Harvest Moon and its many imitators have been at the forefront of my handheld gaming library for years, dating all the way back to the Game Boy Color iteration. Hometown Story's release marked a turning point for me, showcasing a completely different type of game within the same universe I was already used to. It looked like a refreshing change of pace from the typical farm sim, and as if it could be the answer to a stagnating genre. Then I played it, and everything became clear. Hometown Story is different, for sure, but in none of the ways I was hoping.
After the game finally got into full swing, I found myself wondering how this thinly-veiled inventory management sim looked so appealing before I actually opened the case and tore into the game. It's cute enough, I'll give it that. You can choose from a rudimentary male or female avatar as you become the new head of a small shop in the town you grew up in. A small magical minion (Pochica) shows you the ropes quickly before turning you loose for the day.
A glut of the game is played out in the confines of your shop, where customers stream in and out all day. You need to make sure your store is stocked to the brim with items customers want to purchase as they make their rounds, so it's a full-time job making your humble shop aesthetically appealing and ensuring your tables and shelves are stocked with eggs, grass, milk, fish, and other objects the townsfolk want to file in and sell. You can set the price of each as well, leaning more toward a cheap price for buyers or more money to hoard for yourself. As you collect money, you can purchase additions for your shop as well as new items to push.
The relationship between you and your customers is symbiotic at best, though they never feel like personable beings, and more like robotic gophers that pop in and out looking for a good deal. There you stand in the shop, checking people out every few minutes and waiting for your shelves to empty so you can rush over and pop a new item up to maximize profit. And this isn't exactly a cakewalk. Placing tables and items alike is endlessly frustrating, with controls that make doing such a nightmare. The only time the controls feel competent is when you're running around the shop willy-nilly. When it's time to stock, you're constantly fighting the camera and the available slots for placing items, which encourages you to slam the 3DS shut and find something more interesting to do -- which is what I did, several times.
Fortunately, there's life outside the shop, but not much. You'll want to branch out and aid townsfolk with various issues they find themselves dealing with in order to secure new merchandise for your shop, and in turn you'll be making others happy. Your shop will expand, you'll have more to do, and there'll be more reason for you to make yourself busy playing shopkeep. But that's where the problems lie. There's so little to do that the game quickly becomes a slog, and it feels half-finished as a result. You can sell items to the robotic townsfolk until the cows come home, but you never feel as though you're truly accomplishing anything. It's frustrating, and you never feel that same sense of completion as you would with Harvest Moon, and that's certainly a hindrance.
Hometown Story projects the appearance of being homey and inclusive, but it's not engaging in any way. It's a trudge through the fantasy of being a shopkeep with little reason or incentive for players to continue after the magic has faded. If you're entranced by the imagery on the box, there are far better (and cheaper) games to scratch that itch.