Who had Overcooked! down as an influential game when it came out? The co-op crowd-pleaser has triggered a modest wave of multi-tasking sims that also pass as party games (Tools Up!, Catastronauts, Team17’s own Moving Out), but also some simple reskins like Ooops! 2. There’s clearly a market for games that embarrass the least-coordinated member of your family.
Somewhere between those two groups is Merek’s Market. It’s clearly influenced by Overcooked!, with its viewpoint, it’s single-screen layout, and similar locations: a serving desk, workstations and areas for gathering your resources. But it deserves more credit than that. Instead of cooking, you’re crafting and smithing items, and instead of playing in more and more outlandish arenas, you stay within the confines of a workshop you have built up for yourself. As you get more customers, the workshop grows. Where Overcooked was a party, Merek’s Market is a career.
That career spans an absolutely gargantuan fifty levels, which – in all honesty – is way more than we needed. We felt ourselves flagging about thirty levels in, defeated under a pile of spears and pottery. But you can play all of these fifty levels in one- or two-player cooperatively, as you move through cycles of ten levels which each end with a larger construction to make (a statue, a wagon) before moving to a better and more expansive workshop layout.
Our first impressions of Merek’s Market weren’t great. Alongside the “oh, it’s Overcooked! with hammers” assumption, its graphics didn’t wow us. This can be a rough-edged little game, with beady-eyed characters that look like discarded Avenue Q puppets. Almost everything is poo-brown, too, and the lack of colour variation and detail means that it’s quite hard to pick things out. Is that a workbench or just a random desk? Is that coal, clay, bronze or just some stuff that’s lying there? Learning the workshop layouts every ten levels can cause more than a couple of restarts.
There’s a distaste for basic usability, too. You receive new recipes on an almost per-level basis, but rather than rotate them in and out like Overcooked! often does, Merek’s Market tends to stack them on top to create a Tower of Pisa. At various points in the game we had dozens of recipes that a customer could pick from, and it started to push at the edges of our memory and enjoyment. Heaven help someone who returns to Merek’s Market after more than a few days, as they will be restarting each level to remind themselves of the recipes.
Stockpiling items in advance of a customer asking for them is also a problem. You can’t tuck items onto worktops like you can in Overcooked!, so you’re often dropping them to the floor, accidentally picking them up and occasionally tripping over them. You unlock abilities later in the game, like running and being able to anticipate requests before they happen, but they should have been there from the start and, in the foresight’s case, what you are shown doesn’t always correlate with the truth. Which is as bewildering as it sounds.
And then there are the new takes on the Overcooked! formula, which almost always fail to shine. Periodically, someone will approach your serving desk who just wants to talk. They’ll give you more recipes, progress the story or, more commonly, they will want to barter for an off-menu item. You’re left to guess what they want and then choose a price to sell it. Guessing what they want is normally easy, but the price is more challenging. Your price should be high if they have a nice hat and a penchant for talking about how wealthy they are, or set a low price if they’re clearly poverty-stricken. These little intermissions defeat the purpose of a multi-tasking game: this is a game about spinning plates, yet these sections pause the other plates and focus you on a single plate. They’re also unskippable, so restarting a level means you have to wade through them over and over.
‘Boss’ levels attempt to mix things up and are only partially successful. You’ve got to construct a multitude of pieces to make a bigger whole, and often that’s done while simultaneously satisfying customers. This first bit is great: just the right amount of multitasking, and you’re making one-off stuff that you’ll never make again, which adds variety. But, occasionally, the construction is married to duff memory, rhythm action or minigame bits that don’t feel precise and come at you unawares. You’re often struggling to understand what Merek’s Market wants from you.
But the fun we had with Merek’s Market started to follow a slightly depressed bell curve. We began to enjoy it – not a lot, but a little – after twenty levels or so of continuous play. That last ‘continuous’ bit’s important: we didn’t really take a break from Merek’s Market, which meant that we were able to memorise the recipes and layout. With the foresight ability, flawed as it is, we were able to get our head above water and start to anticipate the orders. We had belts and magic staves littered around the floor, and we’d just about learned how to avoid picking them up accidentally. When it’s not fighting itself, Merek’s Market is not a difficult game, and you can achieve a kind of flow.
That flow’s slightly improved by co-op, although it does have it’s own problems: the bartering conversations become even more intrusive when they interrupt two people from playing. But you’ll have one person at the forge and anvil, and another at the leatherwork and woodwork, and you’ll get into something like a rhythm. It may be enough to get you to the end of the fifty levels, recovering some value from that relatively steep £14.99 asking price, which – you may note – is the same price as Overcooked!.
In Merek’s Market, the hardest thing to make is an argument for buying it. It’s a clumsy, ugly take on Overcooked!, and it keeps bolting on shoddy ideas like bartering, which puts the weight in all the wrong areas.
Its one redeeming feature is its career, which swaps out the party mode for the tale of Merek, on a quest to become the best labourer in town. It’s through the gentle tug of this story that Merek’s Market might get some customers. But it wasn’t for us: we would have dropped out of the queue long before the end.
You can buy Merek’s Market from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S