Used to be nobody thought much about NPCs in JRPGs. They just kind of exist to add flavor to the world, provide a bit of guidance, and if they’re extra lucky, sell you stuff. In recent years, though, it’s become apparent that some people think about the lives of these mostly nameless civilians a heck of a lot. Reccetear: An Item Shop’s Tale became something of a cult hit on steam with its mix of tongue-in-cheek JRPG parody and shop-management simulation, and many similarly themed titles followed suit. Adventure Bar Story on android follows the owner of an RPG tavern, while Home Town Story on 3DS blends the item shop concept with Harvest Moon’s lovable monotony. Item shops have also featured prominently in a number of the Atelier games. Somehow, what seems like a fairly niche has managed to near market saturation (kind of ironic, if you think about it), but if there’s any studio capable of shaking things up, it’s Level 5.
Weapon Shop De Omasse is Level 5’s second entry in the Guild01 series, a collaborative effort by four of Japan’s zaniest creative leads to create unique, short games. The insanity of Yoot Saito and Suda 51 is well-documented, and their Guild01 games (Aero Porter and Liberation Maiden) certainly lived up to that standard. Yasumi Matsuno’s RPG short story Crimson Shroud was slightly more normal, save that all the characters were static figurines and combat involved collecting and rolling virtual dice. Still, of all the crazy choices for a lead designer, Yoshiyuki Hirai of comedy duo America Zarigani might just take the cake. I don’t think he’s ever designed a game before in his life, and it kind of shows, but the man knows comedy, and boy does that show too.
Blacksmith Oyaji and his apprentice Yuhan are the proprietors of the titular weapon shop, and they’ve hit on a brilliant idea. With monster attacks on the rise and weapon materials growing scarce, the pair set up a rental service. Heroes drop by the shop before heading out on a quest, and if they make it back in one piece they pay the rental fee. You might think this business model would have a pretty low profit margin, but it brings in a lot of repeat customers by the end of the game my weapon shop was stuffed to the rafters with gold.
It’s these customers that drive the game forward. An eclectic assortment of fighters finds their way into your establishment over the course of the game, from a well-meaning but pompous Frenchman, to an immigrant samurai who can’t seem to catch a break, to an old lady who has an axe to grind (literally) with the evil lord. The game is also padded out by an array of delightfully self-aware alphabetized NPCs, including NPC I, who feels he “was made for the purpose of renting and axe from this shop.” You make them the perfect weapon for the job, then sit back and watch their Grindcast feeds (think RPG twitter) as they go off to save the world.
These feeds make for a remarkably novel method of storytelling, but more importantly, they’re hysterically funny. Following as the self-proclaimed legendary hero “Sir Jean” argues with some children and their mother in the park he’s claimed as his “secret base”, or as the dotty old grandma Snow mistakes an angry ogre for a farmhand, you’ll find it hard not to crack a smile. This is some of the most brilliant writing I’ve ever seen in an RPG. Unfortunately, it goes by awful quickly, and it’s easy to miss while you’re tending to the shop.
You’ll spend a lot of your time forging and polishing weapons to order, trying to keep up with the demands of your customers. At first it’s all very straightforward – just make the weapon with the best numbers and right type for the customer – but orders begin to pile up quickly and you end up having to juggle a lot of different needs in your head at once. It can get a little annoying in the endgame, since NPCs will frequently interrupt you in the middle of choosing a weapon to forge or polish. If you fall behind on one hero’s order it’ll hold you back from levelling up your shop, which in turn will hold back other orders (since sending them off with an under-leveled weapon usually means losing the weapon and repeating the quest). Too many delays and the evil lord will be revived before you’re ready to make the ultimate weapon. You rely on semi-randomized events to level up, so it can all feel a touch unfair.
The game is at its most unique when it comes to actually making weapons. The forge is represented as a bizarre rhythm game where you have to pound the metal into shape in time with some funky, catchy beats. Getting the timing right boosts the stats of the weapon (slash, pierce and bludgeon) and lets you finish it quicker, thus making it more durable… somehow. Once you’re done, the attack stats are tallied and your weapon is graded from “dull” to “masterpiece.” Only the primary stat for the weapon really counts toward its grade, and what points you’ll get for a successful round of hammering is randomized, so it’s possible to make a dull blade with a perfect chain of hits, or a masterpiece while making innumerable mistakes. This, too, can feel a touch unfair.
You also have to polish weapons in order to maximize their stats. Polishing gives them a slight boost immediately after they’re made, and allows weapons to gain experience and level up after quests (again… somehow). If that sounds like tedious busywork to you, that’s only because it is. Polishing solely consists of running your stylus up and down the blade until it’s clean, then flipping it over and repeating. I suppose it gives you something to do while reading the Grindcast, but it really just feels empty and unrewarding. There are so many different weapons that in the course of my playthrough only one actually levelled up. I will admit it’s a little satisfying to make a bit of blackened metal shine, though.
The game presents itself with panache. Each time you finish a weapon, you get to examine it in a viewing mode. You can tell from the detail lavished on them that the modelling team consisted of some real weapon nuts, and you might actually learn a thing or two about historical weapon design over the course of the game. This being Level 5, a lot of care’s also been put into the characters, who are rendered in an appealing, cartoony style. The main cast is of course brimming with personality, but even the supposedly generic NPCs have their own unique clothes and features. This is a small game with a single set, but the artists have ensured you never get bored looking at it.
If Crimson Shroud was a short story, then Weapon Shop seems to think itself a sort of one-act play. At least, that’s the impression you get from the sound design. Each character enters with their own theme music (all very catchy and upbeat), and is greeted by applause or boos from an unseen audience. Jokes trigger canned laughter, while dramatic turns earn gasps. It’s all a little hokey, but in the best possible way.
Weapon Shop de Omasse is sort of what you’d expect from a game made by a comedian, which is to say, really funny and awfully clunky. It can feel a little uninvolving as a player – simply picking a weapon with the best numbers and watching someone else use it – though by the same token, that makes the game weirdly mellow and relaxing. But even though the core gameplay is a little bland, the excellent writing and attention to detail will keep you hooked to the end.
Platform: Nintendo 3DS