thanks to the fine user interface. There are a lot of recipes to unlock, and the manufacturing process is fun and challenging. The game could give information on prices in other towns you have recently visited, but you can still make a lot of money very quickly in the game. If anything, succeeding in the game is too easy: there’s nothing preventing you from being victorious, other than errors on your part (like purchasing the wrong ingredients or being really bad at the mini-game). The game mechanics never get stale or repetitive and the variety of new recipes and quests keep you interested in the game. You will certainly get your money’s worth with Chocolatier, a delicious game at a very reasonable price.