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Tao Plays: Potion Craft
Double, double, toil and trouble
As I’m forever in the habit of reminding listeners: I don’t play many video games other than the ones we cover tri-weekly for the podcast. Between work and other hobbies it’s just too much of a stretch to fit them in. Close friends often recommend games for me to play, but the time isn’t there for me to split between two 20+ hour adventures. As such, one thing I’ve been telling myself to do for a while is to investigate small games. Games where you can experience most of what they have to offer in a few hours, but which nonetheless offer something innovative or rewarding. I took a couple of weeks off work recently. On the first Sunday, with fourteen promising days of freedom laid out in front of me, my partner messaged me to say: ‘just played this for a glorious hour, really chill, thoroughly recommend’, alongside a picture of the ‘Potion Craft’ menu. I decided to give it a whirl.
I had never heard of the game, and apparently neither has anyone else. There were no user reviews on Steam when I played it, and there are no user reviews at the time of writing. It hasn’t been fully released yet, but there is a beautifully well realised demo. It is an ‘alchemist simulator’ - something that must have been done before, but for which I can’t think of a parallel off-hand (there is of course Quacks of Quedlinburg in cardboard). On starting the game you are greeted with a wonderfully illustrated setting and a charmingly simple story. Through a ye olde book-like interface you are told that you have set up shop as a potion-maker in an abandoned house on the outskirts of town. From this base, folk from all over town (and even from other towns, apparently) will stop in to buy your tinctures and tonics, balms and brews. From your concoctions wounds will heal, crops will grow and houses will burn.
At least, this is what’s happening in the outside world if your steady stream of customers is to be believed. The imbibing and/or pouring of your pots is left to your imagination. Your focus is kept solely on picking, brewing, trading, sleeping and repeating. The game is set between five lovely screens, each exquisitely drawn to accompany a living fairytale of libational discovery. To your right is a magical garden, where an abundance of pretty herbs and mushrooms sprout up for your convenience each morning. In the centre is your potion brewing room. Here you chuck fresh ingredients into your cauldron, and bottle and label the result. The humble mortar, pestle and ladle serve as your co-creators, each responding satisfyingly well to the pull and click of your mouse in a small arena of 2D physics. Stirring and grinding are a mandatory requirement of a budding alchemist. To the left there is your shop front, where foggy eyed townsfolk wait patiently in line for you to give them a literal solution for the problem they’re facing. Travel upwards to find an un-fussy bedroom to rest your weary head and advance time forwards. Below is a mysterious basement with a sophisticated alembic to combine potions - a feature yet to be implemented fully.
The act of potion crafting demands further explanation. Every ingredient is made unique not only by its artwork and name, but by the meandering direction it leads you on a persistent map of potion discovery. Thornstick and Firebell might lead you south-west to create a poison potion, whilst Witch Mushroom and Terraria could lead you east to a frost potion. For each extra ingredient you add, you will be taken further from the centre of the map in a certain direction and by a certain winding pattern. You plot the route you want to take by adding to the pot, and travel along the path by stirring the mixture with your trusty spoon. Once you have reached the desired potion you finish the process, and can make the potion again instantly using the same set of ingredients. Combining these directional properties in the most efficient way possible will ensure you make the best use of your precious stock.
Exactly why this process is so addictive and compelling is a mystery to me, but fortunately it is as it’s where most of your time in the game will be spent. Perhaps it is the childish delight of uncovering new recipes; the satisfaction of using just the right number of ingredients to create a difficult potion type; or stirring your spoon exactly the right amount to make the highest quality product. It is not a combination of game mechanics I can remember encountering before, and it had me hooked for a whole morning - feverishly brewing away as the alchemists chart filled out alongside my understanding of the game itself. It felt like a pure experience: not hampered by distractions, but focused solely on the craft which the game promised to simulate. A simple, novel and well executed implementation of an arcane art in video game form.
Providing some structure to your days spent stirring are the requests people make in your shop. Each customer brings with them a unique story, albeit with some overlap in terms of theme. You would think there’s only so many ways a soldier can say they need a healing potion, but the game nevertheless tries its best to show you them all. Your customers never directly ask for a particular potion, but instead give the context for why they need your help, and leave it to you as the professional to interpret what exact potion they require. It’s usually fairly obvious what they need, but it definitely adds further spice to your role. There is something inherently satisfying about interpreting a human problem, however straightforward, rather than simply fulfilling a cold, by the number’s request. You can barter with people to up the price they pay, and the more customers you serve the higher your reputation climbs. Be careful though: not everyone is well intentioned. Somewhat programmed to serve all visitors for better or worse, I often found my reputation plummeting after handing a fire potion to a shady character. I suppose there is no nice way to burn down someone’s barn.
For a three hour experience Potion Craft delivered handsomely. Despite technically only being a demo awaiting a full release, it felt feature rich and very polished. I haven’t seen it covered anywhere yet, so I hope it gets the media attention it deserves at some stage. With thousands of games being released on Steam every week, I felt lucky to have been pointed towards a hidden gem. If you find yourself with a few hours free, an empty pot and a bare cupboard, I fully recommend checking it out.