Potion Permit Review (Switch)
We’re often told to not judge a book by its cover, but this can be challenging. It’s difficult to shake that feeling of uneasiness when faced with something eerily similar to past experiences, especially when it comes to painful, difficult, or otherwise problematic events. In Potion Permit, the latest title to grace the ever-growing life simulation RPG subgenre, this is put front and center when a chemist strikes out on his own, not knowing the full extent of what they must do to not only be successful, but also to right the wrongs of the those that came before them.
Potion Permit takes place in the town of Moonbury, a small, but bustling village away from the capital. They pride themselves on self sufficiency, preferring to pave their own way rather than relying on advancements that are commonplace in the capital. However, Moonbury has sought health and medical advancements via alchemy, though this once ended in disaster and soured the citizens on the practice for good. Or so they thought.
When the Moonbury mayor’s daughter contracts a mysterious illness, and the local witch doctor has no remedy, the town reluctantly calls upon the aid of a chemist – the player – once more. Although the chemist makes short work of the young girl’s ailments, it will take substantially more time for the citizens at large to accept them, let alone the mysterious wonders of alchemy again. This chain of events ultimately kicks off the beginning of a journey of acceptance, friendship, and many discoveries surrounding both Moonbury’s inhabitants, and the truth behind the disasters that once struck its very core.
Potion Permit doles out the narrative in typical life simulation fashion: complete various tasks and build up relationships with the townsfolk to not only progress the story, but also to build bonds with those around you. Romance is even possible, but only with specific bachelors and bachelorettes. The residents of Moonbury are all unique from one another, but their stories aren’t fully realized until reaching specific relationship milestones, which will then feature various story events that will unlock a new relationship level with the associated citizen.
While daily gifts expedite this process substantially, there are still large gaps in time where you’ll see the same two or three sets of dialogue for days, if not weeks, in order to slowly fill those relationship bars to the next level. Citizens will refresh their possible sets of dialogue upon each relationship level up, but the conversational pool still feels a bit lacking when compared to other games in the subgenre.
Potion Permit is meant to be a relaxing game, therefore it does lack a sense of high stakes and excitement that many other games might feature. But that’s entirely alright, as developing relationships with the townsfolk, hearing their stories, and slowly uncovering what exactly happened to make many of them weary of chemists is more than enjoyable enough on its own. And what better way to live this new life than with man’s best friend, your trust canine companion that you can also build trust with? Sounds like a life worth living!
As the resident chemist of Moonbury, you really have one primary objective: treating ailments quickly and efficiently, but this task trickles down through all facets of the gameplay. Time follows a day and night cycle through each day of the week, but Potion Permit does not seem to have monthly, yearly, or seasonal changes although its unique biome variance does make up for this. Always at your beck and call is your nameable dog companion, which can help you find items (later, by digging) as well as track down Moonbury residents no matter the time of day or where they might be (can be immensely useful!).
When townsfolk fall ill, they will become bedridden at the local clinic. Their care is your number one priority, as any events or quests the ailing NPC may be tied to will be put on hold until they have fully recovered from their problems. Not only that, but their overall satisfaction, thus rewards, are directly associated with how quickly the chemist gets them in good health. An alarm each morning will notify you whenever someone new arrives at the clinic, though I have noticed some false alarms at times when it would sound and nobody would even be there. Either way, ailments are treated by first diagnosing the problem via a button sequence minigame – a staple in Potion Permit – then applying the proper concoction to the target area. Potions are brewed at the chemist’s cauldron at home, but they require ingredients from the surrounding areas of Moonbury in order to craft.
Harvesting goods, whether from gathering nodes or from defeating enemies, requires certain tools that can be upgraded at the smith to further increase their efficiency. But in order to do that, the chemist not only needs a sizable amount of raw materials, but also a healthy sum of money to fire up the forges. Need money? Better get to treating the sick, selling excess potions, and perhaps taking on odd jobs around town, then. Are better ingredients and new potions necessary? Then the chemist will need to aim for promotions and upgraded exploration badges to improve their potion repertoire and expand their exploration capabilities. This cyclical process should not surprise veterans of the subgenre as it’s pretty standard fare. But honestly, if ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
That said, Potion Permit is on the lighter side of complexity and especially RPG progression. Besides tool and structure upgrades, the game offers little in terms of meaningful progression, notably of the character variety. Relationship levels aside, there are no character levels to obtain, and no gear to equip. Potion making is also surprisingly shallow, amounting to little more than fitting color-coded materials on a Tetris-like grid, with no real nuance to spice things up a bit. The biggest challenge here is when certain potions only allow specific materials, such as those classified as “water” ingredients and so on.
There are also instances where you’ll have to either find better ingredients and/or upgrade the cauldron capacity, the latter allowing more ingredients per craft, before being able to brew something. But other than that, there really isn’t much to the process. Perhaps the Atelier franchise’s impressively deep alchemy system has ruined me here, but I can’t help but feel that something could have been done to make the potion making process a bit more engaging – aligning specific elements or fulfilling certain conditions to increase the odds of crafting multiple potions at once, for example.
This simplicity trickles down into combat, as well. Without different types of gear, battles consist of little more than whacking enemies with the same tools used for resource gathering, and occasionally rolling out of harm’s way. Some enemies have an impenetrable defense unless you temporarily break it with a specific tool, but it is still a relatively straightforward process to dispatch them. While I’d never suggest that Stardew Valley or Rune Factory have deep combat, the variety of equipment they provide with differences in speed, range, and additional properties, as well as some spells and abilities certainly makes the otherwise straightforward hack-and-slash gameplay a bit more interesting.
While I’ve been pretty critical of the game’s general simplicity, let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong with this style of gameplay. In fact, most life simulation RPGs aim for that to build a more casual-friendly experience. But you have to go into Potion Permit expecting that instead of something with more complexity and deeper RPG progression systems.
Presentation, Performance, and Issues
I’m a big proponent of “less is more” when it comes to pixel art shading and coloring, and Potion Permit fortunately offers this in spades. In fact, I’d argue it is among the best pixel art endeavors on the Nintendo Switch. Brandishing that minimal color palette, Moonbury, its citizens, and the surrounding unique locales come to life in a truly delightful way. Moonbury residents have a few animations, but slime chat bubbles do the heavy lifting in terms of actual emoting (which I’m actually a big fan of) although the various wildlife in the surrounding areas fare a bit better in terms of animation variety. The soundtrack itself takes cue from the subdued color palette, offering up an experience that is never overbearing and undeniably provides a cozy, atmospheric ambiance to Moonbury.
While Potion Permit is undoubtedly aesthetically pleasing, it’s not without faults, some of which are a bit concerning. Even though the framerate tends to hover around 30FPS, there are at least two to three times per in-game day where some hard, random stutters break up that flow. Rain showers can also completely tank the framerate, though I’m hoping a recent patch remedied this (I haven’t seen rain since). Dog interaction can be finicky at times; it’s common to have to whistle for them a couple times or move around a bit before the command buttons show up properly.
The world map and accompanying fast travel system are a bit more tedious than they should be, since you have to slowly scroll the cursor to the desired destination rather than quickly picking a fast travel location from a list. Enemies may also spawn out of their normal bounds – waterwalking Jesus bears are apparently commonplace in Moonbury – though the aforementioned patch may have fixed this entirely.
Beyond those minor issues are a few that are a bit more concerning. Scripted events will sometimes play out prior to the map loading in properly, or may even feature other NPCs going about their day when they shouldn’t be in the picture at all. At worst, blank, buggy events can trigger for no reason at all, requiring you to manually skip it by holding the B button down (the bathhouse does this all the time).
Gathering nodes may also not load properly when using the fast travel system; this almost always happens when visiting the snowy region of the map, and can only be remedied by walking into a nearby cave and coming back out. Sometimes, important story events that should trigger may take several in-game days or even weeks to actually initiate, though the trust system could be partially to blame here. Either way, there are a few noticeable gaps in pacing that can make you feel like you’re missing something, or simply doing something wrong.
While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that any of this is truly game breaking, Potion Permit could have definitely used more time in the quality control oven. There’s a great game underneath these issues, so it’s my hope that they can iron everything out, hopefully most of it prior to launch on the 22nd.
This alchemical adventure may lack the polish and depth of some of its contemporaries, but it is an enjoyable life simulation RPG nonetheless. Moonbury is gorgeous, its inhabitants are interesting, and curing their ailments, improving relationships, and bettering the town at large is fun. But while this game is certainly open ended, and sure to be a casual life simulation fanatic’s next morsel to try, it’s not going to satisfy those looking for complex alchemical syntheses or those that desire a lot of character-based progression bars to fill. It’s a little rough around the edges, no doubt, but Potion Permit is still worth a look.