Recettear is a true cult hit in PC gaming. An indie darling from Japan which managed to sneak its way unto Steam, back in an age where access to the platform was still a privilege. Its shopkeeping gameplay and adorable storyline endeared the game to many and it remains one of my favorite games of all time to this very day. So how come its sister game Chantelise has remained so obscure?
Whereas Recettear is a top-down management game with some light action-RPG elements, Chantelise is a 3D action-RPG with some light 2D elements.
The game follows Chante and Elise; a pair of sisters who are looking for a way to restore Chante to her human form, as she has been turned into a fairy by a curse. Their missions leads to them to a town surrounded by mysterious ruins, where they begin unravelling the mystery of what has been done to them with the help of the local townsfolk.
Chantelise‘s gameplay is very interesting, IF you can shoulder through its rocky start. You control Elise, who is capable swordfighter that can string together some basic combos and lock unto enemies for improved targeting. By exploring and attacking enemies in melee, you have a chance of finding elemental crystals. These can be used to have Chante cast spells at the enemies, but by holding down the button you can mix multiple crystals together. Each combination results in a different spell, which is interesting to experiment with.
These systems do a great job at emphasizing the cooperation between the two girls. You can get equipment to get better at either melee or magic, but you’ll always be using a mixture of both throughout the game. You need to keep attacking to get new crystals and you’ll need the range and utility of spells to deal with the trickier enemies and bosses. This also encourages players to collect a variety of different items, so they can regularly swap out gear based on what is most needed.
It’s just a shame that the first hour-and-a-half of the game don’t sell these mechanics at all. Chantelise is a janky game. Its controls are only barely tolerable and the reliance on sprite-based design, in spite of the full 3D environments, makes hit-detection a constant frustration. At the same time, you start the game incredibly weak. A full combo by Elise can just barely take down the first few enemies and Chante’s power is limited as well. You only get 30HP to start with, but even some of the first enemies can deal 12 damage per hit, which can pile on quickly due to a shortage of invincibility frames.
While the game has the same visual charm as Recettear, with its cutesy characters and great sprite art, it is so much more frustrating to get into. I only got into the game on my third try, when I lucked into some amazing early game drops that permitted me to afford enough health upgrades to get me through the first dungeon.
Once you get rolling, Chantelise begins to show its real strengths. The levels are constructed around creative ideas and constantly change up the pace. A large open map made for exploration and treasure hunting can give way to a challenging tower where you overcome tricky enemies as you work your way up a spiraling staircase, just to name an example. These levels enjoy a lot of atmosphere, which create unique moods for each area. I also enjoyed the look of 3D spaces that are inhabited by old-school sprite characters; it looks off, but in a way that is strangely appealing.
The boss fights also offered a nice level of challenge. They do a lot of damage and are very aggressive, but slowly getting the hang of their movesets was a thrill. Stomping a mean, old dragon into the dirt without taking much damage at all is just that little extra satisfying after the same has already done the same to you a few too many times.
But even at its peak, a core problem of Chantelise is that it’s deliberately designed to be unfun. Several design decisions were purposefully made for no other reason than to waste your time.
Its level progression is the most obvious example. Each temple is an endurance run where you must make it through a chain of stages filled with enemies, before beating a boss at the end. Your health does not replenish between stages and you can’t purchase any items that restore health, so each hit taken is extra painful. There’s a very slim chance that enemies drop food and you can eventually use magic to restore a bit of health, but these can’t be relied on.
To make this worse, you can’t resume any level from from where you left off. You have to do the entire ordeal from start to finish in one perfect run, boss-fight and all. If the level has mini-bosses, those respawn as well. The game tricks you into thinking it’s possible by offering a stage select, but this only kicks off a time trial run. These don’t count towards story progression and don’t have any rewards, so at best it could be considered a practice run.
This is what eventually caused me to quit the game actually. The final level is a sequence of hard stages—containing devastating enemies and annoying 3D platformer segments—followed by a rush of incredibly hard bosses that all follow each other up back-to-back. No refills in-between and no checkpoints. If you lose, you’re doing the entire level and EVERY boss all over again, every time. It’s soul crushing in its mercilessness.
Another tedious issue is that you can’t progress through a stage until you have killed every single enemy in it. Especially in the more sprawling levels, it’s frustrating that you can’t move on just because somewhere, in some forgotten corner of the map, there’s a fish you haven’t killed yet, or a slime that got stuck in a rock. Fortunately though, if you’ve cleared a stage once, then you can just rush to the exit on subsequent tries.
What kept me going through the game’s more frustrating trials was the its story. Chantelise isn’t dense in lore or anything, but it’s a pleasant fairytale that is well told and features a likable cast. Chante is especially fun, as being turned into a flying midget has only worsened her belligerent temper. She tries to pick fights with damn near anything, which is balanced out by the more easygoing and polite Elise. The dialogue is well-written with plenty of jokes and fun character moments, though it has to be said that Chantelise feels a lot less energetic than Recettear. The cast of characters is rather small, interactions between them are few and far between, and several main characters look shockingly plain for how major of a role they play in the game’s narrative.
I wonder if Chantelise has become the victim of overambition. The 3D world, the action-RPG gameplay with a complicated magic system, it’s a significantly larger scope compared to Recettear. You notice that a lot of corners were cut, such as the town just being a square with 5 unmoving NPCs or the shops that don’t always update their stock properly. Having to replay the entire level every time also reeks of a desperate attempt to pad out the game, as otherwise its 5 dungeons could be cleared in just a few hours. An amount of time that would better fit its sparse few story beats.
I didn’t hate my time with the game, but I’d struggle to recommend it to others. Maybe back when anime-styled games were a rarity on Steam, but these days Chantelise simply demands too much forgiveness from gamers for how little it offers in return.