If you consider how the Kyoto giant's managed to smash through the perceptions of the racing genre thanks to the likes of Mario Kart, then bringing a very Japanese title to the West shouldn't seem strange, and actually a very coherent discourse in its branding.
We've played this new product - the franchise of which has existed on Japan for several years now - for a few weeks, ahead of the game releasing exclusively on Nintendo 3DS come June 6th. And it's already become a daily obsession to check in with it, even if it's just for short periods at a time.
The game's simple and consolidated concept is a life simulation. We create our own island, where - as we progress - shops, meeting places, a local television station, a beach and many more places will flourish in. We can recover collectables, but before all that, we first have to create our lookalike. If it's sounding very Animal Crossing at the moment, stick with us.
We can use our Mii stored on the 3DS, that we can develop with a lot of features: for example, we can choose the mood for our lookalike and so on. Then, we choose a flat to live in, which we can then customize and decorate with many different styles. Unlike many sim-games that we've already known, the real core of this game are the social relationships.
Tomodachi Life (where "Tomodachi" is the Japanese word for "friend") emphasises this aspect, so we're not only settling into virtual city life with friends or famous folk, but interacting with them, forging bonds of friendship and even creating love stories.
The characters live in a large apartment complex, where they will start to weave together the threads of these tangled relationships. We can pay a visit to our neighbourhood, or get involved in many activities, from simple tasks ("I'm hungry" or "I'd like a new suit") to mini-games, in which we will test how much we know our virtual friends or simply to earn coins, which are expendable in the various city shops to buy food, clothes, accessories, furnishings and such.
Each character has something akin to a XP level: by satisfying their desires or demands, each character gets "happiness points" that allows them to level up and gain new abilities. Every time a character reaches a new level, it can unlock a new ability, gain a new décor, learn a new phrase or motto, or sing a new song (yeah, they actually sing!).
The core of the experience in Tomodachi Life are these social relations. There are a variety of activities in the city that will push the different lookalikes to develop: such as the karaoke bar, where the characters will get involved in hilarious performances.
Or, for example, the player can visit the main fountain, where the market and some musical events will take place daily, at a specific time (the game's time follows the real time). Some friends will seek advice from us to figure out what character to befriend. These relationships won't always run smooth - there could even be real conflict. So it will be our job raising our friend's spirits, with gifts or jokes, to make them smile again. In addition, we can share our pictures on social networks, thanks to a special application present on the island. It will be fun to see how that goes over with our 'real' friends as they see another version of himself/herself in our island!
Tomodachi Life is perfectly tailored for the handheld console. Aside from the first few hours that we spent populating and discovering our island, the subsequent sessions were all very short, just 10-20 minutes, a time that suits the portability of this device. Usually, we pay a visit to our island just before going to bed or during our lunch breaks, keeping the situation of our condo under control (and discover any requests of our friends), looking at the new arrivals in the stores, discovering the new dishes at the restaurant, etc. So, even though that time is short, we are going to play this game every day.
There's no doubt that its bizarre (some mini-games and situations are close to madness) and so Japanese in nature it mightn't satisfy some Western audiences. Some players will be bored and leave the game early, while others will literally fascinated by this absurd world. In other words: Tomodachi Life, love it or hate it. There are no half measures. After this first in-depth gaze, we have positive words for this project. Now we just have to wait as the lives of our look-alike evolve on the island and discover how far the game will go.