Between anime, manga, video games and mobile games, we’ve anthropomorphised almost everything you might care to think of at this point. So the appearance of a game called “Food Girls” probably won’t be a surprise.
Actually, Food Girls isn’t quite as straightforward as “these are girls who are also food” — to explain why would probably constitute a spoiler, so I will refrain from commenting on that particular aspect of the narrative further. No; what we have here is a very lightweight management sim combined with a visual novel, in which you play the role of a consultant hired to revitalise an ailing Taiwanese street market that is at risk of being bought out and demolished.
Upon your arrival at your new job, you discover that you have a lot of work ahead of you. While shaved ice merchant Coco and steamed dumpling specialist Long’er are both perfectly capable business owners who don’t need your help to get on with things, the troublesome trio of Aurora, Bubbles and Lulu very much do need your assistance. And a lot of it, as you’ll discover over the duration of Food Girls’ 4-6 hour runtime.
Lulu, who runs a minced pork bowl restaurant, is too addicted to video games to concentrate on running her business properly. Bubbles is an ill-tempered tsundere who, at the outset of the game, is a massive drain on your resources due to her insistence on using top-quality — and expensive — ingredients for her tapioca bubble tea. And Aurora is so good-natured she has a tendency to slash her prices and cut into the market’s daily profits.
It’s up to you to figure out the best way to help everyone — or at least help as many people as possible, since you’re quite tight on time. You only have three months to ensure that the street market passes three evaluations, otherwise it will be bought out and flattened, leaving the poor Food Girls both homeless and jobless. Not only that, there are some individuals of ill-repute that seem to be sniffing around the street market — and a few intriguing mysteries to solve along the way, too. Nobody ever said the life of a consultant would be easy.
Gameplay in Food Girls is mostly about time management. Each in-game day, you have four time slots, each of which you can expend on spending time with one of the girls or “investigating” the local news. When interacting with a girl, you can chat with her to increase your relationship with her significantly, help her hand out flyers to increase her store’s popularity or train her cooking skills; the latter two both also confer smaller relationship increases.
At the end of an in-game day in Food Girls, the street market’s income is calculated by each store’s popularity, multiplied by their quality value minus their ingredient cost. To begin with, you’ll need to do something about Bubbles’ drain on your profits, since her costs initially exceed her income; as the game progresses, you’ll need to ensure that you make enough money for rent each week — and just to make matters more troublesome, the rent figure increases at several story milestones based on the market’s collective popularity figure, so you don’t want to get too big too quickly!
Every three relationship levels, you unlock a new event with each girl that helps to tell their own story. And every 10% of “information” you gather through your investigations, you find out a bit more about the truth behind what is happening to the street market. Achieving the game’s “hidden” ending is dependent on you getting to the bottom of what’s really happening and building up your friendship with the girls enough to ensure you don’t find yourself on the receiving end of a rather unpleasant “punishment” from the true masterminds. Alternatively, you can ignore this side of things completely and try to get along with all three girls as well as possible by the time the final deadline rolls around.
Food Girls encourages replay with some achievements that suggest you try playing the game as both a squeaky-clean consultant that everyone likes, and as a devious bastard who isn’t above screwing people over to make a bit of quick cash. You’ll also have the opportunity to feed the local cats, help the girls with various unique events and generally make yourself either very useful or a massive hindrance to what is going on.
Narratively, Food Girls is enjoyable, with each of the girls’ routes focusing on a specific thematic element. Bubbles’ story, for example, concerns the pressure the Internet can place on people — particularly those who have difficulty controlling their emotions or responding in a rational manner to often irrational situations. Lulu’s, meanwhile, concerns the tricky balancing act between one’s personal and professional lives — and how one can often be dependent on the other.
The characters are all very likeable, and are brought to life through some absolutely wonderful use of Live2D animated sprites; they all feature very expressive movements, and successfully perform smooth transitions between different poses in the middle of lines rather than simply “snapping” from one to another. Voice acting is a little limited — only the three main girls are voiced, and even then certain scenes are still text-only — but all except two characters (who aren’t seen that often despite being relatively important) feature the full Live2D treatment, giving them plenty of personality even if you can’t hear them.
Culturally, the game is especially interesting because despite its anime-style appearance and Japanese voice-overs, the game is distinctively Taiwanese. That means the food items in question are a little different from the Japanese dishes we typically see in many visual novels, and there are certain aspects of how people go about their daily life that are a little different to what you might expect from a game like this.
A love of good food is universal, though, and that allows anyone to latch on to the basic principle of what this game offers — from there you might find yourself learning a little something about Taiwanese culture, as well about the game’s thoroughly pleasant cast of characters.
Food Girls is a thoroughly likeable game that does its best with what it has, much like the girls in the street market. At times, its low budget and lack of polish is apparent — most egregiously with a couple of untranslated lines that are still in Mandarin Chinese — but for the most part, the heart, soul and passion of its developer shines through, creating an enjoyable, memorable and thoroughly comfy experience.
Now where can I get a decent fried chicken cutlet at this time of night…?
Food Girls is available for Windows PC via Steam — note that this version has some minor alterations to CGs. There’s also an uncut Asia-English version available for Switch via Play-Asia; there’s no western digital release at the time of writing.
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