REVIEW: The Good Life is the friends you make along the way
Updated: Feb 8, 2022
Swery65 is one of the most fascinating individuals in the games industry. His biggest games have at their very best have capped out at around a 78 average review score. His games routinely have technical issues and design tenets that are relics of a bygone era.
So why is it that Swery's works are also some of the most impactful, most original, and most deeply appreciated by its audiences? How do Swery and his teams manage to tap into something special with each game and, without fail, pull people in?
I honestly don't know, but I'm happy to report that his latest release, The Good Life, taps right into that something special to provide a truly unique, if not janky, experience.
Just The Facts
Developer: White Owls Inc
Platforms: Xbox Series S/X, Xbox One, PS4, PS5 (via backwards compatibility), PC*, Switch *platform reviewed on
Price: $29.99 on PC, $39.99 on consoles, Free via XBOX Game Pass (Console/PC)
Release Date: Oct. 15, 2021
Key provided by Evolve PR.
After a successful Kickstarter in 2018, The Good Life, like many crowdfunded projects before it, changed slightly from its original pitch over time. It changed in form but maintained a focus on photography, life sim elements, and... the age-old tradition of animorphing?
In The Good Life, you play Naomi Hayward, a photojournalist from New York City who finds herself on assignment in England. Specifically in "the happiest town in the world" — a sleepy little hamlet in the middle of nowhere, Rainy Woods. Naomi's assignment is to uncover the town's secrets, because any town that touts itself as "the happiest town in the world" is undoubtedly harboring some deep dark truths.
Naomi isn't doing it out of the goodness of her own heart or a journalistic passion for chasing good stories though. She's in debt to her employers, Morning Bell News, to the tune of 31 million emokes (the game's fictional currency) and the only way she'll pay it off is by getting a big scoop. And so her journey out of the pile of debt begins.
Look. Before we go any further, let's get something out of the way.
The Good Life is WEIRD. In mostly the best ways.
Swery isn't shy about finding inspiration in David Lynch's works, particularly the classic Twin Peaks, and as a result, a lot of his games share Lynchian traits: the vibes are absurdist, characters are vaguely wholesome, and tonal dissonance abounds. They also share direct comparison points (an older man who yells everything he says because of a faulty hearing aid, a character with one really strong gloved arm, animals holding deep secrets, etc.) that are fun references for those in the know.
At first glance, The Good Life is Swery at his most restrained. Because while Naomi is a loud and brash American whose main personality trait is hating things and miming shots to the head... she's not strange. The first batch of townsfolk you get to know have their quirks, but not in any way that gives you much pause. But then a full moon hits and all pretense is thrown out the window.
In Rainy Woods, the townsfolk transform into cats and dogs during every full moon. Naturally, just by visiting the town, Naomi gains the ability herself, and everything changes. What follows is a whirlwind of chaos that involves angels of death, regal legacies, hidden military bases, and so much more. The game's main storyline is bonkers but Swery keeps the wheels from completely falling off, and that's enough to keep you compelled, looking for the next wild twist around every corner.
Eventually, Naomi trips into a mystery (that we won't tease here, so you can dive into it yourself) that she volunteers to solve. It promises to answer all of her questions and get her the payday she's after.
Thanks to the game's more cartoony aesthetic and inherently goofy setup, Swery is allowed to let loose even more than he has in past works, and that's saying something. His original ideas flow and nearly every piece of this game is pumped full of character and personality. True originality is hard to find in gaming these days and The Good Life has it in spades.
It isn't all perfect though. Pacing is erratic. The game's open structure encourages dalliances in the near-infinite amount of side systems and grind-y side quests, which brings the story to a narrative halt regularly. The ending is far from satisfactory, with some major hanging questions and a few confusing last-minute twists. Naomi is not the most likable protagonist, with her extremely jaded perspective growing tiresome quickly.
But The Good Life is certainly more about the journey than the destination, with its quirky cast of characters and unique storylines keeping me from looking back at the game in a negative light. But there's no better place to mine out that truth than in the experience of playing the game.
"While the main story quests take you on one hell of a rollercoaster ride, with varied gameplay styles that give you a taste of everything that is on offer, the side quests follow a fairly repetitive structure."
The Good Life stands somewhere between a life sim — complete with a million bars to manage, such as health, stamina, awakeness, hunger, mood, and cleanliness — and a traditional adventure game with its "find item, bring item to a place, talk to a person, repeat" cycle bringing back memories of Zelda fetch quests of yore.
In simpler words, there is lots to do and manage, and when you aren't maintaining meters, you're dealing with a bunch of fetch quests.
Quests are plentiful, both with the main story's three routes and the endless side quests, but it's hard to recommend doing anything but the main story here. The aforementioned fetch quests are SO prevalent throughout the entire experience and there are almost triple the amount of side quests as there are main story quests. While the main story quests take you on one hell of a rollercoaster ride, with varied gameplay styles that give you a taste of everything that is on offer, the side quests follow a fairly repetitive structure.
While optional, these side quests represent a majority of this game's total content. As such, completionists like myself feel encouraged to try them out, only to find scant bits of interesting lore and instead discover a prevailing batch of frustrations and issues that no amount of Swery giggles could get rid of.
WHERE IT FLOPS
Finding items is a chore. There are only a few bits of information available to help you find any given item, and little to no tools to help you lock that information in when you DO find said items.
Movement is stiff and deeply uncooperative, switching between a momentum-focused drifty traditional third-person movement style and a frustratingly old-school tank control movement style while on sheep mounts and when carrying heavy items.
Naomi's top speed, while on foot, lands her somewhere between a toddler who just kinda figured out how to get across a room and an Olympic speed walker. This made navigating the game's English landscapes a chore, particularly when ferrying items back and forth across the map. Even when I eventually unlocked the trendy transportation method that is sheep riding, I chose to use fast travel more often than not.
There are several obtuse design choices that feel like relics from a faraway era of game design (the PS2 era stood out in my head while I played). One of the most painful was one that I actually appreciated early on. All of the game's quests only function properly when they are currently selected as your actively tracked quest. Tracking a quest essentially sets the world and all of its NPCs into the appropriate state they need to be in for said quest — meaning you can only find certain items or turn in certain rewards when the appropriate quest is active.
It's a neat twist on the open-world design that makes the White Owls developer's jobs much easier, not having to account for every possible quest interaction at all times, but it's also easy to forget as the player, because games don't usually work like that.
Forgetting this simple concept can see you finally finding an item you need and attempting to turn it in or succeeding to craft something with it, only to find out that you did not in fact finish the quest. You didn't have it active, so it didn't track the changes. And now you might have to go find a rare item again because you thought to craft something or consume something immediately.
These might sound like minor annoyances or nitpicks, but believe me when I say that when these are all stacked together, frustration builds quickly and gaming brain rot settles in. Like cavities, reaching in and decaying a tooth from the inside, it can turn a great game into something else. Something painful.
So how did I still fall for this game in the end? How did Swery pull it off despite some of the most frustrating issues I've had with a game all year? Magic? Kind of, but to start, let's talk about the ways White Owls innovates with The Good Life.
WHERE IT SHINES
First of all, as a photojournalist, Naomi comes equipped with a camera that can be pulled out at nearly any moment in the story to snap photos of your surroundings. Pointing your camera around, you'll tag and identify interesting things in the environment in a way similar to Capcom's Dead Rising series, a feature that pays dividends in many ways.
For one, it represents one of the key ways you can earn money, thanks to the game's preeminent form of social media known as Flamingo. Uploading photos you take as you play earns passive income for each "like" you receive. Every few in-game days, Flamingo is updated with a batch of Hotwords — essentially trending topics — that will result in heavily boosted income if you take photos of items that match them.
It's a simple thing, but I always felt pulled into keeping up my Flamingo presence, much in the same way I feel compelled to tweet bad jokes alongside the day's trending topics (and that's @Naetoid on Twitter for those willing to observe the mess).
You'll sometimes need to snap specific photos of areas/animals/characters that take some puzzling to capture. It helps to create some variation and break up the monotony of the usual quests, especially when used in conjunction with the game's other unique feature: animorphing.
Naomi's ability to turn into both a cat and a dog is more than a fun aside or goofy gimmick. It drastically changes the way the game plays and helped to assuage more than a few of the major issues I had throughout my 20 hours with the game.
As a cat, Naomi becomes an acrobat. Not only does a feline form make her tremendously faster; she also becomes able to nimbly glide past the world's many obstructions. Where human!Naomi sees England's naturally hilly landscapes and stone bricked walls as impassable barriers, keeping crucial items and faster routes out of her grasp, cat!Naomi sees only opportunity.
As a dog, Naomi is allowed to sniff up spots in the world to track people and animals down, relieving yet another pain point. In dog form, Naomi can access a rare source of scent-based hints to find particular items and any of Rainy Woods' varied residents, who are usually fairly hard to track down in the midst of their daily schedules.
The conjunction of The Good Life's most unique features also results in a few interesting scenarios: A variety of photo challenges ask you to get into animal-only positions to get the perfect angle on a landscape, which opens up your eyes to the idea that certain animal-only areas may hold secrets for our animorphing human.
So even amongst my piles of frustration, Swery managed to put two deeply enjoyable features at the center of The Good Life's gameplay. Standing alongside the amazing characters and quirky bits of writing, Swery pulls the rabbit out of the hat again, providing us with a deeply original game whose positives manage to outweigh what are usually deeply problematic issues.
I'm certain, while reading through my varied frustrations, that Swery's biggest fans (which I count myself a part of) were not surprised. Similar issues persist across much of his library, and even as I wrote this labyrinthine review detailing these frustrations, I also found myself able to wave them away. Because this amount of ambition and originality stands out from an era chock-full of copy-paste game design.
"Even amongst my piles of frustration, Swery managed to put two deeply enjoyable features at the center of The Good Life's gameplay."
The Good Life isn't for everyone in the same way that Swery65 himself isn't for a lot of people. But I encourage you to ask if it's for you and go find out. When you give a game like this a chance, you just might sink into the oddities and fall in love with a world of animorphing British folk who ask absurd tasks of you.
Undoubtedly, you'll find yourself upset with more than a few decisions made by Swery and his team at White Owls. But amidst the hodgepodge, you also might find something golden that fits you like a glove.
video games are good and The Good Life is . . . GOOD. (7/10)
+ character and personality at every level of the experience is unmatched, interesting social media system, and LOTS to do, but...
- not much of that "lots to do" is all that fun, there are a few bits of technical jank, and it is almost certainly not to everybody's taste
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