036035_largerRole-playing games are almost universally about becoming the big damn hero, playing the one central character or party that changes the whole world. No one wants to play the innkeeper, shopkeeper, or that old guy who hangs out in a cave waiting to give the hero his sword.

Except, of course, that some people do. There are games that let you play out those unglamorous roles, like Recettear or Adventure Bar Story [$2.99] on iOS, and they can be a breath of fresh air in an otherwise repetitive genre. Merchant to the Stars [$0.99] tries to fit into that same strange space of shopkeeper sims in a much more streamlined fashion.

Where others try to maintain as much of the RPG experience as possible, Merchant to the Stars throws most of that out the window. There's no dungeon crawling here; thats what the heroes—your customers—are for.

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So you hang out in a series of menus. At the front desk you meet your heroes and look through the loot they farmed in whatever hellholes they've been exploring. With your appraiser's eye you pick out the items that might have some use. You repair their equipped gear and send 'em back out for more.

Then you open the forge menu to hone the items you purchased, increasing their monetary value and worth to your heroes. Anything that you can't find a way to sell to another hero (or back to its seller) heads off to the guild, where your progress as a merchant is tallied and rewards are prepared for the day you level up. Level up as a merchant, that is.

Merchant to the Stars is an RPG as much as Farmville is a city-building simulator, barring a few big differences. It's not free, for one thing, and there are no in-app purchases to be found. There probably ought to be, though. It plays for all the world like Man Up Time Studios designed a freemium title and changed tracks at the last moment: timers that get longer as your heroes level up don't really make much sense without some way to jump ahead.

mzl.tzsvvtig.320x480-75The game's complete lack of strife doesn't make a great lot of sense either. You can push to improve your stock by ensuring heroes are equipped with items they like or items that suit the environments they tend to explore. You can make more profit by carefully choosing the right items to hone, the right things to scrap. Whether or not you do, however, your profits keep going up, the money keeps coming in, and you can keep improving your little operation.

This isn't exactly an unusual state—plenty of fantastic games feature timers and utterly lack of any sort of risk. It's just that again, these are usually free-to-play games that pride themselves on being time wasters. Merchant to the Stars doesn't present itself like a member of that crew—not until you're deep enough in that it becomes obvious that the numbers ain't ever going anywhere but up.

There are two games in the offing here. One is a premium title that ties your success to the decisions you make for your heroes and for your shop. The other is a timer game where you push buttons to equip your dudes, send 'em out into the world and wait to reap great rewards each and every time. I'm more into the former than the latter, but either direction has the potential to be pretty great.

Instead we have ourselves a middle ground that doesn't quite work either way. At first you can't put it down—there's always another hero to serve, another piece of gear to hone, more profit to be made. Those early moments are good ones. They could be a great start; instead they're a promise unfulfilled. It's possible to make mundane roles great fun, but Merchant to the Stars hasn't quite worked out how.

TouchArcade Rating

  • araczynski

    sounds like the suck is strong with this one. another title for the OCD crowd?

  • Bruce Morrison

    Thanks for the review!

    We absolutely set out to make a 99 cents game, not a Free to Play game. While there are some designs that fit in with Free to Play models, we never wanted to push users into purchases and all that. We just wanted to make a pure game.

    All of this said, we are preparing a big update based on all the great feedback from the Touch Arcade Forums.

    I hope everyone will enjoy the game, and please leave feedback in the forums or here for us, we only want to make it better.

    • http://rekzkarz.com/ REkzkaRZ

      Props to you for getting out here with the people!
      (Or some people & some tools.)

      Best of luck on your game.

  • XvEsunavX

    I've been on the fence over this title for a little bit. Games with this appeal have always tempted me and I yearn for an experience where I don't end up being superman and saving the world or being a billion dollar conglomerate. Let me be an average joe doing my daily work. On the flip side, while I'm looking for that experience, IAP and timers mar anything that comes close to what I'm looking for.

    From what I've read this title fits right into my first desire, and splits what I don't in half. IAP is non existent, but the timers keep movin' on up. If the timers slowly went up but then hit a reasonable wall where there are other in game activities I can do I think it would be wonderful. Heck I'd pay a little more than a dollar for that experience and be a happy camper.

    The dev team gives me hope in this case. From appearances this isn't a title where they just set it... and forget it. Ron Popeil may turn his nose but the community concerns are being taken into consideration and I'm excited to see what the devs will do with the feedback to round out the experience. Until then, this merchant is on strike.

    • Bruce Morrison

      So far we have fixed immediate issues and are testing them out. Things like more support of different OS versions, and we've identified a few other game issues that are fixed.

      Now we are turning our attention to game balance and flow. This is in active testing. We are toying with some other ideas that I'm not ready to share yet (incase they suck) that will give you a way to adjust the timers in a more gamey-mechanic (as in NOT IAP or anything like that).

      Still the overall goal of this game was to be casual and relaxing and just a solid 99 cents, no bait and switch or anything like that. And it's a good learning experience on what gamers like and don't like out of a more niche oddball game.

  • http://rekzkarz.com/ REkzkaRZ

    Thought I posted a comment on this, but it's gone! Admins, are you deleting me for any reason?
    this game doesn't seem like something I'd wanna play, but it DOES seem like something SOMEONE might wanna play? Someone with too much time on their hands, glasses, and no friends who will do roleplaying games with them.
    But then again, it's just $1, so what's wrong with nerding out for $1 for a bit?
    And a quibble -- can we just say things are $1 instead of .99c? What's wrong with saying $!?!?!?! I'm not more likely to feel like I'm getting a deal by saving that cent. Does anyone?!?

    • siveon

      OCD is strong with this one.

      • http://rekzkarz.com/ REkzkaRZ

        Not OCD, just a pension for quibbling/ranting.
        Everyone has their skill -- that's mine.

    • joaquin_ondamoon

      Wait - what?

  • trustywren

    I'm really digging this game, and haven't been bothered by the timers at all. The option for notifications when someone enters your store is nice. It's nice to see a game like this that isn't rife with freemium IAP monkey business.

    However the game's interface could use some improvement. When you tap on an item, for example, it would be nice to be able to tap it again to minimize it (instead of having to hit a separate button; there are a few similar cases of this in different contexts and it gets a little tedious. Another example is when you accidentally try to sell or hone an item when you don't have the gold/resources, and you have to hit that little okay button a couple inches away to continue. Why not let players tap anywhere on the pop-up window to close it, or just tap the item again? Smoothing out some of these little ID/UX details would speed up gameplay a bit and make the game even more enjoyable.

    Oh, and most of all, visually I'd love play the game in some kind of shop setting (even if it's just a single static background); currently half the gameplay happens smack dab in the middle of a title screen, with a big ol' title, and a bunch of big tutorial, options, credits, etc. buttons clogging up the screen. It really kills M-M-MY IMMERSION.

    The smooth font and pixelated graphics conflict a bit; the game would have a more cohesive look if it used an old-school video game font instead.

    Like I said, though, despite some niggling details, I'm still really enjoying the gameplay. I hope the dev(s) keep improving it, adding more features and depth to the gameplay over time, which could increase really the game's longevity.

    • trustywren

      Oh and the reviewer touches on a good point; it would also be nice to see more risk in the gameplay mechanics. Maybe the occasional incompetent adventurer (maybe he gets killed, reducing your customer base, or maybe he'll only buy crappy low tier equipment, or something), a thief heisting one of your items, or perhaps an awesome-looking item that turns out to be a bad investment (perhaps it's cursed). The possibilities are pretty endless. Having the risk of set-backs would give the game a boost in flavor, and reduce the grindy aspect of just slowly, steadily building up your bank account.

      Also on more random, fanciful note, it would be cool to have a few more categories of gear... some additional slots for enchanted jewelry, or general supplies (torches, rations, rope and whatnot), or whatever. For variety and immersion.

    • trustywren

      Sorry to keep rambling... Please ignore my earlier comment about the game's choice of font. That's actually a complaint I have about another RPG I started playing at the same time as MttS, and apparently I had a brain fart while typing.
      This game's text fits the graphics well enough.

Merchant to the Stars Reviewed by Nissa Campbell on . Rating: 3