Weedcraft Inc. released on Steam earlier this month, bringing weed growing to the straight-edge genre of business tycoon games. The first of its kind, Weedcraft Inc. approaches the politics and controversy surrounding cannabis markets with tact while not taking itself too seriously. Its world is lighthearted and sarcastic, but never loses sight of the tragedies caused by cannabis prohibition. On launch day the game became entrenched in controversy when game reviewers and streamers found their videos demonetized by YouTube and Facebook, drawing criticism of the platforms for their anti-cannabis policies.
While story isn’t usually a make-or-break for simulators, Weedcraft Inc. tries to pivot itself as a tycoon with heavy role-playing elements. Players choose between two campaigns. The first is basically a pseudo-tutorial where you play as John Woodson, a protagonist with the charisma of mayonnaise. John’s dad used cannabis to treat his cancer symptoms and when he dies, John and his brother start an illegal weed business in Flint, Michigan. Maybe that’s not the healthiest way to handle a death in the family, but I’ll give it to them. The second campaign features Jerome Watkins, an ex-con who spent fifteen years in prison for smoking weed. While it isn't explicitly spelled out in the gameplay, the imagery in the cutscenes suggests that Jerome was profiled and arrested for being black, as he was the only person arrested for possession even though he was smoking the joint with two white men. Having just gotten out of jail, Jerome finds himself a fish-out-of-water in the now legal Colorado cannabis market. Both characters are essentially blank slates that the developers hope you project yourself on. The lack of any strong narrative structure and the lack of a captivating protagonist made me feel disconnected from the story as the game dragged on. Meaningful conversations, that in most games would help shape the protagonist, failed as many of my response choices resulted in the same outcome no matter what.
A majority of Weedcraft Inc’s features can only be unlocked by completing tasks. While this system is meant to help the player get an understanding for the game, the first few hours of play are plagued by click-heavy micromanagement. That’s the biggest issue with Weedcraft Inc. - it’s essentially a clicker game. Want to grow some weed? You click a seed button, you click a train button, a water button, you wait, and then you harvest. Want to sell some weed? Go to the marketplace and manually click an icon when a buyer appears. This is particularly true for John’s campaign and less true for Jerome’s. However, neither campaign offers a full sandbox experience, making me wonder how much more interesting the game could have been. If Weedcraft Inc. was a mobile app, watering your Super Lemon Haze between errands could be really fun. But as PC/Mac tycoon, I expect to spend more of my time strategizing and growing my business, not stuck in the weeds of daily plant care and single transactions. Thank god for employees as they eventually relieve this micromanagement hell. They help care for your plants, sell the product for you, generate research points so you can boost the quality of your strains--but they never fully take over. The equipment upgrade system is more complicated than I expected. Grow rooms have a finite amount of space, leaving players to weigh out the pros and cons of adding a robust watering system where a money-making plant could be. If you’re easily addicted to equipment and tech-tree unlock systems, you’ll have a blast as you watch your grow room turn into a tech marvel. Want to become the Walter White of Weed? You can do it, but it might make cops get wise to your illegal operation and threaten your financial security. I wasn’t about that life, so I decided to be a good lad and befriend anybody I could. I ended up talking to this freaky-looking biker dude and after he told me many times that I bored him, I conned my way into becoming his best friend. The game shines during moments like this, as I learned all about this hulk-of-a-man’s past-- his insecurities, how he was bullied in high school, and how the War on Drugs has affected him. NPC interactions like this are pretty unusual for business tycoons, and while it was fun in the beginning, the honeymoon ended when I realized I was going to have to talk to every NPC like this. What a chore. They say you either die a hero or live long enough to become a villain, so I dug up dirt on my competition and weaponized everybody's insecurities so I could come out on top. But even being bad started to get old. To make moves against your competition you have to use the relationship system to coerce your employees into doing your dirty work. This often leads to paragraphs of uninteresting dialog where you find out “so and so” didn’t have a good upbringing and used drugs to cope with their pain. I skipped through a lot of this after a while and wondered why I even went bad in the first place.
Visuals, Audio, & Performance
Weedcraft Inc’s stylization has a charming grit. The character design is exaggerated and Grand Theft Auto-esque, playing into modern tropes of weed dealers and pot smokers. Each strain is uniquely and vibrantly depicted based on its origin and effects. Relaxing lo-fi hip hop makes up the soundtrack. The songs get repetitive, but it turns into ignorable background music pretty quickly, which I assume is the point. The game’s performance was a little rocky, but mostly stable in my playthrough. There were a few too many long loading screens for a game so graphically subdued and there were some missing images at points, but I didn’t experience any of the crashes or frame drops that some of the more negative Steam reviews mentioned. The game ran great on both PC and Mac.
Vile Monarch succeeded in making a charming weed game that doesn’t make a mockery out of the already stigmatized world of weed. Its successes give me hope that they’ll improve upon this formula in the future or spark a new era of weed-growing simulators. Although Weedcraft Inc failed to captivate me with its click-heavy and grinding gameplay, its 16 dollar price-point is more than reasonable and fans of similar games should be entertained through their first playthrough.