For the last 12 hours, the house has been empty. I check in regularly, spending time collecting clovers and sifting through the mail, but the stillness of the rustic cottage is unsettling. Earlier that day, I had packed a bag with sandwiches and some simple supplies, helping my little frog friend to rush off on another adventure. But it hasn’t returned yet — and I’m getting worried.
Such is the way of Tabikaeru: Journey Frog, the latest release from Japanese developer Hit-Point, the team best-known for the addictive and adorable cat-collecting game Neko Atsume. Like Neko Atsume, Tabikaeru is all about waiting. It’s a game where you set things up, and then check back later to see what happened. It’s not yet available in English, but you can still play it now for free on both Android and iOS — and in some ways the language barrier actually adds to the game’s mystique.
Tabikaeru appears to take place in some sort of Redwall-esque fantasy world, where animals go off on grand adventures. The star of the game is a tiny frog, who lives in a large, hollowed out rock. Outside there’s a garden for growing clover — the game’s main form of currency — and inside you’ll find a cozy reading nook and a table and chair carved from a tree trunk. A spiral staircase leading to the bed is made out of fungus. It’s all very quaint and charming.
But the frog doesn’t actually spend much time at home, though you will spot it from time to time poring over maps or jotting down notes in a diary. Instead, your job is to keep the frog well-supplied while it goes off on quests to far-off cities and forests. Using the clover you harvest, you can buy sandwiches and soups to keep the frog nourished, and items like sleeping mats and candles to aid more prolonged journeys. When the frog returns, you’ll be able to check out photos of the adventure, seeing the tiny amphibian dwarfed by beautiful Japanese buildings, or hanging out with little rodent friends. Whenever I open the app up, I’m unsure what new discovery will await me.
At least, that’s what I’ve been able so surmise so far. I don’t actually speak any Japanese, so playing has been a bit of a challenge; you interact with the game almost entirely through menus, which can be difficult when you can’t read any of them. But over the past week I’ve been slowly piecing together how things work. Different meals and supplies seem to allow the frog to go to different places, and so I’ve been experimenting with new combinations to see what happens.
Because Tabikaeru is so simple, the language hasn’t proved to be a barrier for me. It’s actually lent the game a more mysterious charm. It feels like I’m figuring things out on my own instead of being told what to do, and thus far I’ve avoided looking up hints on how the game works (though I might cave if I don’t solve the mystery of the game’s lottery tickets soon). Neko Atsume was a similar experience, a game that became a huge global hit before it was even available in English. In fact, it was only because of that surprise success that is was localized in the first place. “When we made the game we weren’t thinking about foreign users — we were only thinking about the Japanese audience,” Neko Atsume project manager Yutaka Takazaki told The Verge back in 2015.
Tabikaeru and Neko Atsume share a lot in common. They’re both about waiting and collecting, and they both star ridiculously cute animals. But in some ways the appeal is different. In Neko Astume, you bought food and toys so that cats would appear at your house to enjoy a meal or some playtime. As long as you kept the bowls well-stocked, there would pretty much always be some cute kitties to check out when you opened the app. But Tabikaeru is slightly different. There’s just one frog, and it’s often gone for long stretches. When the house is empty there’s not much to do but prepare for the next journey, collecting clover and preparing provisions.
In spite of this, I’ve been checking the game multiple times a day for the past week. Part of the reason is simply how whimsical and inviting the world is, a wonderful respite from the gloom of an East Coast winter. But there’s also an element of surprise. Most of the time there’s not much to see when I check in on the game. But once or twice a day I’m greeted by a cute photo of a frog wearing a sunhat, hanging out around an ancient castle or riding in a leaf canoe with a praying mantis. You don’t need to be able to read Japanese to understand the appeal of that.