REVIEW: Innchanted's co-op magical management chaos is layered... literally
As a gamer with wide-ranging tastes, I find myself chasing the dragon of a variety of gaming highs again and again. And one that I've been chasing after more recently is the chaos of a Spaceteam gaming session, a social mobile game specifically built to cause chaos — one where screaming over each other is the preferred, and sometimes only, way to succeed.
There's something about the purposeful befuddlement within its design, the constant stress of having things piled on top of you, and the worry that you'll never quite make it out in the end.
Gamers... I'm proud to say that this particular dragon has been caught and I found what I was looking for in the chaotic inn-management Overcooked-like halls of Innchanted.
Just the Facts
Developer: DragonBear Studios
Publisher: Twin Sails Interactive
Platform(s): PC*, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series S and X (through backwards compatibility), Nintendo Switch
Release Date: March 28, 2023
Review key provided by Sandbox Strategies.
Innchanted comes to us out of Australian development studio DragonBear Studios, a region seeing a huge surge of indie releases in the last few years. Their debut release has seen its development documented extensively on Twitter, and it's through their in-progress updates that I first stumbled upon it. It's how I was able to watch this game go from the early in-production shots to the level of quality it ended up at, through a title change from Chaos Tavern to Innchanted, and through all of the chaos of the pandemic.
It's amazing how indie developers get things done and overcome all the challenges, and DragonBear Studios deserve their flowers for seeing their vision through to release. Doubly so because their particular brand of chaos stands out as some of the best the genre has seen.
From the jump, Innchanted stands out from its contemporaries in the genre simply by having a dedicated narrative. In Innchanted, you'll be joining up with a band of adventurers during a break from adventuring school. Together, they head to their leader's family inn for some much-deserved R&R. But rest and relaxation turns into something more like ruckus and riot when they find a mischievous wizard named Colin has taken over the inn.
Our adventurers, of course, won't let this stand. They challenge Colin to a month-long showdown. If they can run the inn perfectly and withstand a batch of critics' tests, they get the inn back for Yarrul and her family. If they fail, Colin keeps the land permanently. And so begins the journey.
It's a light narrative, but it feeds into every aspect of the game. And what I want to emphasize more than anything is the generally lighthearted and wholesome approach to everything, with some genuinely hilarious moments sprinkled all throughout. From the relationships between the core group of adventurers to the lessons passed on by the various elders and characters who introduce each new game mechanic, Innchanted is a game focused on good vibes.
With some incredible passive representation, including a nonbinary knight, queer relationships, and roots in Indigenous Australian stories, Innchanted manages to make what should be a fairly minor piece of an arcade-y experience so satisfying and inclusive. It's about respecting the land and people, working with the nature around you, and tapping into the Earth's natural magic.
If you need an immediate sign that DragonBear Studios has their heads on straight, Innchanted is one of the few games that I've ever seen that opens with a land acknowledgement, and that's pretty cool.
"Each day in the magical inn comes with a brand-new layout, so even when you get into a comfortable rhythm, the game drops you into a room with portals, air tubes, and switches that change where the walls appear in the inn. No day feels the same as the last and that keeps it fresh from beginning to end."
The good vibes come through beautifully with Innchanted's visuals too. Characters are adorable with big round heads, giant sparkly eyes, and designs that are easy to read from afar — which is especially important for when you and your friends are dashing all about and tossed ingredients are whizzing past you. There are fun costumes you can unlock as you play that add even more interesting flair, including a batch of pride flag costumes that actually reflect each character's identities. And the music is the perfect backdrop to the otherwise chaotic journey, composed by Meena Shamaly in collaboration with First Nations musicians. It's easy to see that DragonBear weaves their values into all they do and we appreciate that.
I don't dare ruin the moment by spoiling it, but I want you to know that Innchanted has one of the most slow-burn pun payoffs nearly halfway through its 10-hour runtime. The pun game in Innchanted is top-tier already, but this one joke payoff relating to a character's name? Better pun work has not been seen in gaming.
Screaming and serving
Innchanted's take on the co-op arcade restaurant sim experience starts familiar and remains basic from end to end, but it's in the details that DragonBear's debut shines.
In running the inn, you'll be doing a few basic things for your customers: Making and serving magical potions and food and fending off the monsters that roam into your inn. It all works as you'd expect — small contextual actions will make things like pouring quicker, you can toss things around to your pals or onto tables and into machines, and it's all about figuring out your priorities and managing those tasks, splitting up duties amidst your crew. The actual actions are simple and uncomplicated, making it easy for anyone to hop in.
With your month-long goal set from the start, progression takes place over several "days." Each day is broken up into a morning and afternoon shift, usually with the mornings introducing a new wrinkle for you to get used to and then the afternoon giving you a genuine challenge with said wrinkle. You've got 28 days to work through, and with a full group of players, it should only take about 9-10 hours to make it through to the game's end.
While the main grouping of mechanics is fairly routine, it's the way they layer on each new wrinkle every day that makes it so interesting, further complicating those systems to flood your mind with new things to consider each and every day.
Got steaks? Eventually, you'll have to flavor a steak with one of the three potions you're serving your customers. Those potions? You'll end up mixing them in a cauldron to create a batch of advanced potions, both to serve to customers and to drink yourself for special effects. Red and yellow makes a strength potion that can help you break boulders in some of the complicated inn layouts and brush massive wombats that carry some of your customers traveling from afar. Yellow and blue gives you a charisma potion that you'll need to take orders from the shy water spirits. Et cetera.
Customer variants are important too! Beyond the shy guys, you'll eventually run into fire spirits who have lower patience, some butterfly witches that need to be served in a specific order, and some Elders who need to be seated just right to maximize your gains while serving them.
If you can't already tell, by the end of the game you'll be juggling so much information within these basic systems that, to make it through a shift as fast as you can, you'll have to shuffle through a wild rolodex of information to keep up with the demand. When you play with a group of buds who all have different priorities and focus areas in the inn, this turns into a shouting fest that sounds incomprehensible from the outside but makes clear sense to everyone involved. It's a special kind of chaos that even the best of the genre fail to capture.
Each day in the magical inn also comes with a brand-new layout, so even when you get into a comfortable rhythm, the game drops you into a room with portals, air tubes, and switches that change where the walls appear in the inn. No day feels the same as the last and that keeps it fresh from beginning to end.
Even if you find yourself achieving three stars per shift, maximizing your efforts and score by being the best inn owner you can be, this chaos and freshness leaves you stressed every single session. Nothing feels easy, even if, in the end, you find yourself dominating the game's challenges.
A few overdone steaks on the barbie
As you'd expect with a game with piles and piles of layers, Innchanted is best with four players. Being able to coordinate and balance the tasks that need doing with a full team of pals is always preferable, but DragonBear does some fun stuff here with AI helpers to make the solo experience way more enjoyable than a game like this usually ends up. Because the basics are as simple as they are, it's not hard to ask an AI character to fulfill a basic role.
If you've got any spot to fill, you can summon an AI companion who has a few basic commands you can ask them to fulfill: serve customers, work on refilling the potion dispensers, or defend the inn from enemies. Each role lightens the load in a way that is, in some ways, even better than having a human. When you ask another person to hop on the grill and do some steaks, they might have something else in the works that forces you to hop into that work. Having direct control over what your helper does next is an interesting twist, and no other similar game really has been able to figure something like this out.
But again, you're best suited to hop in with a full group of pals. Humans > AI and you can consider that a hard stance for VGG in general. Steam's Remote Play Together function is how we managed to get through our first playthrough with some pals online and it works pretty well.
Another aspect that ends up more on the mixed side is Innchanted's intriguing start-of-day mechanic. Each night, you'll choose one of five prep tasks for the next morning. How you handle it will have positive, negative or neutral effects on your shifts the next day. A one-line scenario presents itself (e.g. Oh no, you need to mop but also you haven't finished counting your money! What will you do?) and you'll make one choice that ultimately impacts the following shifts.
It's a fun system that ends up an interesting little contextual puzzle where you try to figure out which option leads to the best outcome, especially when you discuss it with your pals. It's a tiny part of the overall puzzle, but it's one that further separates the game from others in the genre. But pretty quickly it stops being as fun, because... there's not a ton of variety. These decisions start looping after just a few days and become repetitive so that you can basically memorize the choices that give you positive boosts. Innchanted doesn't have any pure negatives — it's a lot of sweet and sour hidden throughout all of its systems. The systems are fairly simple, but as they fold in new concepts, there's a weird inconsistency in what gets explained and what doesn't. Some things feel overexplained, to the point of interrupting the flow of gameplay at times to force you to understand the simplest mechanics. Other things feel underexplained, given the quickest of mentions, and moved past in a moment's notice.
And lastly, there are tiny bits of lacking polish that, while understandable for an indie team, cause tiny frustrations here and there. Hitboxes working inconsistently when making potions or serving customers that mess you up, a few glitches with physics that crop up when tossing things around the inn, and the rare bit of slowdown now and again. Nothing that really hurts the true fun, but nags either way.
DragonBear's debut is a certified gem. Innchanted delivers a special brand of chaos and fun that has good vibes and good values incorporated into nearly every aspect of its design. Shouting may ensue and stress may be a primary feeling across your inn management journey, but the satisfaction of completing a day's shifts without losing your head, with pals who've been right by your side through it all? That's priceless.
And Innchanted only asks you to shell out $20, so I mean... that's a good price for priceless.
Video Games Are Good and Innchanted is . . . GREAT. (8/10)
+ lighthearted story weaves into every piece of the game, layered chaos makes for a unique gameplay experience, never feels same-y across a 10-hour story
- some systems are underexplained or explained way late leading to frustration, solo experience lacking but better than most, a few rough edges here and there
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