Hokko Life Review: A Familiar Experience
The start of the fall season typically marks the beginning of what many consider the “gauntlet” of juggernaut game releases. This year is no different. But on top of the big releases like Gotham Knights, God of War Ragnarok, and Callisto Protocol, there are plenty of smaller scale games that come out around this time that can be diamonds in the rough.
Hokko Life is a cozy farm/life-sim that mirrors a lot of what Animal Crossing does and is entering its 1.0 release (it’s been available on PC in Early Access June 2021). While it offers an interesting blend of ideas, like deeper customization, a bigger area to explore outside of the village and town, and an array of bugs and items to collect, there are a lot of games that do better than what Hokko Life is trying to do.
Hokko Life opens almost exactly like Animal Crossing for the Nintendo Gamecube. You’ll start by creating and customizing your character, though the suite is surprisingly limited for a game that establishes deeper levels of customization in other areas later on. Once you’ve selected your hair and other features, there is a very brief cutscene of your character on a train and … you’re at your destination – a town in need of sprucing up.
You’ll quickly find yourself at the local inn, chatting with the residents, and moving into the village nearby before starting your quest to revive the area and bringing in new citizens and shops. It’s a very run-of-the-mill introduction, though an accessible one that doesn’t burden you with too much information or too many mechanics.
Hokko Life starts slow, perhaps slower than other games in the genre. In the first few days, you're told to just "enjoy life" while waiting for things to happen. However, there isn’t much to do in those initial days except chop trees, pick flowers, and catch bugs. The tools to mine, dig, fish, and craft are all given quite a few days after you arrive. That means there’s a lot of standing around or going to bed very early. It’s an odd and unnatural design choice, which leads you to cutting most of your initial week or so short just to get to what’s after.
As you progress, unlocking more blueprints, meeting new anthropomorphic animals searching for new horizons, and generally exploring the world around you, the gameplay loop remains just about the same as when you first hopped off the train. From chopping down trees for wood and planting new trees to create more wood (there’s a lot of chopping and planting), to mining rocks for ore and charcoal, fishing, catching butterflies, and crafting new designs and items to customize the village and its homes, there aren’t too many big surprises along the way for life-sim fans.
While easing players into the mechanics like this is a nice idea, it’s a double-edged sword. It gives them time to understand things, but it also takes a long time to get into the meat of Hokko Life. Once you finally – and truly – arrive, you’ll be met with an extremely simplistic and sometimes frustratingly opaque suite of mechanics and systems.
Even helping new residents move in the early going isn’t as straightforward as it seems: gather materials, choose a design, place a house, and wait for it to build. Your first new citizen is given to you, but the rest require you to meet them at the Inn. The game never tells you that, meaning you could easily miss out on new shopkeeps and other interesting characters, leaving you to amble around the village aimlessly.
Despite its simplicity and initially obtuse nature, there is a lot to do in Hokko Life once you reach the middle parts of Spring. The map begins to open up, with you gaining access to new areas like the mines and the farm (if you focus on the right in-game challenges, like waving at certain number of neighbors or picking "X" number of flowers).
The problem with that burgeoning map size is that Hokko Life has long loading screens everywhere. There’s a lot of back and forth with buying and selling things, getting crafting materials, talking to one resident before running to another to deliver an item. That’s normal for a life-sim, the issue is that these transitions are rough at best.
The town square is separated from the village, which requires a loading screen. Heading to the beach from the village requires a loading screen. Going north towards the mines requires three loading screens. And so on. It all works to form a quite unfriendly user experience, and while time is not the enemy here like it is in Animal Crossing (you can just sleep to the next day or even sleep to the evening), there is maybe a bit too much traversal and thumb-twiddling.
Hokko Life can have its relaxing moments, though. There are times where mining rocks for charcoal, copper, and iron, planting and tending a forest or garden, or making a unique furniture design puts you into a nice flow state, where the loop feels not only fun, but also gratifying. The soundtrack also adds a layer of comfort.
The songs are very easy to listen to and are quite cozy; they help encapsulate the overall zen aesthetic of the game. The sound design is well done, too, full of calming sounds like waves crashing softly or birds chirping gleefully in the distance, all of which coalesce with the soundtrack to create natural soundscapes that make each biome and season feel alive and soothing.
Though the game has been in Steam Early Access for more than a year, there are still bugs that plague the overall experience, at least during our review period. Early on in my playthrough, a bridge leading to a new area just completely disappeared. To reach the resources on the other side, I wasted an entire in-game week just to plant trees, harvest them, and rebuild the bridge. The game even made the very bizarre choice of prioritizing the growth of a tree that was placed next to the bridge instead of the construction of the bridge.
There were also issues with the in-game recipe shop offered by the master crafter, Sally. Often, the game wouldn’t load the designs that were offered, and I had to restart the game twice before it fixed itself. It was a very bizarre situation that really hampered the experience.
Hokko Life Review – The Bottom Line
- Great sound design.
- Excellent soundtrack.
- Crafting experience is surprisingly deep and has a ton of freedom to it.
- No fighting against the clock, whether real-time or in-game
- Villagers aren’t well designed.
- The shops’ daily rotations are extremely limited.
- A few too many loading screens.
- Early game is slow with no clear direction.
Hokko Life may add some quality-of-life features to the life/farming-sim genre, such as bulk building and a robust crafting system, but it ultimately feels directionless, lacking the charm many other genre titles have.
Some of its systems are unique and add a new layer to traditional mechanics that other games should employ, but there’s a lot of waiting around “to do things,” and it’s often unclear what’s required to move the game forward. Hokko Life can be fun at times; you just have to really work for it.
[Note: Team 17 provided the copy of Hokko Life used for this review.]