Tomodachi Life review: The surreal world

What happens when your favorite celebrities and fictional characters live together in the same apartment complex? Tomodachi Life happens. The result is less of a game and more of a reality television show starring a cast of deeply disturbed misfits.

Offering laid-back, simulation-styled gameplay in the vein of Nintendo's Animal Crossing series, Tomodachi Life presents a world similar to our own, with a surreal streak lurking beneath the surface. Tomodachi Life plants your custom-created Miis in the middle of situations that range from the mundane to the bizarre, and it's your job as caretaker to make sure they find happiness in life and love.

While a lack of gameplay depth makes the experience feel somewhat hollow, I'm glad that I had the opportunity to peer into Tomodachi Life's strange alternate universe, and the sheer sense of joy that its unassuming little island inspires makes it well worth a visit.

Tomodachi Life scratches the same compulsive itch as Animal Crossing with its open-ended, quest-based structure. Gameplay revolves around fulfilling your Miis' requests and leveling them up by earning happiness points. Keep your Miis clothed, occupied, and fed on a regular basis and they'll begin to talk to each other, eventually forming alliances and romantic relationships.

Tomodachi Life's main draw is its constantly evolving narrative. While you're in control of your Miis' actions to an extent, your island's residents will generate enough drama on their own to keep things interesting. Your Miis might seek your advice when attempting to become friends with one another, or they might need a pep talk after a rough day. When they're not dealing with some form of emotional turmoil, you can customize your Miis' living spaces, play games with them, and teach them catchphrases.

Tomodachi Life's voice synthesis is a standout feature, giving the game a charm and vitality that Animal Crossing and similar games lack. It has its quirks, but pronunciation is mostly spot-on, and characters are able to speak with a wide array of vocal tics, tones, and inflections. Simply hearing your Mii refer to another Mii by his or her name makes the world seem that much more believable and immersive.

Voice synthesis also makes for some amazing musical possibilities. I took great pleasure in writing my own lyrics and hearing my raspy-voiced Miis sing terrible songs about the kind of foods that they like. If you're lucky, you might even catch your Miis breaking out into spontaneous rap battles. I hesitate to call a Mii rap battle a life-changing experience, but ... it kind of is.

While Tomodachi Life encourages players to import custom-created Miis or approximations of their real-world friends, you can add a surreal layer to the proceedings by introducing cartoon characters and celebrity facsimiles. My personal Tomodachi Life island presents an alternate universe in which Dr. Robotnik is a friendly chef, John Madden dreams of eating giant hamburgers, and Garfield the comic strip cat is an unholy approximation of a human being. Watching these caricatures interact is both profoundly strange and weirdly touching – who knew that Frank Zappa and Andy Warhol could become the best of friends?

Given Tomodachi Life's focus on approximating real-world interactions, its sterile relationship system is a disappointment. Characters with a high charm factor are frequent targets for Mii crushes, and romantic relationships play out predictably. The lack of same-sex relationships also hurts the game, largely because it sets unnecessary limits on a world that ostensibly offers limitless possibilities. The game's playful aesthetic and genial setting would perfectly accommodate a spectrum of player orientations and preferences, and strictly enforcing heterosexual relationships feels like a misstep.

Still, the courting phase carries its own charm – there's a certain twisted humor involved in seeing The Smiths frontman Morrissey cruelly reject Animal Crossing secretary Isabelle after an on-stage confession, leaving her in a depressed funk for days afterward.

(She later confessed her love to Hank Hill. They are currently in a very happy relationship.)

For as much joy Tomodachi Life will bring into your life, it doesn't offer much in the way of gameplay. Occasionally, Miis will demand your presence to play simple mini-games like tile-matching, image identification, and trivia about island residents. Winning these games nets you happiness points and inconsequential Mii gifts.

These mini–games repeat frequently, though, and they aren't much fun. I'd have preferred a smaller but tightly focused collection of games that offered more depth and challenge, with greater rewards for completing them. As it is, these games feel like half-baked wastes of time.

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Mini–games aside, the majority of your playtime will be spent buying up collectible items, completing lightweight fetch quests, and solving your Miis' problems. Problem-solving isn't especially demanding, either; you can fulfill requests by simply choosing a dialog option or hunting down a specific item, which is as easy as buying it or completing a mini-game. These requests are doled out frequently, but there's little else to do once you visit the shops (which stock new items daily) and check in on your Miis at other island hotspots.

Animal Crossing's daily chores drew similar complaints, but the Animal Crossing series always provided players with plenty of optional activities to space out the day's work. Tomodachi Life often ends up feeling empty after a few minutes of play, even with a few dozen Mii residents.

I don't regret the time I spent in Tomodachi Life's strange alternate universe, but like Animal Crossing, the experience loses its luster once you've seen the bulk of what it has to offer. Tomodachi Life wore out its welcome for me quicker than any Animal Crossing game ever did, due to its comparative lack of structure and progression, and its brilliant spark of creativity fades much more quickly than you'd like.

The memories that Tomodachi Life will leave you with are precious indeed, however. Years from now, I'll look back fondly on the day that Garfield and Morrissey became best friends, and it'll be a great honor to attend Isabelle and Hank Hill's wedding.

I wonder what their children will look like.

This review is based on an eShop download of Tomodachi Life, provided by Nintendo. Images: Nintendo.

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