How kind of Nintendo to write a game just for me. It had to happen eventually.
"Hey you, the 35-year old man over there!"
[Whuh? I'm nearly 35, there's no need to be rude]
"The daily grind has got you down, but you can escape this dull existence."
[Oh, come on, it's not that bad. TGS was pretty good, apart from missing the flight home. Besides, I've got Halo 3 to look forward to this weekend]
"If you don't want to miss this chance, get to the Western Pool...."
And so begins one of the oddest games Nintendo has brought to the DS; a game where your mind's on your money and your money's on your mind. The entire purpose of this quirky little adventure is to make as much filthy lucre as possible, paying as little as possible for the things you need and extracting the maximum amounts for items other people need. It's the most shamelessly capitalist videogame you'll ever play....and strangely compelling for reasons not apparent after countless hours in its company.
Succumbing to the lure of fabulous riches, you visit the aforementioned Western Pool, where Uncle Rupee awaits. Seducing you with tales of the life that awaits you, the plan is clear: accumulate as many rupees as possible, and throw them in the pool. How many? Who knows? That's all part of the deliciously evil humour that torments you throughout this freaky game.
Point of interest
Wandering around the town, the game works rather like an old point and click adventure at its core. Various characters are stationed around the gameworld, and each serves a purpose at some point or other. Some of these loons will talk to you and impart information for free, but most are as on the take as you are, demanding payment for tips, or for whatever object they have.
Somewhat jarringly, the whole 'bartering' system at the core of the game leaves it very much up to you to decide how many rupees to part with - beginning a slightly irritating process of trial and error as you find out how much they want. Equally, you'll often be forced to take a gamble whenever they offer rewards, sometimes offending them for asking too much, or doing yourself out of goodness knows what by accepting a fraction of what they were prepared to give you.
As a result of all this, you can easily leave yourself potless, unable to afford to buy essential items, and at risk of running out of rupees entirely (at which point, the game ends). I don't recall having to start a game from scratch as many times as Freshly Picked, as a result of making terrible bartering decisions that left me with a near-impossible position. But, of course, once the fundamentals begin to click, you start to make much better decisions that leave you with the healthy rupee balance that's ultimately required for you to satisfy the demands of Uncle Rupee.
With the basic fetch quests chalked off, a brief bit of dungeon crawling, some unremarkable combat, and an underwhelming boss encounter, the pattern of the game is revealed. Once you think you have enough spare cash accumulated (it's never clear cut), you can visit the Western Pool again and chuck some of your winnings into it until it's satisfied. At that point, Uncle Rupee rewards you by opening up the next part of the continent for you to explore, and grows a tower out of the pool - the idea being that the tower will eventually reach high enough to get to this mysterious paradise that he speaks of.
Look before you leap
From there, you jump off the tower's edge and start exploring the next interconnected level. As before, first you'll want to find and complete the map (by entering the map screen and drawing circles around landmarks missing from it), maybe hire a bodyguard to help duff up any creatures lurking (or take them out yourself, but that can be expensive as you generally lose rupees when you fight), and see who's around, and what they want. As you go along, you'll pay a camp, crotch-thrusting carpenter to repair bridges that connect the current level with the previous one, find objects that the townsfolk request, and gather up all manner of goodies that you can sell off to the various traders.
On a basic level, the gameplay's pretty wafer-thin. You talk to people, you wander around trying to find things for them, or people that have gone missing, and you complete a map, then wander back to the main town and barter with people, over and over. What doesn't help, either, is the fact that the combat is completely unremarkable, involving nothing more than walking into any given gang of enemies, moving around in flurry of limbs and tapping the screen until they leave behind rupees and/or ingredients. You get more goodies for getting more creatures caught up in the battle, but that's it as far as 'battle strategy' goes. It's weak.
With a bodyguard in tow, you can let them do the fighting instead and save losing any rupees, tapping them to gee them on, but, in reality, there's nothing to it. It's about as involving as turn-based combat with one turn, albeit with amusing sound effects. But, as long as you're not expecting Zelda-style gameplay, Freshly Picked somehow starts to develop a charm and a style of its own, mainly because of its cast of weirdos and the wry humour throughout. In a way, the Zelda connections will only hurt it, because of the expectations and associations, but taken in its own right, it's actually a highly engaging and often highly original game that keeps on dragging me back to play.
Knowledge is power
With success or failure in the game depending so heavily on the bartering system, I'd actually recommend taking advantage of this handy negotiation guide, which removes the massive and tiresome handicap of not knowing how much your good deeds are worth, and saves you a lot of faffing around wondering what to pay people for objects and so on. Some people might claim that it's part of the fun to engage in the trial and error aspect of bartering, but it's a game that, quite often, puts you in a no-win situation if you don't rack up enough cash. For example, if you found yourself without enough cash to hire a decent bodyguard, you face having to fight enemies on your own - which in turn often loses you money. Sure, you can potentially create, and subsequently sell things like fireworks, but that process is, in itself, tiresomely time consuming. Far better to know that, yes, you can ask for 800 rupees as a reward, than doing what I did and accept 100, and screw things up for yourself and end up starting over.
With the negotiation guide to hand, it doesn't spoil any of the good bits of the game, like the exploration, or the fun of meeting new characters and performing each task, so it's a no-lose as far as I'm concerned. It's just a shame that Nintendo didn't see it as a potential game breaker in the first place, as most people will probably write the game off before really giving it a chance. As it stands, I enjoyed Freshly Picked more than any number of so-called 'must-have' DS titles, mainly because, as the name implies, it has a quirky originality and an offbeat humour that marks it out as something very different. It's also hilariously flawed for a number of reasons - perfect for its future cult classic status, then.