Over the last few years, there has been a surge in popularity for the life simulation genre. Between the now legendary Stardew Valley and titles like My Time At Portia, the ability to boot up a game and play it at your own pace is more accessible than ever. Garden Story is the latest entry in the genre’s library. What helps it stand apart from the others is its heartfelt story and action sequences. Developer Picogram has crafted an adorable journey about a tiny gardener that grows into the biggest hero.
Story – One Grape to Save Them All
Garden Story takes place in The Grove, a world created by a sentient tree filled with Mana. It is so powerful that any fruit, vegetable, or even animal that lives around it becomes a conscious being. Unfortunately, Rot has started to attack the tree and is slowly weakening it. As the Rot continues its attack, resources have become scarce, and a once-thriving and united ecosystem have fallen apart as communities begin looking after themselves independently.
When I first started playing Garden Story, I never imagined that it would remind me of the movie Children of Men. The Rot has caused a lot of damage, but its biggest impact on The Grove is that no more new fruits or vegetables are growing. That means the entire Grove could disappear without a new generation to take care of it in due time. Concord the grape is a gardener with only one responsibility; to watch over the Kindergarden and hope that new life will sprout one day. It’s tedious and lonely work, but they are content.
One day Plum, the village guardian, approaches Concord with a request. Plum has to leave to help out the other villages and needs them to fill in as the newest Guardian of The Hamlet. It is now your job to aid the locals with their requests and defend them from any incoming Rot attacks. After being thrust into this new position, Concord will figure out how to unite distant towns while also finding their place in the world.
I really enjoyed how Garden Story represents its themes of community and self-discovery. When you’re not advancing the plot, you can spend as much time as you like assisting others. Each area you visit has its own cast of characters with different problems to solve. The main quest focuses on Concord as they adjust to their new role and discovers their greater purpose.
The overarching story is a familiar one, but the game benefits from its cookie-cutter narrative design. Garden Story is a chill title about taking your time and enjoying the smaller moments. I wish there were a stronger climax to the narrative, but I appreciate how it let me tackle story objectives at my own pace.
Gameplay – Swing for the Fences
Garden Story uses a day cycle for Concord to accomplish tasks. Whenever they wake up in the morning, players can spend their time helping out the locals or progressing the main adventure. Both options offer unique experiences, from unlocking new items to learning new skills and abilities.
A Helpful Hand
To successfully help out the village, you will need to use the community bulletin board. There can be up to three objectives every day, and the kind of problems you will face range from conflict, maintenance, and forage. You will be asked to destroy Rot from certain areas for conflict missions, while foraging will ask you to look for valuable resources. Maintenance tasks were usually the easiest, as they only require you to hit certain objects with the right tool.
I was a bit surprised when I started to see the same requests pop up only a few days after completing them the first time. When I started playing Garden Story, I hoped it would offer me a great variety of tasks and unique missions. While I didn’t mind going out to do the same thing over and over again at first, I did feel less motivated to check the board after only a couple of hours.
Around the halfway point of your journey, the game teaches you how to use resources to build and repair new items like streetlamps for the village. I wish that it had introduced this mechanic earlier in the adventure. By the time I learned how to do it, I was already more invested in continuing the story than spending more time gathering resources for essentially cosmetic items. If I had more time on my hands, I could see how it could be fun to dabble with this mechanic, but I felt it took too much time for minimal reward.
Last Garden Hero
When you’re not helping mend fences, Garden Story turns into an action RPG. I didn’t expect it to feel like a top-down Dark Souls, but the combination of a stamina bar and limited healing items made the comparison unavoidable. Attacking or rolling away will deplete your stamina quickly. Concord carries a jar with him that he can fill with dew, the common healing item. Different types of dew will have unique benefits, so it’s a good idea to look at your options before hopping into a dungeon.
There are four villages throughout The Grove that need your assistance. After assisting them for a few days, Concord will need to maneuver through dungeons full of puzzles and enemies to take down the source of the Rot. The boss fights were a highlight at first but eventually left a sour taste in my mouth. The first three bosses were challenging, unique, and fun to fight. However, as I approached the endgame, I was disappointed that the earlier bosses are reused with only slight variations to their previous encounters.
You can customize Concord to your liking using the memory slot system. Before going to bed each night, players can use unlockable memories to increase the grape’s health, damage resistance, luck, and more. Memories typically unlock after a requirement has been met, like helping a certain amount of villagers or can even be found during your adventure. Most of these upgrades come with a trade-off, so you can boost up your speed and luck but may lose stamina or health in the process.
While I enjoyed helping my neighbors and defeating Rot, one major issue consistently distracted me from the journey. The controls throughout Garden Story feel very stiff, and even after loading Concord with memories that would raise their speed stat, I felt like they moved way too slowly. During boss fights, this became an issue as I tried to run away from incoming attacks and often led to my demise. A fast travel system is available during the second half of the game, but I had a tough time getting used to the slow movements.
Graphics & Audio – Beet Salad
The adorable pixel art throughout Garden Story was one of my favorite features. It reminded me of Earthbound in the best possible way, where the setting helps establish the tone and adds character to the world. The character designs are also fun, as each character is distinguishable from the other despite being the same species.
One of my biggest issues with the game is how often I would notice the frame rate dropping. This usually happened whenever I was walking between areas or sometimes during combat sequences. One of my biggest complaints about the game was the stiff controls, and the constant slow-down only made it worse.
The music within Garden Story was a highlight. It’s incredibly charming and catchy and provides the uplifting beats required for manual labor. I specifically really enjoyed the relaxing sounds of Summer Bar, the coastal village of The Grove. As the day turns into night, the music eventually fades into a complete ambiance. Concord can continue working to the peaceful sounds of crickets until he is ready for bed.
Garden Story was reviewed on Switch with a key provided by Stride PR.