As a reviewer, I tend to pick out games that I want to review based on one of three criteria. The first are games where either I had been following early development or just saw the trailer and thought that the game looked like a lot of fun. The second are games that are somehow important for us to have coverage of where I’m the person who can manage the turnaround time. But the third? Those are games where even just looking at the trailer I have a vague sense of “this game is going to be a mess,” but I figure it’s at least going to be an interesting mess.
The first trailer I saw for Affogato gave me that exact sense. I didn’t expect to dislike it, but I expected an ambitious game that had some neat ideas, some very messy implementation, and ultimately was at least interesting but wasn’t particularly good along the way. But what did I actually get? I’m not going to give away the summation of the review, but the short version is… not that. So when the game actually comes out today, is it worth your time and interest?
The game starts you off early with its core conceit. Affogato, the eponymous protagonist, is a witch. That means that she’s made a pact with a demon, in this case the rather vapid and imperious Mephista, and her life’s work is all about finding other people being corrupted by demons and free them of the demonic influence. While this may sound a bit weird, it makes sense when you think about it a little, since Affogato is a willing participant in an agreement who gets something out of the arrangement rather than being an unwilling dupe.
Affogato describes herself as a bleeding heart who’s just inclined to kindness, and that’s borne out in the actual story; Mephista is repeatedly annoyed that Affogato seems to have zero interest in any actual power or advantage for herself, instead happily just brewing coffee and helping people. While their lightly antagonistic friendship forms the core of the dynamic, Affogato also spends her time interacting with a large number of other people, mostly women, and sorting out their problems.
If the whole thing sounds like the setup for an anime that spends half of its runtime on monsters of the week and then belatedly introduces an actual plot to be resolved, you’re getting the right idea. Affogato herself is affable and demonstrably cares about the people she’s serving drinks to, but she doesn’t wind up in the far-too-common “good is dumb” category; she’s just really bad about establishing her boundaries. Mephista, meanwhile, is shrill and somewhat demanding but ultimately an ally. Natalie is polite and clearly unhappy with her life without being cruel, Sera clearly talks a big game without meaning a lot of it, Lindsay is a bit annoying but still ultimately sympathetic… you get the idea. These are likable people in a story that is, ultimately, about making you like them.
It’s lightweight, but it’s told well. And ultimately, that’s kind of the goal, isn’t it? It doesn’t promise to change the world, but it uses your time in a way that is not wasted.
There are two halves to Affogato’s gameplay. The first is the lightweight management of your coffee shop, Witchery, and the second is the game’s core system of “reverse tower defense” for battles. It’s the second that is largely more interesting.
When battle commences, Affogato starts with a supply of Penta and a hand of magical cards. Each card at the start represents a unit that she can summon, based on the traditional major arcana of a Tarot deck. You then proceed along a mazelike path and attempt to attack the enemies along that path, with kills netting you various rewards including more Penta, cards along the battlefield, treasures, and so forth. At most junctions of paths you can also choose to steer your units in different directions, allowing you control over what you’re fighting and a greater element of strategy beyond initial unit lineup.
There have been other sorts of games with a similar basic setup, and as someone who loves tower defense games in general, I’m happy to say that this battle system is generally fun to play out. Strategy and careful execution are the order of the day here, with most battles being won or lost pretty early based on your overall planning. It also does favor a mixture of units, but perhaps most crucially it doesn’t force you into using one very specific mixture of units; past the early tutorial battles you face some interesting choices regarding your loadout, and at least early on you rarely feel like you are either helpless or overpowered.
The coffee shop aspect, meanwhile, is a fairly lightweight game of managing customer orders based on the recipe list and a few drag-and-drop chores. It’s entertaining enough as a diversion, and it works well with the game’s time limit and rent requirements to keep you from just grinding or slacking off. While the mechanics are not terribly reminiscent of the Persona series beyond superficial elements (major arcana and time limits, basically), the spirit seems alive and well insofar as you need to pick your activities with some care.
It’s ultimately pretty addictive and it’s easy to get into a rhythm of the game. My biggest complaint is that it does feel a bit short, but there is at least a reasonable amount of replay potential with sidequests and the like. And as I’ve frequently said, saying “I wish there was more of this game” is not really a bad thing.
Better Latte than Never
There’s one major flaw that kind of drags Affogato down, and that’s the battle graphics. I don’t like them. The character artwork is excellent and expressive, the UI is clean, and the battle graphics make it clear what is happening… but the actual cartoonish style of the sprites, both in the overworld and the battles, doesn’t mesh well with the music or the static art. The actual units you summon look only faintly related to their card art, which is a shame, and the whole thing just looks serviceable but not good every time you’re not just chatting with someone. It makes the game look cheap.
Fortunately, the game doesn’t feel cheap; it’s voiced decently (I opted for Japanese when I played), the music is nice, sound effects are good, and as mentioned the UI is clean and comprehensible throughout. I was particularly impressed by the fact that all of the dialogue is actually decently localized; there were few cases where sentences read like clumsy translations. I’ve played a lot of hastily translated games with poor localizations, and this one rarely made a mistake.
One minor bug I did notice is that the voice files appear to start playing separate of any other process. If you start a voice line and then manually advance the dialogue to the next line, the prior line stops and the next line plays correctly; however, if you play a line and then advance to a loading screen or exit the game or whatever, the voice line keeps playing on the loading screen. Similarly, a couple of times I exited the game and then had to manually stop it because it would not actually stop.
Mocha Money, Mocha Problems
There are definitely some rough edges in Affogato, like poor sprite work and the odd technical issue. But while those issues are noteworthy, they are far from being a significant drain on the game. Indeed, I found myself consistently enjoying the game, and while the issues do drag it down they don’t really hurt the game. This is a fun, inventive title with a lot of heart to it.
Fans of tower defense games and JRPGs should give this game a look, because it’s at once inventive and satisfying. It’s not flawless, but I’ve played big-budget games this year that didn’t have half the heart or originality that this little game has.
Review copy provided by Spiral Up Games for PC. Screenshots courtesy of reviewer and Spiral Up Games.