Welcome back to the In-App Purchase Inspector - our regular look at free-to-play games from the consumer's perspective.
In each instalment, we consider the incentives or pressure applied to make in-app purchases, their perceived value, the expansion offered by IAPs and the overall value of the experience.
The end goal is to see whether the game makes a good enough case for us to part with our cash, or whether players are content - or engaged enough - to 'freeload'.
This time, we're taking a look at Downtown Showdown, a new city builder with a competitive edge from Rune Story developer COLOPL NI, which is the US division of the Japanese publisher.
In our end-of-year interview with COLOPL NI CEO Shohei Yoshioka, he expressed his company's interest in genre hybridisation.
With the firm's 2015 title Colopl Rune Story having already mixed elements of action role-playing, city building and resource management, Yoshioka hinted that 2016 would be a continuation of that philosophy.
Enter Downtown Showdown: a city builder first and foremost, but one featuring real-time PvP and Clans-lite sieges of other players' created towns.
At a pinch, you could call it SimCity meets Clash of Clans.
However, just as Rune Story was above all else a polished action RPG, Downtown Showdown is for the most part a SimCity-esque experience with the objective to build an appealing and functional idyll for as many tiny citizens as you can ram into it.
At a pinch, you could call it SimCity meets Clash of Clans.
It's all about population, you see - fitting commercial, residential and industrial property together in a harmonious way.
Build houses near a picturesque park and you'll get a nice population boost; next-door to a wind turbine will see numbers plummet.
As your population increases, so too does your level. So far, so simple.
Mixing things up
However, this is supported by two additional modes: Showdown, which has you employing the same principles in a real-time, one-on-one race to score the highest population under a 5-minute limit, and Rivals, essentially a smash-and-grab for resources in another player's city.
What's great about these modes is that they dovetail so nicely with the main component, meaning they never feel like unnecessary additions - always a risk when it comes to hybridising genres.
Showdown mode is the only reliable way to earn Star Medals - even if you lose - which in turn are used to expand the parameters of your city and allow you more space to build.
As for Rivals, you can assemble a team of raiders by spending soft currency/resources.
They take a few minutes to train, but a successful raid can yield materials such as wood and stone that are necessary to expand many buildings - and only generate every two hours under normal circumstances.
The key is that there's nothing throwaway about these modes.
Both are enjoyable, contextual, and feed back into the quest to expand your city - which, let's face it, is what you care about most - in a meaningful way.
Streets paved with gold
Monetisation-wise, Downtown Showdown is very much a mixed bag.
In many ways, in maintains the same player-friendly feel as Rune Story - no energy system, no video ads, and hard currency in plentiful supply.
There's no energy system, no video ads, and hard currency in plentiful supply.
The soft currency is Gold, which is collected at varying rates by your city's commercial properties - dependent on their level and location - and used to fund both new buildings and expansion.
Diamonds is the game's hard currency, available in bundles ranging from 100 for $0.99 to 13,300 for $79.99. It is used to skip buy missing resources, skip wait timers, and - if you so desire - to buy exclusive VIP buildings.
There's also a gacha system that via a digital tombola/roulette machienoffers random buildings for hundreds of Diamonds (starting with 250 and then increasing to 500 etc) which seems a little excessive. Effectively, it's a resource sink for high rollers.
Sadly gone is the subscription-esque 'Monthly Jewel' bundle from Rune Story, effectively replaced by a neat VIP system.
Your VIP level is increased for every daily login and diamond purchase, with each tier making more of the aforementioned VIP buildings available as well as - rather more importantly - offering increasing numbers of free pickaxes and chainsaws every day.
These are used to hack away tree trunks and rocks that get in your way, and ordinarily cost 50 Diamonds each (approximately $0.50) - a significant bonus, then.
All that glitters
Downtown Showdown would be a rather slow and methodical game without Diamonds.
The wait timers are not excessively long, to its credit, but in the mid-game - level 20 plus - you'll often require wood, stone, and gold to further expand a building - all of which take time to accumulate.
A bugbear is productive buildings such as the Sawmill require a high quantity of the materials they produce in order to upgrade.
Thankfully, however, you're rarely without Diamonds for too long. Carrying over the liberal approach to hard currency established in Rune Story, you're awarded 100 ($0.99) every time you level up.
There's a respectable dripfeed along the way as quest rewards, too.
But it's not perfect. A particular bugbear is that productive buildings such as the Sawmill and the Stoneworks require a high quantity of the materials that they themselves produce in order to upgrade.
This creates an awkward catch-22: in order to speed up the production process, one must endure its slow pace.
Another minor quibble is the limit on storage and the ever-increasing Diamond cost to expand it, but this is manageable.
Feeling at home
I've spent $5.99 for 650 gems so far, and have been enjoying the perks of being a level 2 VIP. Now at level 21 and still dipping into the game regularly, I couldn't rule out another purchase.
However, this would merely be to accelerate the experience. While progress between levels has noticeably slowed as I've levelled up, there's a clear route to progress that doesn't involve spending.
Imperfections aside, Downtown Showdown remains a relatively generous city builder that nails the basics - ensuring that building and expanding your city enjoyable - while hybridising in ways that feel natural and additive.
Of course, whether it's working for COLOPL on a business level is at this point unclear, but it's established a very player-friendly approach to F2P design that makes its games a joy to play - without the usual caveats.