One of the big conflicts whenever I meet my parents for dinner is choosing a restaurant. Our taste in food is similar enough: I can be a touch picky, but on most menus there’s something that strikes my fancy, so that part isn’t an issue. No, the problem comes with atmosphere, and decor. I cannot understand it, so I can only straightforwardly explain: my parents prefer restaurants with particular furnishing and decoration. I think of it as paying for atmosphere: part of the price of items on the menu subsidize the decorum. Polished wood floors, carefully considered lighting, elegant tables and seating.
I don’t mind these things myself… well, usually. Sometimes I admit I will dock points when it feels like a restaurant is trying too hard. But in general, whether the floor is marble or cracked and warped linoleum is of no importance to me. I am here for the food. Make it good, make it reasonably priced, and don’t waste my time with elaborate plating for the thing that will soon disappear into my mouth. Food trucks, then, are the ultimate culmination of my values. All killer, no filler- you step up, you get your food, you go eat it. There’s no band playing, and you aren’t worrying about if your server wishes you’d leave already. It’s just you and the food, no distractions.
Cook Serve Delicious 3 seems to share my values on the subject. Gone is the Restaurant Designer of CSD2, replaced with a fairly minimal set of trinkets you can attach to the inside of your truck. Likewise, the classic mode of the series, introduced in 1 and added to 2 after its release in the wake of fan protest, is entirely absent here. There is one game mode, the food truck journey across America.
If you’re new to the series, Cook Serve Delicious is a cooking game inspired as much by the madcap antics of WarioWare as the methodical recipes of Cooking Mama. As the head, and seemingly only, chef of the restaurant Cook Serve Delicious, you will prepare and serve (sorry) a menu of appetizers, entrees, desserts, and drinks spanning the whole world of cuisine. Your fingers will dance across the keyboard (or controller, if you’re so inclined) as customers rush in and out, handling orders even as you manage chores to keep the kitchen in working order. Only as the last customer steps out, and you close up shop for the day, do you finally have a chance to breathe.
The first CSD was your rise from irrelevance to a platinum five star restaurant, one of the best in the world. The corruption of your in-game landlord loses you everything at the start of 2, and you rise through the ranks of the culinary world once more, this time working as a chef for hire at other restaurants even as you build up your own from scratch once more. With 3, you are again reduced to nothing, in an even more bombastic fashion: in the blink of an eye, your restaurant is hit by stray artillery fire, and turned to rubble. From its ashes, you rise, starting a food truck with the aim of making it to the nation’s Food Truck Competition… and winning.
If you jumped when I mentioned the artillery fire, I recommend an article I wrote earlier this year (here) about Cook Serve Delicious’s setting. The short version: the world is unraveling, but we can at least smile about it.
One of CSD3’s biggest additions is that for the first time, you’re not alone. The two robots who rescue you from the ruins of your restaurant, Whisk and Cleaver, join you in your journey as able assistants. They mark the series’ first foray into voice acting beyond the incoherent “hmm” and “ahh”ing of customers, and their voices are your constant companions, delivering quips, story, and essential in-game notifications. The two are voiced by YouTubers Negaoryx and HavanaRama respectively, with Negaoryx’s Whisk acting as cheerfully naive supporter, and HavanaRama’s Cleaver as the grounded, tired guardian. I usually find YouTubers cast in voice roles to be ineffective stunt casting. It isn’t that I question their talent, but the influencer skillset doesn’t transition as neatly into voiceover work as they seem to expect, and the end result often feels artificial and off.
This couldn’t be less accurate for Whisk and Cleaver, whose running dialogue forms the delightful soul of the game. If the two actresses are not fast friends in real life, please do not tell me: their onscreen chemistry is unquestionable, with Whisk’s bubbly optimism butting up against Cleaver’s deadpan skepticism with delightful results. Returning back to CSD2 for a spell, I immediately missed their easy banter that warms the game’s stressful action like your food truck’s heat lamps. Your robot friends offer more than friendly voices, as well: Whisk adds a dedicated button to serve all finished orders, an absolute GODSEND of a feature. For her part, Cleaver serves as your vector for the rival food trucks mechanic. That system, I am less over the moon about.
Oh, you didn’t think you could just drive around and serve food unharassed, did you? The world of Cook Serve Delicious is a post-global warming disaster of corruption, robot wars, and truly baffling food-based decisions. It’s all tongue-in-cheek, but there ARE other food trucks roaming the post-apocalyptic highways of America aiming to (literally) destroy the competition. Some open fire with machine guns, destroying holding stations used to prep food. Others will ram you off the road, dramatically changing your incoming orders as you scramble to prepare for your new destination. A particularly nasty rival hacks your truck, causing you to lose all information about the orders to come. You don’t know what is going to be ordered until it’s already time to serve it.
Cook Serve Delicious 2 introduced these more wild elements of worldbuilding, but they were only background: extra detail in emails, or food and restaurant descriptions. With 3, these aspects make their way into the game itself, adding an extra tonal hook to the gameplay. The problem is, these mechanics aren’t particularly fun. In an already unforgiving and challenging game, the added possibility that all your prep work could be wasted piles on in a way that feels unfair. I have restarted levels because of RNG: a food truck attack essentially rolled a crit and devastated my operations, making the only reasonable choice to simply restart and pray for better luck.
There are two ways to mitigate the harm of these attacks. One is the new upgrade tree, where you unlock various enhancements to your food truck. Some of them offer protection against rivals, but those also take quite a lot of play to unlock, so by the time you get them you’ve already suffered a great deal at the hands of your detractors. The other is the Zen Mode, returning from CSD2. Turn on Zen Mode, and while you won’t be able to get any gold medals on stages, your customers undergo a transformation.
To explain this metamorphosis,we have to dig into the game’s Patience mechanic. It’s pretty much what it sounds like: a measure of how long your customers are willing to wait for their order. In previous games, it was simply a timer that counted down. Now, there are three stages: green, yellow, and red. Each stage has its own timer, and when it runs out, their patience degrades. When a customer on green patience has their timer run out, they drop to yellow. Yellow drops to red. And if red drops, they walk out the door. Each stage degrades faster than the last, but as long as you get them their food before they walk out, there’s no penalty.
This is as much PSA for CSD vets as it is newcomers. It was a number of hours into 3 before I realized the rules had changed so drastically from the last two games. It changes the difficulty from “unreasonable” to merely “rough.” But again, if you can’t get down with the game’s standard difficulty, there’s Zen Mode.
When you choose to play in Zen, your customers transcend. Time is an illusion, they realize. All waiting will eventually end, and the memory of a perfect meal will last a lifetime. And so these Buddha-like diners line up with infinite patience, willing to wait for an eternity without complaint for their food. Zen Mode is a blessing for making progress when you’re stuck, or when you know you just aren’t up for the stress of classic mode.
Unfortunately, these two extremes have a Goldilocks problem on their hands. For the ultra hardcore, classic mode may be their bowl of porridge, but as a series fan who’s been playing since before it was on Steam, and bought each game on multiple platforms, it’s downright frustrating to me. 2 got extremely challenging near the end, but by then I’d gotten dozens of hours of enjoyment out of it. 3 hits a level of challenge that feels overbearing to me very quickly. On the other hand, while folks who want to just zone out and hit buttons will get a lot out of Zen Mode, the lack of pushback leaves me feeling cold. I want the game to challenge me without feeling like I don’t stand a chance, and the game’s two modes don’t find that balance.
The art team is led by Camille Kuo, whose excellent style from 2 returns in all its glory. I don’t think it’s unfair to call the renditions of food in 3 to be one of the best in gaming, matched only by the dazzling food art of Vanillaware titles. Vanillaware presents food so perfect it looks like a dream: the platonic ideal of ramen, dango, and more. The Cook Serve Delicious art aims more to represent reality, carving out its own niche as the mouth-wateringly messy food of your favorite local restaurant. On the music front, Jonathan Geer returns with his third soundtrack for the series. The first game offered delightfully catchy elevator music, while the second took an elegant yet energetic classical bend. With 3, he presents a lighthearted a capella album infused with whimsy and optimism appropriate to your cross-country adventure. His 2 soundtrack remains a personal favorite of mine, but all three are excellent and have their own distinct personalities.
This is all to say, while the presentation and personality is the best it’s ever been, for my money CSD2 remains the series’ highpoint of gameplay. The strict menus of 2’s Chef for Hire missions provide a more deliberate challenge than 3’s clever but exploitable per-level menu restrictions. And you’ll find yourself tempted to exploit it, because the game can be so unforgiving! The game doesn’t push you hard enough to experiment with new foods, and as the difficulty climbs you find yourself hiding behind familiar dishes you can cook without thinking.
Even then, comfort is no true escape. The customers in CSD are ALL ready to step forward and declare “excuse me, I asked for no pickles,” and there’s no way to make it up to them, or to start over if you realize you’ve made a mistake while cooking. You get three bacon cheeseburger orders in a row, and then a fourth order that’s just a plain cheeseburger. On reflex, your finger hits the bacon key. Bam, you’re done. You cannot undo it, you have to serve an incorrect order. You can no longer get a gold medal for the day, and given that mistakes in CSD break your flow and typically beget more mistakes, you’ll be lucky to end with a bronze. You need silver medals to advance in the game, so… I guess that run was a waste. All for the want of a baconless cheeseburger.
These aren’t new problems for the series, but the increased challenge of 3 pushes things to a breaking point. Quirks become flaws, and flaws become sources of aggravation. It isn’t helped by those menu restrictions I mentioned before. Whereas in CSD2, you would be assigned a specific menu, 3 gives you a list of acceptable items, and criteria to hit with your menu. This many entrees. This many special orders. A total point value of this. And matching this theme for each food item. This is a clever, engaging system, but it’s easy for the player to subvert, and it often subverts ITSELF. The balance is less than perfect, and it’s not uncommon after six exasperating failures to retool your menu and beat a day that was stressing you out in one try. It’s not a relief when this happens: it’s a feeling of irritation at how much harder you were unwittingly making the level.
Cook Serve Delicious 3 has the blessing and the curse of being the sequel to Cook Serve Delicious 2: a game that stands as the unquestionable best cooking game ever made, and for my money deserves a spot as one of the best games in any genre. It has its problems, but no game is perfect. By adding extra ingredients, the balance of mechanics that 2 achieved is thrown off. Despite all this, you may be surprised to hear me say that CSD3 is a great game. It’s an excellent meal, just noticeably too salty.
In cooking, added salt is impossible to remove, but there’s no reason that has to stay true in games. The previous 2 games received excellent and free post launch support, so perhaps 3 will as well. But even if those changes never come, Cook Serve Delicious 3 will remain an excellent game: its largest problem being that it stands in the shadow of its predecessor.