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Great Concept, Extremely Frustrating Gameplay, December 6, 2020
#VanLife is a day-to-day personal economic simulator with some interesting mechanics, but sparse writing. You live in a van with solar-powered appliances. Can you balance your mood, your cash, and your battery charge to succeed in this minimalistic lifestyle? At its core, the premise is great, and Iíve got to give props to a game that encourages less-resource-intensive living.
But the implementation can be wonky at times. Everything depends upon a small pool of random events which cause wild and unpredictable swings. You can be doing great one day, only to lose the game on the next because you got stuck with a couple bad events that you couldnít do anything about. Or you could be on the cusp of failure, only to skyrocket back to prosperity because of one or two lucky events. Your decisions kind of matter, but I felt like they were totally overshadowed by the sheer importance of luck.
The other thing that hampered my enjoyment here isÖ I quickly came to dislike the protagonist. That feels odd to write, since the protagonist doesnít have any lines and isnít ever described directly, yet they come across as someone who isnít serious about the #VanLife. I felt like I had to constantly battle my own protagonistís unreasonable expectations. This is a person who earns a living by posting photos with inspirational quotes. Regularly, thousands of dollars fall into their lap from making guest foodie blog posts. They never have to pay money for food or gas or parking, and they never get harassed by the police for parking illegally either.
Basically, the protagonist is privileged in many ways, and yet theyíre constantly unsatisfied. Got an offer to receive a bunch of cash and a free appliance, possibly more energy-efficient than the one you already have, in return for a product endorsement? Well, your protagonist loses mood, because capitalism = bad. Craving some pancakes but donít have the right cooktop because the game hasnít given you the opportunity to buy it yet? Well, youíre about to lose a giant chunk of mood, my friend. Want to hop online and frag n00bs, but you donít have enough battery because you already spent it on two cravings for avocado toast today? Well, thatís probably a game over. Sucks to be you.
I found myself losing the game often in the first few days because the protagonist was full of so many capricious requests that there simply werenít enough resources to indulge. The protagonist is defined by one personality trait: the trait of being someone who never should have set foot in a van.
According to the webpage, the game is still in beta, and that makes sense. It feels like a rough draft of what could (and hopefully will) become a good sim. A wider variety of random events would help spice things up, but what the game would benefit most from would be a rebalancing of the eventsí effects so that they donít cause such wild and unpredictable mood swings. Then, there would be room for players to start thinking about long-term strategy, without the immediate threat of game over due to lack of pancakes looming over their heads from the start.