A deluge of Harvest Moon/Rune Factory/Stardew Valley-likes have come out of nowhere, but there really has been a lot of them in recent months. Perhaps it is something cultural. Perhaps developers are observing an increasingly tired and agitated community around them as the ongoing terrors of climate change, pandemics and political instability leave people desperate for an escape. Or perhaps a bunch of people all decided at the same time that these games were a lot of fun, so they wanted to make their own. Whatever the reason Potion Permit is another one, and it largely succeeds, although it is perhaps a little over-ambitious for its scope.
The basic idea of the game is that you’re a pharmacist, that has been called in from the big city to a sleepy little village to, initially, help the mayor’s daughter after she was struck down with a mysterious ailment. The problem is that while the mayor and his wife are as hospitable to you as they need to be, given their plight, the rest of the community feel no such obligation to you.
They’re rude and the hatred seethes from every word they spit at you. Soon enough you discover why, with previous potion peddlers being less than responsible in what they do to the community, and so you set out with two objectives: firstly, you’re out to help the community with their various ailments, and make yourself enough for a nice little lifestyle on the side, and secondly, you want to be a positive enough member of the town so they like you. After all, there are a bunch of strong marriage candidates from among this group of pixel-gorgeous country bumpkins. This whole concept is a little on-the-nose in its depiction of small-town xenophobia and criticism of the conservative resistance to new ideas, but the end message is an ultimately uplifting and good one, so it’s forgivable for being a little laboured.
The initial hostility of the community is an unusual spin in Potion Permit. With most Moon-likes, most of the community are pretty happy to have you around from day one, and that warm welcome is a big part of what draws you into them almost immediately. Thankfully the developers have managed to find a way of presenting the frosty reception without the hostility being offputting to the point of making you want to put the game down, and thankfully it doesn’t take too long for the frost to start to thaw anyway.
In fact, perhaps the biggest conceptual flaw in Potion Permit is that its pacing means that things generally happen too quickly. You’ll never quite feel like the inhabitant of a sleepy little village like other Moon-likes do at their best because things happen too quickly and it all comes across as a little too gamey to be truly chill, but with that said, the developers did capture the feel-good wholesomeness perfectly. I loved helping people out in Potion Permit, because the subtle little things in the way characters thank you, and the rewards you get from doing so, just all feel good.
Mechanically Potion Permit’s main point of difference is that, rather than farming as you do in the Moon-likes, it borrows an alchemy system directly from the Atelier series. You’ll go out into the world, defeat enemies and gather plants for resources and then, back at your home, pop combinations of them into a cauldron to brew a range of different potions, which you’ll need to heal people of their maladies and otherwise fulfil requests. The system is nowhere near as complex as in an Atelier game, but the fundamentals of combining ingredients to make things will never get tired.
There’s also an impressive array of minigames in Potion Permit, with the most enjoyable of these being the investigation minigames, where you need to locate the source of a person’s illness, and then play one of a few different little games to properly determine their affliction. It’s incredibly simple, don’t get me wrong, but these little touches help to elevate Potion Permit and keep you active with the story.
There are only really two downers that hold things back a little. Firstly, the combat is simply not very interesting. It’s not difficult, challenging, complex or nuanced, and so it is altogether unsatisfying. A game like this doesn’t really need combat unless it’s going to do something with it (as Story of Seasons so beautifully shows), and Potion Permit has seemingly only implemented the combat system out of a sense of obligation, which makes every moment of it a drag.
The other problem is that it runs out of ideas a little too quickly and then quests and general life in the world become the wrong kind of routine. This is an X-factor issue, since in some Moon-likes I can do the same thing, in-game year-in, and year-out, and not get tired of it, but in others, it can all feel like a draining grind. Potion Permit isn’t the most egregious example of the latter by any means, but the overly routine nature of resource gathering, brewing, and then hitting up the town to flirt with your spouse-to-be is best experienced in short play sessions, lest you feel like you’re getting into a rut in this world and, ironically, in need of a seachange.
There has been a lot of love put into Potion Permit. The pixel art is gorgeous, and surprisingly subtle with how the developer has worked emotion and nuance into the animation. I don’t even quite know how they did it, as the sprites do look fairly simple, but they’re quite capable of expressing a wide range of emotions visually. The sleepy little village that you strut your stuff in is likewise a pretty little place, and richly detailed. Once again the weakness is the design of the monsters, which are all fine, but neither cute nor creative enough to be RPG standouts. However, on the plus side, the various environments that host the enemies that you get to explore are nice, and they open up at a good rate so you’re constantly looking at something new as you play.
Potion Permit is twee. It’s sweet and charming, and made with love. The developers were also successful in finding a new take on the Moon-like rural life sim, and Atelier fans in particular are going to enjoy this crossover. The combat is the only real misfire, and thankfully it’s never present enough to make the rest of the experience taste sour.