Remember back when Game Dev Story [$4.99] released? It was such a fun game, and it seemed like everyone was playing it, even people who weren't really into mobile gaming. At that point in time, the future looked pretty bright for developer Kairosoft, with a future as a dominant force on the App Store seeming likely. Well, they perhaps didn't make the most of their chance, but they're still trucking away, porting their old feature phone and PC releases to iOS and (more frequently) Android. That they could sell tons more copies of Game Dev Story 2 than The Sushi Spinnery [$3.99] may or may not be obvious to them, but they're clearly marching to their own beat, and today, that beat sounds a lot like clopping hooves.
Pocket Stables [$4.99] is the newest release from Kairosoft, and unlike recent titles Dream House Days [Free] and Beastie Bay [Free], this one isn't free to play, and there is no IAP at all. Perhaps responding to criticism, recent games from this developer have been incorporating more RPG elements and slightly deeper mechanics. Pocket Stables feels like a bit of a backslide in that regard, because it's more or less a straight serving of simulation, Kairosoft-style. Mostly similar to Grand Prix Story [$3.99], in this game you'll be establishing a ranch that grooms racing horses. Though careful purchasing, training, and breeding, you'll gain access to faster horses, win bigger races with bigger prizes, and gain greater fame and fortune.
The bottom line is your cash reserve. You need money to pay your monthly expenses and wages, to hire new jockeys, buy new horses, train your existing staff and herd, expand your facilities, and buy useful items. You'll also earn research points that can be used to unlock new buildings and skills for your horses. Like every Kairosoft game, you're at very little actual risk of running out of money, since the game will always find an excuse to give you a bit more cash if you dip too low, so staying solvent isn't that difficult at all. Similarly familiar is that you really can't lose. As long as you keep playing, your horses and jockeys will get better and better, and you will inevitably win races, attract more fans, and score more points.
Of course, the real game here isn't about making your way to the top, because that is a matter of course. No, the challenge here, as ever, is one of time. You need to accumulate as many points as you can by the time you reach the end of your 16th year. Every Kairosoft game uses this mechanic, with each game varying as to how difficult it is to reach the top prize or goal in time. Pocket Stables is actually pretty tricky in this regard. The chances of winning the top race by the time you hit that last year are pretty slim. Of course, you can just continue playing for fun after the time limit is up, but for those who like that meta-challenge, you'll have a slightly more taxing time here than with most of their other games.
Most of your time spent with the game will be at the grounds of your ranch. Here, you can build new facilities for training your horses, housing your jockeys, entertaining visitors, or beautifying the grounds. The training facilities each improve a different set of stats when a horse uses it enough. The lodgings are needed to keep full-time jockeys around, who are required for training your horses. Entertainment facilities help generate money and research points, and after a certain type of visitor makes enough use of them, you'll earn a new item, skill, or facility. Plants and trees are useful not only for aesthetic purposes, but also give a bonus to surrounding buildings. As you play, you'll unlock more buildings and facilities, along with the opportunity to expand the size of your ranch.
You can level up just about everything in this game, including your facilities, horses, and jockeys. Horses can even be taught new abilities if they're clever enough. Those abilities, in turn, can also be leveled up. As time marches on, though, your horses will age, and as they get older, they get injured more easily and take longer to recover. Luckily, this game features breeding, which allows you to retire a horse and, through the magic of nature, get a foal several months later with the characteristics of its parents. There are many different breeds of horses in the game, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and careful combinations of them can produce game-breaking results.
Naturally, you're training your horses for a reason, and that's where the races come in. You can enter a horse and jockey into a race every month, with selections based on the horse's class and which races you've previously cleared. You'll always walk away with some money, though not very much if you don't place in first. You'll also gain fans by running races, who will then come and visit your ranch to spend money and give you items. From time to time, you'll also be challenged to one-on-one races by certain spectators. If you lose, there's no shame in it. Rest your horse up, do some extra training, and try again. Sooner or later, you'll win, because that's the Kairosoft way.
Visuals and sounds are no surprise if you've ever played any of the games this developer has released. Everything is cute and pixelated, and anything that could be reused from previous games has been. The music is pretty relaxing, at least, giving the whole thing a nice mellow tone that fits the theme of the game well. At this point, the art style seems to be Kairosoft's calling card, so I don't expect much change. Fortunately, both portrait and landscape modes are supported with no IAP required as in their free titles, and the larger size of the iPhone 5's screen is completely filled. Low expectations, I know.
It's kind of funny, because usually I like a game to challenge me in some way, but even though Kairosoft's games are almost devoid of challenge in the proper sense, they still manage to pull me in completely for at least one playthrough. I find them relaxing, adorable, and engaging, whether they're covering mundane situations or the bizarre. While I'm sure we'd all love to see a big follow-up to Game Dev Story come to iOS, I can truly appreciate on some level that in this heavily-changing market, Pocket Stables shows that Kairosoft can, if nothing else, keep their games' quality and value stable.
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