Review: Potion Tycoon – Bad Medicine

When Fallout Shelter first came out, it was a fun little diversion which became incredibly popular. So, of course, it spawned a bunch of imitators. And while Potion Tycoon might claim to be a tycoon-style business builder, it’s got a lot of Fallout Shelter in its DNA. Unfortunately, it’s a mutation which isn’t exactly viable.

Potion Tycoon has players starting their own alchemy workshop and potion sales storefront, with the goal of being the best little potion shop in the kingdom. You’ll obtain herbs and mushrooms, put together production processes, craft potions, and bottle them for use by city guards, court wizards, and the odd “second story man” from the local thieves’ guild. Meanwhile, important personages will get in contact with you periodically, whether it’s a potential patron placing special orders to be fulfilled, vendors offering new supplies, or one of your competitors rubbing your nose in your inferiority. As you gain money, you’ll need to build more sales floor space, more room for your staff, more room for processing equipment, and the means to research and market your products.

Behold, the futility…

All of this pre-supposes that you’ll be getting sufficient money to do anything to realistically grow the business, however. I know, normally, I build up to the gameplay, but this time it’s got to be front and center. Why? Because in the many, many years I’ve spent playing games, I’ve never had a tutorial set out to screw you over from the start as badly as Potion Tycoon. The tutorial offers to help you out, jumpstarting the business with a pre-fab shop and production area. That first step of laying out the building isn’t the awful part. It’s everything that comes after, and the tutorial basically leads you down the garden path to financial ruin. You start off with a couple of random seeds and spores, along with a little pre-grown stock, which you use to make potions. If you’re lucky, you can make a potion which does not require any special processing such as blanching, pickling, or crushing.

The process of potion development practically requires you process your materials further, because your first potion is likely to be crap. Cheap, less than effective, and easily outsold by the established competitors you never get to see unless they’re mocking you. But hey, you still have money, right? Just buy all the things you need to make new potions. New equipment, research desks to research new equipment, marketing desks to come up with new ads. Oh, and staff. You have to hire staff. Or improve your staff to the point they can actually run things. Which all costs money. If you’re short of funds, you can always get a loan. But this is the way to failure and ruin. Because across multiple playthroughs, I never once made enough to pay off even the first loan, let alone the three or four that followed. But the cheerful bastard in the top hat doing the tutorial thing doesn’t mention any of that.

“Don’t you have a cousin, wants to believe in things?”

Of course, there’s a lot of things he doesn’t mention. Like the fact you can resize rooms you build to lower costs (not that it matters in the end). Or the fact you can “hire” staff but they’ll never show up because you don’t have enough bunkhouses (and it’s never clear what your staff cap is like). Or how rooms can be designated as “research” or “production” just by putting stuff in place, but apparently “storage” isn’t really an option (you can create pallets for storage, but it doesn’t alter the room designation). Or that you’re capped at a certain number of loans (it literally will not let you take out any more, so if you’re short of funds, you’re eventually screwed). The tutorial does mention “room requirements” and how things like your production equipment lowers it while decor items like lanterns or special pieces like cleansing crystals improve it. But it’s irritating as hell to watch employees standing around and having a meltdown in the storage room because you haven’t improved the decor or there’s not enough in there to improve the requirement so they’ll actually do their goddamned jobs. The information presented is never the information that you actually need, or can make use of, and it’s utterly aggravating. Approaching any sort of breakeven status seems to require a “rubber hose” approach, and you’re going to screw up a lot of times before you stumble into it. The only slightly entertaining mechanic is the potion development, and even that gets the joy sucked out of it by the demands of the business.

Compared to the myriad sins and failings of the gameplay, the shortcomings in the audio department of Potion Tycoon seem almost quaint by comparison. You’re given the same medley piece on a loop, over and over, and it doesn’t quite fade into the background, but it also doesn’t actively assault your ears. It’s a decidedly middling piece all around. Sound effects are pretty basic, though at least nicely implemented. The great problem is that there’s just not a lot there.

“Where’s the topic for ‘Arranging Deck Chairs On Sinking Ships?’ ‘Cause that would be REAL helpful.”

About the only bright spot in Potion Tycoon is the visuals, and even that’s underwhelming. Relying on a style which calls to mind a more whimsical version of Darkest Dungeon, your staff and customers mill about rather colorfully despite the seemingly eternal night outside your drab walls. All of the items you have available to add definitely bring a sense of personality to the various areas of the shop. Your competitors and potential patrons are easily recognizable when they send you messages. But it’s hard to properly enjoy the visual elements when everything else is just so excruciating.

I’m sure there’s somebody out there who might enjoy Potion Tycoon. I just can’t easily imagine who that person might be. It would have to be somebody who enjoys opaque systems, punishing mechanics, and a propensity for burning through cash without any regard to basic profitability. There’s clearly a fun premise hidden here, but it’s buried so deep not even a universal solvent could get to it.

Axel played Potion Tycoon on PC with a review code.

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