Offering laid-back, simulation-styled gameplay in the vein of Nintendo's Animal Crossing series, Tomodachi Life presents a world similar to our own, with a surreal streak lurking beneath the surface. Tomodachi Life plants your custom-created Miis in the middle of situations that range from the mundane to the bizarre, and it's your job as caretaker to make sure they find happiness in life and love.
While a lack of gameplay depth makes the experience feel somewhat hollow, I'm glad that I had the opportunity to peer into Tomodachi Life's strange alternate universe, and the sheer sense of joy that its unassuming little island inspires makes it well worth a visit. Tomodachi Life scratches the same compulsive itch as Animal Crossing with its open-ended, quest-based structure. Gameplay revolves around fulfilling your Miis' requests and leveling them up by earning happiness points. Keep your Miis clothed, occupied, and fed on a regular basis and they'll begin to talk to each other, eventually forming alliances and romantic relationships.
Tomodachi Life's main draw is its constantly evolving narrative. While you're in control of your Miis' actions to an extent, your island's residents will generate enough drama on their own to keep things interesting. Your Miis might seek your advice when attempting to become friends with one another, or they might need a pep talk after a rough day. When they're not dealing with some form of emotional turmoil, you can customize your Miis' living spaces, play games with them, and teach them catchphrases.
Voice synthesis also makes for some amazing musical possibilities. I took great pleasure in writing my own lyrics and hearing my raspy-voiced Miis sing terrible songs about the kind of foods that they like. If you're lucky, you might even catch your Miis breaking out into spontaneous rap battles. I hesitate to call a Mii rap battle a life-changing experience, but ... it kind of is.
Given Tomodachi Life's focus on approximating real-world interactions, its sterile relationship system is a disappointment. Characters with a high charm factor are frequent targets for Mii crushes, and romantic relationships play out predictably. The lack of same-sex relationships also hurts the game, largely because it sets unnecessary limits on a world that ostensibly offers limitless possibilities. The game's playful aesthetic and genial setting would perfectly accommodate a spectrum of player orientations and preferences, and strictly enforcing heterosexual relationships feels like a misstep.
Still, the courting phase carries its own charm – there's a certain twisted humor involved in seeing The Smiths frontman Morrissey cruelly reject Animal Crossing secretary Isabelle after an on-stage confession, leaving her in a depressed funk for days afterward.
For as much joy Tomodachi Life will bring into your life, it doesn't offer much in the way of gameplay. Occasionally, Miis will demand your presence to play simple mini-games like tile-matching, image identification, and trivia about island residents. Winning these games nets you happiness points and inconsequential Mii gifts.
These mini–games repeat frequently, though, and they aren't much fun. I'd have preferred a smaller but tightly focused collection of games that offered more depth and challenge, with greater rewards for completing them. As it is, these games feel like half-baked wastes of time.
Animal Crossing's daily chores drew similar complaints, but the Animal Crossing series always provided players with plenty of optional activities to space out the day's work. Tomodachi Life often ends up feeling empty after a few minutes of play, even with a few dozen Mii residents.
I don't regret the time I spent in Tomodachi Life's strange alternate universe, but like Animal Crossing, the experience loses its luster once you've seen the bulk of what it has to offer. Tomodachi Life wore out its welcome for me quicker than any Animal Crossing game ever did, due to its comparative lack of structure and progression, and its brilliant spark of creativity fades much more quickly than you'd like.
I wonder what their children will look like.
This review is based on an eShop download of Tomodachi Life, provided by Nintendo. Images: Nintendo.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.