Garden Story Review
Picogram’s top-down adventure Garden Story has a bit of an identity crisis, and how you feel about that will likely decide how much you enjoy the game. It has more in common with old-school Zelda games than with the farm or life sims that its cute pastel art suggests, such as their clunky features and a pretty tedious activity loop.
You play as Concord, a grape in a land of sweetly named fellow produce who’re called Fuji, as well as frog denizens. The game is divided overall into four seasonal areas, beginning with the Spring Hamlet where Concord was born. Concord is promoted to the big leagues as a Guardian of the land, tasked with objectives to fulfill so as to protect their peers from an invasive species called the Rot. Each village is surrounded by areas filled with enemies as well as resources like plants, boulders, and tree stumps.
Each day, Concord is given two to three goals, like delivering a handful of a specific resource or ridding an area of its enemies. But by my third day in-game, my slate of goals was just slight variations to the ones I had on the first day. Garden Story definitely struggles to make the repetitive gathering and combat tasks more interesting.
Confusing and frustrating
Combat is one of the places where the game is the least fleshed out, as is the crossover between combat and the game’s other, more pastoral, goals. Your HP begins with a Zelda-like three “hearts” to start, with upgrades that increase your maximum health throughout the game. Fighting uses progressively stronger weapons and household implements too. Plus, each chapter concludes with a boss fight, featuring bosses that take around 20 hits to kill.
If Concord dies during combat, the day immediately ends with a small financial penalty. That feels frustrating when the only way to level up your stats and unlock content is by completing the daily gathering and combat goals—but failure to complete them usually means just being shut out of them rather than being imposed a reset penalty. I found myself wondering about hard resetting quickly after dying, because the game only saves during your overnight rests.
This game wants to be very charming, and it sometimes comes very close. The art is rich and beautiful, and the interfaces look great. But every other aspect of the game feels one step away from being memorable. Menus are confusing and difficult to use. Locations are overly greebled with landmarks and winding paths, making it difficult to get around with ease or speed—and the map is obtuse, instead of helpful, at a glance.
A poor mish-mash of genres
But at the end of the day, I’m just not sure who Garden Story is really for. Combat has no innate reward outside of reward tasks, so people who love to fight will tire of the same small set of enemies. The punishing boss fights feel cruel instead of satisfying. Gathering resources can be fun but repetitive. There’s a library to fill with each area’s seasonal items, but I wasn’t inclined to look for them because of the sheer amount of repetition. I accumulated a bunch of money, but most shops had only cosmetic items to sell.
The bottom line is that I felt worn out playing Garden Story, as its 20ish-hour runtime stretched out and felt much longer than it should be. Comparisons to Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing don’t feel right, nor does Zelda apart from the game’s tough, repetitive combat. Maybe the takeaway is that being the town hero really does involve doing a lot of the same work over and over–a less glamorous but no less applicable life lesson.