Iron your dungarees and clean out the wheelbarrow, because yet another farming and life sim has arrived on Xbox shores. Blame Animal Crossing and lockdown: the two in combination caused millions of people to get lost in gathering turnips and paying off Tom Nook. Now, we’re seeing the copycat period, when everyone wants a piece of the laid-back action.
As someone who has lost far too large a percentage of their life to Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley and Harvest Moons of various sizes and shapes, we’re in our element. Some may be cynical about the number that are on the Xbox market, but we’re standing with hoe in hand and smile on face, ready to greet them as they arrive.
The sheer number means we can be a bit choosy. Disney Dreamlight Valley, Garden Story and Ooblets have all been well worth our time, and we’d heartily recommend that you choose them. We would suggest that Hokko Life, however, is just on the other side of that line. You can afford to be choosy about this one.
Hokko Life is published by Team17: a cheeky, puckish publisher who makes us smile just as much as they innovate. It makes Hokko Life a little on the disappointing side, as it is more humdrum and uninspiring than it is innovative. If we were being unkind, it doesn’t feel much like a Team17 game at all.
The clues are there from the very start. The characters in Hokko Life are Animal Crossing by way of Five Nights at Freddy’s. These animal-tronics lack animations or expressions, so they come across more like furries than feasible characters. The big heads and lean, human bodies, particularly of the rabbits, gave us the willies.
Having fallen asleep on a train and arrived in the humble Hokko village, you are handed a full-blown house, which is not something you’d expect in the current economic climate. Whenever we’ve fallen asleep on a train, we’ve had to make do with a bench in a train station car park, trying to ignore the wee and seagulls.
But what you actually do, once you have a house, is something of an enigma.
Hokko Life isn’t fantastic at tutorialising itself. The tutorials are there, giving you a single runthrough of the many systems that it has to offer, but they neglect to tell you WHY you might do all these things. What is your aim? Is there an aim? What are the rungs on the way to unlocking different parts of the game? Occasionally, we found Hokko Life to be akin to being castaway on a desert island full of puppets.
There are answers out there, but not in the places you might expect. We expected progression to come from housing the many villagers who arrive in Hokko. They sit in the local restaurant, arriving at the end of the trainline, much like you (we imagined that Hokko was Limbo, and these were souls that needed saving from oblivion). By gathering resources in your little sunny glade, you can build houses and then move them in, generating something of a neighbourhood. It felt like a neat twist: a farming sim where you grow a village, rather than a well-manicured plot.
But this was a red herring. You can indeed grow your village, but they are – mostly – characterless and determined by some kind of unseen algorithm. To be fair, the odd villager has a personality of note (Hokko Life seems to be a haven for lonely, sad individuals), but they are mostly there to wander about and make the game seem busy. Personalities are in short supply.
The real progression comes from elsewhere. The unassuming and hard-to-read achievement system, tucked away on a tabbed menu, is perhaps the main one. By completing tasks like ‘planting fifty seeds’ or ‘waving at ten villagers’, you can begin to unlock some of the game’s most essential amenities. The inventory is prohibitively small, but you can add a couple of rows to it with these tasks. New tools and better tools, faster speeds and increased shop stocks are all locked behind these arbitrary tasks, and you shouldn’t dismiss them as background noise like we did.
The other method of moving things along is chatting to the villagers and completing innocuous little quests. Ninety percent of them seem like they’re generated from an Excel spreadsheet (“Oh, hi! I am looking for a table that is black”), but hidden in the mire are game-progressing quests that unlock new features, regions and tools. Mining, fishing and farming come into view.
But it leads to leaden interactions, as you’re hunting for a needle of interest in some dull haystacks. Most of the villagers have stock, repeated dialogue; others have boring fetch quests; but occasionally – just occasionally – they will have a critical mission for you. We’d have given our kingdom for an above-head icon that simply said “it’s worth talking to this chap”.
Hokko Life has chosen not to adopt the Animal Crossing and Cozy Grove approach of mapping to the real-world day-night cycle. These games push you away with diminishing returns on resources, making them a ‘check-in’, a ritual that you perform each day. Hokko Life instead opts for a system similar to Disney Dreamlight Valley and Ooblets where you CAN binge-play, and spend day after day in its systems. But its rhythms are way, way off. You can exhaust your resources in moments, and only a couple of characters have meaningful tasks for you to do. Money soon runs out, so you can’t purchase more seeds to do makework. Houses take in-game days to build. Often, we found ourselves heading to our house for a sleep at 10am in the morning, ushering in the new day.
The aimlessness of Hokko Life might be a boon to some. But we’re Animal Crossing fans, and we found it to be too much (or too little). It made us appreciate Animal Crossing all the more: through its overlapping systems, through the variance that each day offers, and through the carrot of a new home from Tom Nook, we were compelled to return. But nothing overlaps, and there is precious little in the way of big goals. Hokko Life wants to hand you new things to do, as and when it sees fit. But that’s not enough: we weren’t reassured that things were on the horizon. Hokko Life hadn’t earned that trust. We played Hokko Life with a “do I have to?” sigh.
Quests often give no rewards. The Blathers-like library of fish and butterflies is rewardless and aimless. New villagers seem to be constructed out of photo-fit pieces, rather than individuals that you want to chat to. There is no story, and no promise of a new area outside of the odd new mine, farm, a redwood forest and a small city. It’s Animal Crossing, shattered into pieces, without a thought of how they should integrate and create something more than the sum of its parts.
A positive – and something that similar games don’t have – is that Hokko Life is almost Minecraft-like in its freedom of customisation. Not only can you design wallpapers, floors and paint jobs, but you can construct actual furniture in any shape you fancy. Piece kits unlock components that can be used to manufacture giant space willies or questionable symbols. You can even send customised items to others, sell them, or submit them to global competitions. The sky really is your oyster. It’s an astonishingly fully-featured piece of kit, only eclipsed by how complicated it is to use. We didn’t fully master it, but there is absolutely the possibility to get lost in it, should that be your thing. Equally, you can place houses and resources absolutely bleeding anywhere, and that should be celebrated.
But in typical Hokko Life style, it doesn’t really integrate into anything, or matter particularly. Villagers ask for an extra shelf on a cupboard, or extra length on a bridge, but you can deconstruct them to a single plank and the villager will think that you’ve completed the task. The system is not intelligent enough to really react to your creativity. The latter-game ability to share these items with other players helps, but it arrived too late to really make a difference. Again, it’s a bit horses for courses: if you absolutely love creative freedom and LEGO-ing blocks together, then Hokko Life is a surprisingly versatile little game.
What a time it is to be alive if you’re a farming fan. We truly have received an embarrassment of riches over the past few months, and the future promises many more. But it does mean that Hokko Life arrives precisely when dozens of games are doing what it’s doing. And they’re doing it with greater charisma and a much better understanding of the genre. Hokko Life needed to unlock the compulsive secrets of the farming game loop, but it left its keys at home.
You can buy Hokko Life from the Xbox Store