We have so many questions. What kind of family hosts barbecues in their backyard and charges hundreds of dollars for the privilege? If those families exist, why is their house basically a write-off? Why is the game’s title this long? Why does the dad wear square sunglasses, but have a suntan from oval sunglasses? And why is the dad Olivier Giroud?
While we request an interview with Gogii Games, the developers of Virtual Families Cook Off: Chapter 1 Let’s Go Flippin’ to ask these questions, we have to make some assumptions. In whatever world Virtual Families Cook Off takes place in, it’s socially acceptable to host a garden party to fundraise hundreds of dollars. Neighbours will pop in and be extremely demanding (waiting no more than thirty seconds for a churro), so you have to work for your cash. And all of the money generated is redirected back into the development of the family house.
While the setup is a little out there, the gameplay might be familiar. The ‘Tycoon’ series on Xbox is the closest cousin. Sweet Bakery Tycoon, Food Truck Tycoon and Burger Chef Tycoon are all extremely similar to what is on offer here, to the point that we wondered whether their developer, Baltoro Games, was involved with this one. But no – this is just a well-worn formula.
What the formula does is deliver a catering simulation, but cram it onto a single game screen. You’re not rushing about a kitchen like Overcooked!. Instead, the kitchen is compact and in front of you like a car’s dashboard, and you are tapping buttons on your pad that correspond to different parts of the kitchen. In many ways, it’s like a game of Guitar Hero, as you react to the orders on-screen, pushing the various buttons that dollop on ketchup, salad or chocolate. If you practice enough, it can be a whirlwind of button presses, and your customers will be served mere moments after they have arrived.
There is a slight deviation from the ‘Tycoon’ games we mentioned. Virtual Families Cook Off: Chapter 1 Let’s Go Flippin’ likes to turn up the difficulty a touch by adding more stuff to the worktop than you might be used to. There are now more things to do than there are buttons on your pad. That means you have to navigate over to the drinks, the eggs or whatever and then press the corresponding buttons, rather than act like a conductor, performing all actions from your pulpit. It’s a shame, if we’re honest, that there’s more fiddliness involved. We prefer the Tycoon approach.
Regardless, it all works swimmingly well. It can feel a bit like rubbing your belly and patting your head, as the button prompts for frying an egg are different from the button prompts for frying a churro. But that’s part of the fun, as you recalibrate at each workstation. The best players will anticipate orders and get things baking, cooking and frying before the customers even arrive. Having a stock of the basics is essential if you want the big scores.
On more than one occasion, we got in over our heads. You can only move meals to plates if those plates are empty, so it’s entirely possible to get backed up. If the food then remains on hotplates for too long, then it can burn, and getting rid of this scorched chaff is fiddly – we would imagine deliberately so – as it needs a combination of buttons that never come quickly. Customers can ask for more meals than you can feasibly have on the table at one time, and then other customers queue up behind them. The anxiety is real, as you try to remember which customers had been there longest. Power-ups let you top up their patience, should you be on a downward spiral.
We’re going to toot our own trumpet here: we got pretty good at Virtual Families Cook Off: Chapter 1 Let’s Go Flippin’. Barely a thought entered our heads as we moved, instinctively, from station to station. We felt like we were pulling off Mortal Kombat fatalities, as the button combos got more and more elaborate.
Those grokking moments lasted for a couple of hours before Virtual Families Cook Off moved to the next group of foods, and the next. You see, Virtual Families Cook Off is not content to sit still. The game is chopped up into levels, and those levels get increasingly hard. But occasionally you move to a completely new setup and start the loop again, earning cash from your meals and then upgrading the tools at your disposal.
Virtual Families Cook Off: Chapter 1 Let’s Go Flippin’ goes a little hard on this structure. Too hard, we’d say. On the one hand it’s supremely generous: there are fudging hundreds of levels to play here (that ‘Chapter 1’ in the title began to feel like a threat), as you move through over a dozen different kitchens. We’d guess that there is at least thirty hours of play in total, particularly as each level can be returned to for two additional tiers of challenge.
But, oof, does it all get a bit much. That’s down to basic fatigue, as there isn’t that much that changes between levels and kitchens. But it’s also due to feelings of grind. If you want to ride the various difficulty spikes in Virtual Families Cook Off, then you will need to pay for upgrades that generate more cash flow, and allow you to manufacture meals at a fast enough rate. Playing each level once won’t get you anywhere enough to do this. You have to play them multiple times, which stretches the playtime – and the patience – too thin. We found ourselves feeling exhausted, done, and needing to give it some room for a couple of days. Which we’re not sure is what gaming is about.
It could have been different. There’s a second layer to Virtual Families Cook Off, where you can earn unlocks in your house. Complete the house and you can move to the next one. It should have been a fun distraction, a wee payoff for all the effort. But it’s terrible: we kept getting tempted by flashing notifications, but there was never anything to do, and we grumbled and exited as soon as we could. Very, very rarely an ice cream van will turn up, but that just hands you power-ups that could have been gained from the main game proper. It’s such a waste of space on the screen.
Virtual Families Cook Off gave us the impression that it once had very different aims on mobile. By being grindy yet absolutely mahoosive, the microtransactions must have flown off the shelves. It must have been so tempting to drop a couple of quid on some ice creams or no-burn power-ups. The game structure makes sense if you’re a developer trying to get a player to stick around and pay.
But in translating Virtual Families Cook Off: Chapter 1 Let’s Go Flippin’ to Xbox, only half the job has been done. The baking and cooking feels great with a controller in the hands, and the microtransactions have wisely been excised from this £8.39 release. But the grind and levels that feed it are all still here. The result is a game that feels weighed down by stuff, and it takes too long to get through it all. Virtual Families Cook Off just didn’t need to be this portly.