Garden Story Review: a leisurely, good-natured role-playing game

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Have you ever brewed at the injustice that juicy, happy grapes are crushed under your feet? Probably not. Neither did I, but playing Zelda-esque Garden Story changed things. It plays Concord, a purple vineyard adventurer so imperturbable and noble that my empathy for grapes has now peaked. Sommeliers. Jam maker. Raisin (eers?). M&S Holiday billboard arrangers for sausage products. Take care of your damn back. I am driving or dying for grapes now. Garden Story radicalized me.

Important: Garden Story is neither Stardew Valley nor Animal Crossing. That’s not really aimed at either. It’s a Zelda-like ARPG with an important twist that I’ll talk about in a moment. Later on there is some farming for resources and profit. Much of the profit is used to buy beautiful hats for Concord. There’s also unlocking and building cosmetic fantasies, aquariums, etc. There’s a good part here for completers, but it’s largely optional.

Instead, Concord spends more time fighting to defend this idyllic world than gardening, decorating, or other similar activities from the school of game design in the “B&Q Departments”. “Even a harvesting tool like a pickaxe now carries the meaning of battle,” complains a large plum named “Plum” as she lends the young guard Concord’s first weapon. These aren’t the only signs of sadness and introspection in this seemingly whimsical adventure. A nice surprise to be honest. The story is much better for her.

Concord’s journey takes the form of an A-to-B search to stop the source of a sticky sentient putrefaction that spreads across everything and clogs the natural order of things. Concord will travel from village to village, collecting equipment, completing side and main quests, exploring dungeons, solving puzzles and fighting bosses.

I’ve already mentioned a twist, and here it is: Garden Story gives the player the opportunity to live in the four main villages – not just to travel through them. Concord is waiting for a temporary home in each. You can rush through history, but you can also make yourself comfortable. Put your grape hat in your grape house and start helping. Protect, restore and help residents thrive.

So Concord will arrive in a busy beach town, meet the townspeople, get a place to crash, drop on a large sheet of paper, do the heartwarming quiet animation, and then get out. Every morning there are new inquiries from the villagers. Repair a bridge, knock down some evil slimes, collect and deliver a rare resource, and so on. Complete tasks, raise the village, gain access to new weapon upgrades and other highlights. It ensures nice “loops-in-lines” progress, during which you can switch between climbing the beanstalk and enjoying the view as you wish.

In Garden Story Concord reads a sign in front of a large stone frog statue

Even static screenshots of Garden Story are practically blooming off the screen, so it’s no surprise that the presentation is consistently a treat. Unique animations are hidden in surprising locations. My favorite was the deadly serious face that Concord makes while impaling rotted slime with an umbrella, as if she were about to perform a terrible ritual execution. Concord’s flight of stairs animation is life-affirming. When I first saw it, I squeezed loudly, nodded stoically in appreciation, then repeated it for six minutes.

Take it easy, says Garden Story. Yes, danger is approaching, but fences need to be mended, just like monsters need to be killed.

Environments are dense, detailed, and colorful, though there’s a problem here. Game art takes great functionality and form, and I had to stare at my screen a lot to analyze routes and heights. It’s not necessarily cluttered, just occasionally disoriented. The soundtrack is wonderful though. Layer upon layer of flute-like, folk, airy vibes. A breezy beach is one area. Timeless, crystalline percussion closest.

I have to talk about the fight now because, despite all the leisurely creativity and charming characters, hitting is still at least half the battle. I really like the ‘RPG‘ part of Garden Story – collecting and upgrading weapons, adding ‘memories’ to improve the stats – I’m just not that sure about the ‘A’. The action is a bit fiddly, dictated by an initially stingy stamina bar that feels more like an obstacle than a challenging restriction that stifles the flow rather than dictating the rhythm. Enemies feel more like obstacles that need to be manipulated and removed than sparring partners. All of the fights in the game are pattern exploitation in one form or another, I know, but it rarely feels natural here.

Concord is chatting with another fruit villager in Garden Story

Bosses are highs and lows at the same time. Great concepts and designs with punitive patterns that offer real challenges but are also often placed at the end of dungeons that are fun once or twice but chafe on repeat visits. I think it’s both the context and the design that make these struggles feel harrowing. A boss you’d feel completely warm to in a challenging pixel roguelite feels out of place after just an hour fishing for clams to help out some friendly frogs. There is a menu toggle to save you from dying, however. I will use it when I return to Garden Story. Fight isn’t the train here for me, although I think it will be for some.

So what’s calling me back and why was I having such a good time with Garden Story even though I didn’t make too much of a fuss about such a large part of the game? It’s a little harder to grasp than the beautiful animation and music, than the stupidity that leads to things like a village elder with a gnarled wooden stick called “elder”, which I honestly found embarrassing.

Concord wanders across a beach in Garden Story

It’s because Garden Story … well … it’s kind of … deep? It would have been so, so easy for the game to just dump some silly talking products into the colorful Pixel Cottage Land # 584 with some crafting and farming mechanics and end the day without explaining. But worldbuilding is going on here. Story. Characters with real concern for the fate of the country. There is evidence of low-key, archetypal, fairytale poetry that shows an understanding of how a Zelda game makes players feel, not just how it works.

And it’s also a world to spend time in, not just show up and smash a few pots and hoard a few coins. Take it easy, says Garden Story. Yes, danger is approaching, but fences need to be mended, just like monsters need to be killed. The struggle to save the world is a high level of abstraction. Instead, fight to save the ground and the sky, the frogs and the flowers, the wise cacti and the talking cucumbers. Fight like a grape in a green bucket hat armed with a parasol can.


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