Button City might just be the quintessential “wholesome game”. It’s got the low-poly graphics, the cute, anthropomorphised characters, and the hyper-saturated pastel colour scheme. It’s got a simple but moving story about making friends and finding a sense of belonging, told through an assortment of quirky loveable misfits, pop culture references, and a light touch on some heavier themes. It’s a game that exists, first and foremost, to be a cozy, cheerful, uplifting experience, even as it skirts around some darker issues. I don’t think there’s a perfect definition of what this whole “wholesome game” trend actually is, but Button City is about as close as you can get—for better and worse.
At the centre of Button City is, well, Button City, a two-storey arcade that’s something of a second home for a lot of the local kids. It’s a place you’ll find everything from claw machines to Dance Dance Revolution-style rhythm games, but the game that holds centre stage is “Gobabots”: a sort of arcade riff on multiplayer online battle arenas, with a gashapon twist. With ongoing tournaments and the lure of the rare Golden Gobabot for whoever comes out on top, the Gobabot machine is a place where many friendships and even more rivalries are formed.
For Fennel, a shy little fox who’s just moved into town, Button City is life-changing: a place to make friends and find a sense of belonging as he joins the ragtag Fluff Squad. Only, that’s all threatened when a business mogul rolls into town and tries to close the place down to make space for a shopping mall. With the future of their second home at stake, Fennel, the rest of the Fluff Squad, and every other Button City regular makes saving it their duty—while settling their differences on the Gobabot battlefield from time to time, of course.
With this setup, Button City crafts a story that’s equal parts funny, heartwarming, and action-packed. Despite the premise, playing arcade games is just a small part of the proceedings; the game primarily revolves around exploring a diorama-like town, getting to know the locals, and getting up to mischief through the Fluff Squad’s various plans to save the arcade (and pick fights with their rivals, the Tuff Fluffs, at every opportunity).
And it’s those characters who really carry Button City to the finish. From Sorrel, the Fluff Squad’s energetic leader who starts each day with a “metal yoga” session, to the sarcastic, gadget-obsessed Chive, to the artistic, cheerful, slightly awkward Lavender, everyone has their delightful quirks. As you get to know them, you also get a glimpse of what’s hidden beneath those eccentricities—their struggles at home, their frustrations, their vulnerabilities.
All these personalities come together to form some elaborate, goofy schemes to save Button City, like dressing up as Mr Button—kids in a trench coat and all—to try reject the deal, or sneaking in at night to put up halloween decorations to make it look haunted and scare moneybags away. They’re a far cry from the heroic epics you typically see in videogames, but for the kids of Button City, trying to save their arcade feels exactly like a quest to slay a dragon.
At its best, Button City leans into that uniquely childlike perspective, with otherwise mundane activities turned into whimsical parodies of the sorts of adventures you’d read about in old pulp novels or play through a Dungeons and Dragons campaign—what would sneaking into a building through the sewer be without some form of puzzle about opening valves to adjust the water level, even if there isn’t a slime or sahagin to be seen?
There’s the same sense of whimsy in Button City’s side quests and minigames. You might find yourself taking part in a combined baking / flower arranging contest at the local library, as a tie in to a popular new crime novel about a floury murder, or trying to prove your coolness to the hipster who runs the cafe by acting as roadie for their band. Aside from Gobabots itself, there’s a little arcade racer about electric vehicles (rEVolution Racer, get it?) and a Dance Dance Revolution-esque rhythm game with colours so vibrant it makes DDR itself look almost monotone. These minigames are simple in design, without the finesse or fullness that you’d expect from their coin-op inspirations, but they’re fun, and as mini-games in something bigger, they work.
So, like I said, Button City is about as wholesome as wholesome gets. But that sometimes works to its detriment, too: there’s so much focus on the quirky, irreverent, colourful side of the “wholesome” concept that it feels like it comes at the expense of substance. The characters, charming as they are, don’t have a lot to them once their unique shticks wear thin, with their human complexities teased but never really explored with anything more than a brief, light touch—a single objective on a quest to offer a glimpse into, say, the way Sorrel’s struggling with the arrival of a new baby brother, before going back to the regularly-scheduled programming of metal yoga jokes.
The right dose of quirky humour and wholesome riffs on videogame history can work wonders, but Button City overplays those hands to the point that they lose their impact long before the credits roll. I love mundanity as a theme—the exploration of the ordinary, and the extraordinary stories you find in the everyday—but walking the line between meaningfully mundane and flat-out dull is tricky. It requires a narrative flair and a sense of depth in characters and world that’s not easy to pin down, and a lot of the time, Button City struggles to find that balance.
It’s not helped by how tedious it is to actually interact with the game. Fetch quests make up the bulk of the game, and while I don’t inherently take issue with them, Fennel’s painfully slow walk speed and finicky mechanisms for interacting with objects make them a chore. There’s rarely even an aspect of exploration to go with them, either—you’re typically told exactly where to go and who to speak to, reducing a large chunk of the game to simply ambling from A to B, trying to find just the right position to actually let you interact with the thing in question, then ambling back. In a game with more depth to its storytelling, or one that better pins down the beauty of mundanity that Button City is clearly aiming for, this wouldn’t be so much of an issue. But here, it just becomes a source of frustration.
That’s not to say Button City isn’t worth visiting. There’s a definite appeal in its cozy atmosphere and oddball characters, and the story about a community banding together to save what’s important to them is a heartfelt one. The minigames are a lot of fun, and what they lack in the precision you’d expect of a full-fledged arcade game, they make up for in sheer charm. But it’s also a game that leans a little too heavily into the quirky style of the “wholesome game” meme at the expense of substance and depth.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.