It’s hard enough for Elena to juggle work, exercise, eating properly, shopping, and all her excitable Italian-Canadian relatives. But when a gorgeous new beau, Elio, and his meddling mother arrive on the scene, things become even more chaotic. It’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding all over again – in Little Italy. Mama Mia!
Frima Studio’s Ciao Bella is a life sim that follows in the footsteps of the mega-popular The Sims franchise and downloadable games like Kudos and Virtual Villagers. You’ll help guide Elena through 13 episodes that each represent a week in her life. During these 13 weeks, Elena must maintain her career, health and social life while paying due attention to her courtship with Elio in the hopes that he’ll eventually pop the all-important question.
The key to success in the game is maintaining a balance between the five aspects of Elena’s life: health, culture, family, work and harmony. Each of these is represented by a status bar that can either fill or deplete depending on Elena’s actions. For example, waitressing at the family restaurant or working as accountant for her uncle Nunzio, who owns the construction company down the street, will increase Elena’s work meter, but if works for too long, her health and harmony meters will take a hit.
Points can be gained and lost in a variety of ways. Culture points, for example, can be gained by reading or surfing the Internet. Drinking coffee will boost Elena’s work meter but drain her health a little. (It makes your teeth yellow, don’t you know…)
Elena also has to eat and get enough sleep, as being tired or hungry causes major hits to all areas of her well-being.
The game uses a relatively simple point-and-click interface. You can move Elena to one of the various locations in town (such as the mall, church, hospital, city hall, park and boutique) simply by clicking on it. Each location provides different activities for her to perform, or in some cases services or items to purchase. Again, this is done simply by clicking on the appropriate icon.
Something that sets Ciao Bella apart from other life sims is that it’s driven by a fairly rigid plot. Elena has certain goals set out for her at the beginning of the week in addition to keeping her status bars filled to a certain minimum level so that she’s serene enough to make a good impression during her dates with Elio on the weekend.
With such a colourful cast of high-maintenance relatives, it’s not surprising that a lot of Elena’s time is spent putting out fires between them. There are the fights between the high-strung sister Carmie and her clueless plumber fiancÃ© Ernie, an ongoing feud between Elena’s mother Sofia and Elio’s mother Teresa, and the problems at work caused by Uncle Nunzio’s "abrasive" personality – and that’s just a small sample.
One of the downsides to relying on plot points and scripted situations is that players who have enjoyed more free-roaming examples of the genre, like The Sims, might chafe against the inability to deviate too much from the pre-determined, story-driven paths. For example, Elena can only purchase items when they are needed for a certain situation, such as antihistamines to get rid of her allergies, perfume to appease the future mother-in-law, or a fancy dress to go to a soiree with Elio.
Another complaint might be that the game is not as challenging in the later levels. Once Elena’s status bars all get maxed out (which it’s fairly easy to do given enough time), there’s little point in doing any of the activities and it becomes more a game of waiting out the clock to see what the next plot development is.
It’s to the game’s credit, however, that the characters and plot developments that swirl around them are interesting enough that players will want to stick around to see what happens next. Over-the-top humorous situations and chic presentation contribute to a sense of momentum (with the story, at least) that keeps Ciao Bella from having the same sense of aimlessness that can crop into life sims after the first few weeks of in-game time.
As long as you aren’t expecting to do a lot of hands-on micromanaging, Ciao Bella is a good bet. It’s a cool-looking game with a fun, light-hearted story where you’ll never find yourself anxiously hovering over your character hoping you can guide it to the bathroom in time before it pees its pants a la The Sims.