Potion Craft is one of the most brilliant gameplay experiences I have had in years.
The premise of the game is that you are a new alchemist moving into an inexplicably abandoned former alchemist house. As the title indicates, your job is to wake up, craft potions for townspeople, get paid, buy ingredients, experiment a bit, go to bed, repeat. Unlike a lot of other titles in this sort of storefront genre, there is no looming debt payment or other time constraint whatsoever. It’s just you, the ingredients, and a bit of alchemy.
It’s that very alchemical gameplay though that is so fundamentally brilliant and elegant and intuitive.
To craft a potion, you must move a potion icon around a map and land on a specific, potion-shaped effect. To move around the map requires you to place an ingredient into the caldron and stir. At the beginning, you start off with a limited amount of basic herbs and mushrooms. Hovering over each one reveals the properties of that ingredient, showing you where it will move the potion icon. What you will notice is that there is a sort of baseline distance you move, and then a further distance denoted by a dotted line. If that extra distance is desired, you must place the ingredient into a mortar and then pestle it as desired. Put the resulting mash into the caldron, stir, and repeat until you reach your destination.
Everything about this is so deliciously analog. When using the mortar & pestle, you do not have to grind things up fully – you can choose to stop at almost any pixel distance. Additionally, the quality tier of the potion is dependent on how close you end up overlaying the potion icons. Just touching? Tier 1. More than half? Tier 2. If you want Tier 3 though, you start slowing way down, grinding herbs just so, stirring the caldron ever-so-slightly, and diluting the mixture with water (which moves the icon back towards the center of the map) drop by drop. Until, until… ahh. Perfection.
What continues to amaze me is how… correct all of this feels. The alchemical map starts off nearly blank, and you explore its boundaries by experimenting with what herbs you have available. Finding a new potion effect on the map is exciting because you don’t know what it is until you brew it. Thankfully, Potion Craft does allow you to save custom recipes (limited by magic paper you purchase) so you don’t have to manually recreate every single potion every time. But as you help out your herb/mushroom suppliers, you get greater access to new ingredients that have different pathways. This then allows you to create the same potions with different (and usually) fewer total ingredients, improving the efficiency of your business.
Seriously though, I am deeply, deeply impressed with this gameplay. Indeed, I have spent the last three days trying to figure out if there is a term for what the designers have accomplished here, by so tightly marrying the concept of alchemy with this gameplay that embodies it. The closest I have gotten is “the opposite of Ludonarrative dissonance.” If you have better words for this, let me know.
Having said all this, I do want make an important distinction here: the gameplay is brilliant… but not necessarily engaging long-term.
There are a set of tasks that reward XP that sort of guide you through the general game, which is fine. But after about 8 hours, I have seen pretty much everything I imagine I will be seeing in Potion Craft. It is sometimes fun to realize you can use different herbs in novel ways to improve the efficiency of a recipe, but at the end of the day you are still selling a potion to a random customer for X amount of gold – once you have enough of a income stream, it doesn’t matter too much. And all that XP? It grants you Talent points which you spend to… improve the uncover distance of the alchemy map, increase bonus XP nodes on said map, and increase profit percentages. It’s a very shallow, closed loop.
There does appear to be an ultimate goal to create the Philosopher’s Stone, but it all seems kinda arbitrary. “Craft this precursor with these five potions, craft stage two precursor with these ten potions with an eclectic mixture of effects, etc.” This was all much less interesting than exploring the original map, trying to figure out how in the world you would make it past that obstacle, or figuring out that a potion which previously took 5 herbs to make can be done in two. The process novelty is very finite, in other words.
Be that as it may, I do commend the designers of Potion Craft and encourage anyone subscribed to Game Pass to give it a shot. It is a very unique, grokkable experience which is very rare these days.