Hungry Hearts Diner is one of the most saccharine, heart string pulling experiences I’ve had in a long time. You run a café that is vaguely like Diner Dash but mostly an excuse to for you to cook traditional Japanese foods and then listen to people’s problems.
The gameplay is thin but purposefully so. Hungry Hearts Diner is not really about the cooking or the restaurant management. Hungry Hearts Diner uses this to get you to have conversations with your regulars. You play as a sweet grandmother who seems to occasionally have memory problems having taken over the diner after her husband has fallen ill.
The beauty of the conversations gramma has with her customers is that not only are we learning about the problems of her customers as she does, we also learn about her problems by being reminded by her patrons. Her growing senility (an anxiety she asks a patron about) leaves a hole to be filled by the story and it does so beautifully.
That’s the big draw here. It’s a game that only has its story to lean on. Gramma’s unceasing hopefulness and desire to care for those around her gives the story, for lack of a better term, heart. She’s been around the block a few times, seen things, had her share of hardships. Yet she’s still here to run a little eatery with charm. Where others might have closed up shop and walked away she keeps going. She reminds people of home, of family, and of belonging even as she struggles with her own family and her failing memory.
Hungry Hearts Diner is charming in a way few games are. While its art is beautiful and its music aggressively evokes nostalgia and quainter times it really is the people that matter most. As new dishes are unlocked and time passes new customers come in with new problems. Sometimes their stories intersect, sometimes they don’t. And the lessons Gramma tries to teach are simple. Each essentially boils down to “talk to someone when you need help,” “your family probably misses you,” and “don’t be an asshole.”
“Perfect” is a silly word I don’t like to use but it’s perhaps the best word for Hungry Hearts Diner . It certainly is incredibly sweet, like one of the fancy donuts you rarely treat yourself to, but it never becomes TOO sweet. Instead, it aims to tell an emotional story in a specific setting and accomplishes it dancing backwards across the finish line.
Maybe its that I didn’t really know either of my grandmothers. Maybe it’s that I was simply in a good space to be taken in for a good tale. Maybe it’s that Hungry Hearts Dinner is simply a very, very well-made game that does a fair amount of tugging at even the coldest heart strings.