It’s hard not to feel ungrateful as we play Potion Permit. It is a gorgeous and incredibly generous life-sim/Zelda-crossover, absolutely rammed with ideas, content and general stuff to do. It’s a cornucopia of gifts, and we should be thankful how much MassHive Media is offering here. Yet we can’t help feeling a bit distracted, checking the time occasionally. It’s a perfect example of a game where multitudes of activities don’t necessarily mean a kickass game.
In the town of Moonbury, the Mayor’s daughter has become deathly ill. He’d normally rely on his new-age healer (think Gwyneth Paltrow dressed up as Vincent Price), but that avenue is going nowhere. So he does the unthinkable and calls on the ‘Medical Association’: a guild who’s last medic managed to cause an environmental collapse in the Moonbury area. The Medical Association chooses you, a newbie chemist, to be their representative in the area, but you soon realise that your presence is resented by the vast majority of townsfolk. They don’t want you here.
It’s a cracking little set up. There’s a lot of backhistory to unpack there, as you wonder what happened with the previous envoy, and whether the Medical Association might have an unsavoury past. And it also means that the town is downright antagonistic to you. They don’t want you, which means that you’ve got a long way to go before you earn their trust. At the very least, it’s going to take a while for you to unlock, one by one, the various amenities in the town.
You’re given a rickety chemistry lab to start with, and a neighbouring sickbay where the ill start amassing. Your first stop is to heal the Mayor’s daughter, which takes you into the meadows nearby. Here, you kill creatures for their body parts, and hack, mine and scythe the natural resources for their produce too. With an inventory full of stuff, you head back to the laboratory and make potions at a cauldron.
The potion-making is a clever little twist on crafting, with each potion offering a frame, a grid of squares, that needs filling for the potion to be successful. Different potions have different ‘colours’ of resource that they will accept, which has you diving into your inventory. A resource has a different permutation of squares – some looking like Tetris blocks, others just one or two squares – and you have to slot them into the frame to construct, LEGO-like, your potion of choice.
With that done, you head to the sickbay, where first the Mayor’s daughter awaits, but soon others in the village start arriving too. Your job is to identify the source of the malady, perform a simple minigame – a Rock Band-style rhythm action game or a memory sequence, for example – and then apply the potion. Then they hop out of bed, offer you some experience and coins, and a moonstone, which you can gift to townsfolk to raise your standings with them.
These moonstones are your gateway to another sprawling system, as you slowly build up affection with each town member. Making them your friends unlocks benefits, not least some romantic options, and the town begins to open up to you. Quests unlock, noticeboards house requests for certain potions and resources, and – octopus like – Potion Permit’s tentacles start splaying out in multiple directions. There are professions for you to earn coins with; fishing spots to gather resources for your potions; and hotspots around Moonbury can be improved, not least your own laboratory.
It has, as you can probably tell, enough stuff to make the average Atelier game blush. It really has no right to be so fully featured for a mid-price indie game. It certainly doesn’t have any right to look so good, either, as the pixel art is meticulous. The town in particular is so dense with detail that you could get lost exploring or talking to everything, to the degree that another day has passed and your patients are stacking up. We’d go so far to say that a day is too short in Potion Permit.
With such a propensity for stuff and muchness, we found it curious that nothing was really sticking. We were playing in shorter and shorter sessions, enjoying them but not experiencing that nagging sensation you are meant to get from a life-sim. We just didn’t find ourselves hooked.
We have a good idea why. Potion Permit is absolutely overstuffed with supporting systems, but the stuff it supports – the combat and the crafting – is actually quite lean. Combat, for example, is a matter of a single attack and a dodge, with some minor extras unlocking as your career develops. Enemies, too, have simplistic attacks, requiring you to – mostly – dodge their attack and then chop them up for a bit. This stop-start attack pattern isn’t the most engaging, yet it forms a significant proportion of your time with Potion Permit.
The resource gathering is fine, as you swap from hammer to sickle to axe to clear out various nodes. But these nodes are often sponges for your hits, taking a long time to topple, and the sheer number of resources you need over the course of Potion Permit is stupendous. When you tot up all the quests, noticeboard requests and potions you have to make, the numbers are mind-boggling, yet there isn’t enough variety or joy in the resources to support it. You will be mindlessly chopping trees and mining ore for days on end, all to incrementally nudge up various progress bars. It can get numbing, and only the most hardy of life-sim or MMORPG lovers will enjoy it.
There’s no doubting that the payoff is great. Finally remove a barrier to a new area, and resources and creatures await. Quests in Moonbury keep unlocking new things to do, stacking piles and piles of activities into your open hands. But it’s the stuff between the payoffs that rankle, and it will be down to your patience, and your ability to ration your playtime with Potion Permit, that determines what you get from it. Because, with some willpower, it can be as fully featured and gentle as a Stardew Valley, albeit with some simplistic combat.
We found Potion Permit to be an immense amount of scaffolding built around a tiny building. The supporting systems are great and numerous, adding plenty to do and fiddle with between your alchemical excursions. But the excursions themselves are thin and repeated, offering up too little to justify the extravagant scaffolding.
We feel ungrateful criticising the effort and beauty that has been stirred into Potion Permit. We just wish this little life-sim had a bit more substance around the things that mattered – finding resources and making potions.
You can buy Potion Permit from the Xbox Store
- Gorgeous pixel art
- Absolutely loaded with things to do
- Will take you hours to explore its depths
- The core gameplay is surprisingly meager
- Combat is lightweight
- Play for too long and your mind will wander
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to - PQube
- Formats - Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS4, PS5, PC, Switch
- Version reviewed - Xbox Series X
- Release date - 22 September 2022
- Launch price from - £16.99