Games are often about escapism, and Garden Story offers yet another way to lose yourself in the virtual world: the hero protagonist is a grape, burdened with great purpose. Concord (see what they did there) is but a youngling, wrenched from the Kindergarden to fulfil the role of Guardian after their predecessor decides to leave town — a role that will require them to defeat the insidious Rot that has infested the land.
The Grove, where Concord lives, is divided into four seasonal towns: Spring Hamlet, Summer Bar, Autumn Town, and Winter Glade, but the Rot has affected each one of these towns differently, and you'll have to visit each one in turn to fix what damage the Rot has done.
Little Concord can unlock and upgrade different weapons, from the standard sword-like Pick to the wide area-of-effect Hammer and the Dowsing Rod, which serves as both a fishing rod and a ranged weapon. The potion system is relatively complex, too, with different types of "Dew" that offer various buffs as well as healing some of your HP, and even different bottles that vary in both the time it takes to use them and the amount of Dew they can hold.
The skill tree is unique, too: rather than letting Concord gain permanent upgrades or levelling up through experience, Concord will instead unlock "Memories" and "slots" in which to keep them. The memories are tied to past Guardians, and usually are something along the lines of "Drink [flavour] Dew 10 times" or "Defeat 25 Slimes", and there's a bonus one for discovering the grave of each Guardian, too. You can switch these around at any time — some will help you find rare materials, used for upgrading tools and Dew bottles, and others will add extra Stamina or health points to your various bars.
The quest system is actually quite similar to Stardew Valley's "Help Wanted" requests: every morning, two or three new daily quests are added to the village noticeboard. These are pulled from a list of many, and divided into three categories: defeating monsters, fixing things, and gathering resources. Each one of these has its own experience bar — completing the requests will earn you XP in each one, and levelling them up will unlock new monsters and new tools in the village. They can get a little repetitive, but by that point, you'll probably be levelled up enough not to bother with them anyway.
At the end of each village's quest, you'll have to complete a dungeon crawl, and fight the boss at the end. Each dungeon is differently themed — one town's dungeon is a sewer with a Rotberg problem, another is a Bookworm chewing through a library — and although the first boss is MILES harder than the rest, they were all quite fun. The dungeon puzzles were consistently hard, though. Or maybe we're just not smart.
Grahm Nesbitt's soundtrack, which pootles along in the background as you explore, is earwormily sunny, jammy, and pleasant, slotting right in alongside Stardew as something we'd listen to in the bath (we promise, that's high praise. We like bath music). And the game — as you can see in the screenshots — is lovely, as long as you're partial to its art style; there's a lot of adorable attention to details, and the colour palette is pitched exactly right for the relaxation crowd.
But Garden Story's main issue — like a lot of RPGs — is that it runs out of steam a little too quickly. Once you reach a certain point, maybe the third or fourth town in, you'll likely find that the weapons you use most are fully levelled up, and you can't be bothered to do the grinding necessary to level up the other ones just in case. The enemies never really get massively harder, despite more interesting and challenging variations turning up; you'll probably have enough HP by that point (and stacks of bottles brimming with Dew) that you can just tank your way through.
The "Memories" that you have equipped are also likely to be locked-in: it's far more helpful to have two extra HP and faster Stamina recharge than to have a minor buff that activates when you drink a specific Dew type, so the fun of retooling your character build is lessened significantly by the inequality of the Memories.
And although we loved a lot of Garden Story's systems, we loathed the inventory. Of all the things you can level up, why not Concord's pockets? Instead, players are limited to 25 slots (in a game with a lot of resource grinding), and items do not stack. However, they stack in the village inventory, a box that can be found all over the map, where Concord can stash their extras. They only stack to 15, though, which is a little arbitrary, especially when you're trying to gather 15 of something for an upgrade and 8 of the same thing for something else.
This, in a nutshell, is our second major
grape gripe with Garden Story: it has some really neat and unique ideas, and then ends up kneecapping them with little reason. The building/crafting system is cool, but it's limited to VERY specific areas on the map, and it's mostly decorative. Likewise, the clothing system is entirely cosmetic — it even says "cosmetic only" on everything, including backpacks (WHY). Plus, there are items that you get which just end up having almost no use as far as we can tell, which feels like a missed opportunity.
The quest system, which forms most of your daily activities, has to be accessed from the message board, and it's hard to remember where they are, since the map won't tell you — a problem that rears its head later on with fast travel and other points of interest. And the day/night cycle, which seems like an incentive to get things done and then leave before the scary night monsters turn up, ends up being a little toothless when you find out that the night never ends, and therefore there's no Harvest Moon-like rush to get home before you pass out.
But. BUT. All of this griping only really sets in when you've been playing the game, as we have, for hours at a time every night. We were totally addicted, to be honest. Sure, it's frustrating to be stuck because of material gathering, but there's so much else to do once things open up. Gardening, fishing, fighting, talking to the villagers — Garden Story may be a little shallow, but it makes up for it in breadth.
Sadly, we didn't get to fully finish the game. We got all the way to the last boss fight before a fatal error crashed us back to the Switch dashboard — we're pretty certain that the upcoming patch will fix that. However, the fact that we made it that far and enjoyed roughly 85% of what the game had to offer is still worth a lot. Like a comfy old jumper that has a couple of holes, we can't help loving Garden Story despite the odd blemish.
As one of the surprise drops of the Nintendo Indie World showcase, we couldn't wait to get our hands on Garden Story, one of the most hyped "wholesome" games of the past few months. What we were expecting was perhaps not what we received — and it certainly has its flaws — but nevertheless, we couldn't help being won over by Garden Story's charm as well as its systems.