Review: Potionomics

14 Oct 2022

More often than not, the games I review here are not games I specifically knew about beforehand. That is not the case for Potionomics, though. I forget how far back I first learned about it, but I had flagged it as something that looked lovely and like it could be a lot of fun quite some time ago. Of course, I also apply a modicum of temperance to those expectations; I learned long ago that fun-looking games might not materialize into being, well, actually fun.

Still, I requested it right away when it crossed our desk for reviews. I had been following it, I was the one who got interested, and that meant ultimately that I have no one else to blame if the review wound up revealing the game to be a disappointment. But… did it? Did this game that I’ve been watching for so long let me down once it was finally time to head to the finish line? You’ll have to read the rest of the review!

Or scroll down to see my number rating real quick to get a glimpse of how the story ends. I’m not your parent.

Regardless, Potionomics releases on PC via Steam on October 18th, which was obviously the version played for this review.

A Pinch of Financial Distress

Potionomics follows the story of Sylvia, a young potion witch who has just graduated from school and has inherited her estranged but affable uncle’s potion shop in Rafta following his untimely (and kind of idiotic) death. Sylvia arrives in Rafta to find that not only is her uncle’s potion shop not well-stocked, it’s not actually stocked at all. Or well-repaired. Or well-regarded. Also, she officially owes all of the money that her uncle owed before his death… and she is, of course, broke.

The bright side for Sylvia is that she does have an installment plan for paying things off, and fortunately Rafta has a rolling series of potion competitions that will allow her to make her payments… if she wins each competition. To do that, of course, she’ll need potions… and that means she’ll need better brewing facilities… and that means she’ll need money. But Rafta is full of people she can establish business relationships with, and so she gets to work building up her shop, renovating, improving, and hopefully paying off her sizable debt.

What follows next is, not to put too fine a point on it, utterly delightful.

The stakes of the conflict are clear and well-established, and a lot is going to depend on characters. Sylvia, right up front, is perfectly characterized. She’s smart, but underprepared for something she had no idea was coming, but at the same time she’s not relentless or purely profit-driven. You get the sense of someone who is trying hard to make do with something she loves doing but didn’t expect to be thrown into the deep end so quickly.

Sylvia alone wouldn’t be able to carry the game… but fortunately the game doubles down further with a winning cast. The first character you meet outside of your shop, Quinn, is a lackadaisical supplier who wants to be left alone… but rather than being standoffish, rude, or nasty, Quinn is just lethargic and prefers solitude. Novice adventurer Mint, guildmaster Baptiste, catty rival Roxanne… every single character in the game is given an outsized and charming personality, and their dialogue is endearing and fun even if their personalities are a bit straightforward.

The game is also quietly, elegantly inclusive across the board. Quinn is nonbinary, but the game makes a point of it by never making a point of it; they’re clear in their presentation and there’s no need to dwell on it. Mint mentions her dads being bookworms, and again, there’s no need for further elaboration. Sylvia has several romantic options if you want to pursue that route across the spectrum, and these are exactly the sort of people where you’ll actually want to follow those plotlines because they’re genuinely interesting.

It’s not earth-shaking storytelling, but a solid story of “underdog pulling her stuff together and succeeding in spite of obstacles” when told well is more than enough for me to get engaged. And the fact that everyone’s personality is on display in a gameplay sense as well? That’s good.

A Hefty Dollop of Mixed but Balanced Systems

In the broadest sense, Potionomics is a shopkeeper simulator. You are brewing potions, arranging them, and trying to sell them for the largest amount of money possible. You accomplish this through a whole lot of systems that feel like they should be a total mishmash, but they actually work really well, since this is ultimately like multiple games crammed into one.

Brewing, at least, is the simplest system. Every potion you can make is kept in your recipe book; each one requires a certain mixture of magical elements, called Magamins. These are helpfully noted by color and letter, so the game is accessible to everyone. Throwing certain ingredients in the cauldron increases the concentration, and the closer you are to a precise balance with only the required elements and nothing else, the better your brew will turn out. Simple enough, right?

It actually gets a little more complicated with the addition of traits (things that make potions taste better or worse, smell better or worse, and so forth), but the basic system works solidly for how you need to play the game. But at the start of the game, you can only buy the most basic and kind of garbage ingredients… which means you need to get new ingredients, something you accomplish by sending Mint out on expeditions to harvest them and paying Baptiste to fund larger adventuring quests. You can then feed an ingredient to Quinn, at which point they will add it to their stock for the next day.

Of course, that’s just assembling your stock. Whenever someone buys a potion, you start haggling, which takes the form of a deckbuilding game. Sylvia learns new techniques from her relationships with others, but the focus of the game is straightforward. Each customer has a certain amount of Patience, and if you reach the end of it without closing the sale, they’ll leave. Sylvia has to build up their interest (thus raising the price) by playing cards, while also shielding herself from stress and keeping an eye on the overall patience remaining.

Remember ages ago when I reviewed Signs of the Sojourner and noted that its card-based mechanics really didn’t work for conversation? This is the opposite of that system. All of the cards have comprehensible effects, the fiction and mechanics line up nicely, and I actually enjoyed every haggling session while managing Sylvia’s stress and trying to find the right balance of cards to play and keep in my deck. It was fun from start to finish.

And those are just the core mechanics of the game. There’s also building your relationship with the various NPCs, leading to growing affection and new cards as they teach you their techniques. There’s the basic time management and shop management. You can expand your store over time, make extra space for additional potions to brew, and start making more money… but you have to be careful, since you also always have a ticking clock of another competition coming up, and you need your potions ready for that.

It should all be an overwhelming melange, but the two core mechanics – brewing potions and haggling over price – both feel comfortable and make sense. They’re straightforward but deep enough that you can go into more detail over time, but not so deep that you feel like you don’t know what to do. And since they’re introduced by clean, effective tutorials, you always feel like failures or mistakes are yours rather than not knowing what the game expects of you.

Plenty of Sugar and Cinnamon to Taste

If you like the vaguely Pixar-esque quality of the models in the screenshots, you are going to like how Potionomics looks most of the time. Not only are the models well-made, they’re extraordinarily well-animated, with plenty of bespoke motions for each character depending on the situation. (I was warned that there were a few glitches with animations, but if there were I didn’t notice them as I played the game.) Better yet, the animations do a great job of selling you on each character with body language and careful design.

The rest of the UI is clean, unobtrusive, and understandable. Cards that have a special effect based on board state, for example, are highlighted so that you know you should consider using this card right now. It’s easy to understand and page between displays so you know what you’re doing, and it’s also easy to check on your immediate goals and your long-term goals for your next potion competition.

Also, I love the soundtrack. The music is clean, peppy, and comfortable, with different tunes for different locations that convey the right ambiance, and the various sound effects like the bubble of potions brewing or the overreactions Sylvia has when something goes wrong are charming. It’s a good-looking package that also sounds great, and I’m having a hard time coming up with anything to criticize.

Well, maybe one thing – at one point it seemed like the requirements for my potions for the next competition got higher for no explained reason, so I thought I was ready but the quality level I needed got bumped up. That was awkward. Also, it’s kind of a shame that there’s no voice acting? I’m sure that would have been expensive but the animations and everything else are so on-point you kind of want some. Then again, considering how well the writing and posing sells everything, maybe that would be an unnecessary expense.

You see? That’s how far I have to reach for criticism here. “It would be nice if there were voice acting.” That’s all I’ve got.

Voila, a Perfect Brew!

I said before that ultimately, if Potionomics disappointed me, I would have no one to blame for that disappointment but myself. However, far from disappointing me, this game endeared itself to me even further. It went from being a good-looking game that I hoped would live up to its promise to an excellent, fun game that surpassed its promise and then kept being fun all the way through.

Seriously, this is one of those reviews where I want to keep writing because I want to convey how much fun this game is overall. I had a blast with this game. In moments where I was stuck, I didn’t have the urge to throw the game away and never pick it up again; I wanted to figure it out, convinced that there was a path through. I felt happy at each success, rejoiced each time I made a nice sale, felt comfort as I slowly started making money and turning the tides against the forces arrayed against me.

So no, I was not disappointed. Potionomics is one of the best new games I’ve played this year, and I highly recommend that anyone and everyone who looks at this and says “that looks interesting” give it a shot. This is a game that deserves to go on to big things, and it has thoroughly won me over.

Or, to bring over a catchphrase from the game that clearly informed at least some of this game’s substance? Capitalism, ho!

~ Final Score: 9/10 ~

Review copy provided by Voracious Games for PC. Screenshots courtesy of the reviewer and Voracious Games.