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Button City Review

Cute as a button

I’m fortunate to be old enough to have at least some recollection of the heyday of the local video game arcade (while being young enough to have enjoyed Neopets at its peak), so I’m always drawn to a good gotta-save-the-arcade story. Button City, from New Mexico developer Subliminal, takes a 90s-tinged narrative about friendship and video games and wraps it up in a short-but-sweet narrative adventure with a huge amount of personality.

As a young fox named Fennel, your journey across Button City’s five-to-six hour runtime sees you make new friends in a new town, join a team in a popular video game called Gobabots at the local arcade, and ultimately do everything in your power to stop said arcade from being demolished in favour of a big box retail store. There are more than a few surprises along the way, and while the core story of community in the face of gentrification works well, it’s the smaller moments and interactions with the townsfolk that are well worth the price of admission.

Button City’s story as a whole is touching, wholesome, funny, introspective and ultimately bittersweet, and it’s definitely the game’s saving grace. It’s full of great moments from heartfelt glimpses into atypical families and mental health to chiptune rock concerts and even a quest involving fourth-wall-breaking arcade machine conspiracies as a play on the infamous Polybius. From beginning to satisfyingly-silly end I enjoyed every moment with its characters and, as someone born just as the world was ringing in the 90s I adored its obsession with the bright plastics and ridiculous marketing that had us all obsessed with Digimon and trading cards back in the day.

Button City’s gameplay loop is simple, and will be familiar to anyone who enjoys a good narrative adventure. As Fennel you’ll converse with the other children (and adults) around to progress the story or pick up side tasks, explore each part of the town and partake in a handful of arcade-based minigames. The arcade games account for the biggest departure from the otherwise traditional adventure gameplay, with the Ridge Racer-esque rEVolution Racer and the requisite dancing pad game Prisma Beats supplementing the main attraction of Gobabots.

There’s a little depth to Gobabots with new characters to unlock through the main game in an effort to build an effective team, but all three games suffer from the same thing – repetition. With only one Gobabot map and one track to drive on in rEVolution, I found myself opting out of challenging people if I didn’t need to simply because it all became too easy and tedious too quickly. Still, the very fact that Subliminal saw fit to go the extra mile in offering multiple playable arcade games at all, especially ones with their own prize ticket economy and unlockables, goes such a long way to making Button City’s little world feel that much more authentic.

What a gorgeous little world it is as well, a cake-like series of dioramas with each layer a different section of town which (completely canonically) its citizens teleport to and from with the power of Zoomies. From the moment I heard the game’s opening theme with its almost N64-esque sound font and saw its low-poly, flat-shaded models I knew I was in for a treat. It’s been slowly creeping up, but it’s clearer each day that we’re moving away from the early 90s pixel art aesthetic being en vogue to the look of the late 90s’ primitive 3D visuals tickling the nostalgia centres of our brains. I’m absolutely here for it. Button City feels like it could be something that existed in 1999 without sacrificing modern sensibilities, which is an achievement in my book. And though there aren’t a heap of them, there are some absolute banger tracks to get your ears ’round as well.

Unfortunately, while the quality of the game’s design and aesthetic choices range from merely good to great, the technical execution leaves a lot to be desired. Simply put, at least in the build that I played, it’s a mess. I suffered a laundry list of issues in my time with Button City, from objectives not completing correctly, UI elements flipping out, audio disappearing, dialogue coming from the wrong characters or getting stuck on screen to Gobabot attacks becoming permanently unable to connect with anything. That last one was particularly grievous as it rendered an entire section of the game impassable (luckily my cloud save data went back far enough that I didn’t have to start the whole game again). 

Actual bugs aside there are also issues of general polish that mar the experience like the overly fiddly positioning required to interact with objects or characters and enough poorly-proofread dialogue that I developed a newfound sense of empathy for the folks tasked with editing my own writing. It hurts to take a passion-fuelled indie project to task for technical blemishes but they’re so prevalent and intrusive here that I felt it needed to be said. I sincerely hope there’s a big patch coming to deal with the majority of them in time for launch, because there’s a genuinely good game here otherwise.

Final Thoughts

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It’s a flawed and often frustrating experience, but Button City’s charm and genuine reverence for the 90s childhood experience just about saves it. There’s a prime example of what makes indie games so compelling here – frequent bugs and the odd dud quest might take off some of the shine but the team’s passion and belief in their work still shows through. If you like narrative adventures and miss the days of trading pocket money for Timezone tokens this might be right up your alley.

Reviewed on PS5 (PS4 version played) // Review code supplied by publisher

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Button City Review
Pushes the right buttons
Button City gets a lot right in its attempt to mesh late 90s low-poly style with narrative adventure gameplay and a heartfelt story full of great characters, but it's undone by numerous and often game-breaking bugs and a tad too much backtracking.
The Good
Great narrative mixing nostalgia with modern storytelling
Fun retro visuals that ooze personality
Packed with memorable moments
Accomplished, genre-spanning soundtrack
The Bad
Full of annoying and intrusive bugs
Arcade games get old quickly
Backtracking and fetch quests don't land as 'retro' ideas, they're just tedious
6.5
Has A Crack
  • Subliminal
  • Subliminal
  • PS5 / Xbox Series X|S / Switch / PC
  • August 10, 2021

Button City Review
Pushes the right buttons
Button City gets a lot right in its attempt to mesh late 90s low-poly style with narrative adventure gameplay and a heartfelt story full of great characters, but it’s undone by numerous and often game-breaking bugs and a tad too much backtracking.
The Good
Great narrative mixing nostalgia with modern storytelling
Fun retro visuals that ooze personality
Packed with memorable moments
Accomplished, genre-spanning soundtrack
The Bad
Full of annoying and intrusive bugs
Arcade games get old quickly
Backtracking and fetch quests don’t land as ‘retro’ ideas, they’re just tedious
6.5
Has A Crack
Written By Kieron Verbrugge

Kieron's been gaming ever since he could first speak the words "Blast Processing" and hasn't lost his love for platformers and JRPGs since. A connoisseur of avant-garde indie experiences and underground cult classics, Kieron is a devout worshipper at the churches of Double Fine and Annapurna Interactive, to drop just a couple of names.

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