From the constraint of Stardew Valley to the rhythms of farming simulatorthere is something that feels right right when agriculture meets video games. This may be because farming, like the game, is a loop, as you farm then harvest, farm and harvest, likely improving with each cycle. Or maybe it’s because RPGs and farming both revolve around growing something, watching it improve with every action. It’s just that in an RPG you tend to grow yourself.
We mention it because garden story is not really a farming game. The title might give you the impression that it is, the press materials continue to invoke Stardew Valley, and the opening has you running a kindergarten, your own little garden around the corner from Spring Hamlet. But Garden Story deviates soon enough and becomes something like a handyman simulator. It’s a rugpull that surprised us, and could confuse some potential players. If you wanted your next farming sim, this isn’t quite it.
Think Animal Crossing, but watered down to about a quarter concentrate, and with a nomadic edge, as you move between four small towns. Now place a Legend of Zelda-style dungeon at the end of each town, and you’ve pretty much nailed Garden Story. Ta-da! : if this proposition does anything for you, it will determine if you get a lot of Garden Story.
You play as Concord who, as mentioned, is the guardian of a small garden. But they are soon aided by a giant plum called, er, Prune, to become a “keeper of the grove.” It’s a pretty big title in the grove, as it effectively positions you as one of the champions of the four cities. Being a guardian means you’ll be fixing bridges, emptying water supplies, and smacking the odd mud over the head with a hammer.
All four cities have seen better days. They are in various states of ruin and often share animosity with each other. There is a civic atmosphere in Garden Story, as you learn the benefits of helping each other and working together towards a common goal. It’s a warm, cuddly message that works, but it supersedes any concept stories, plot lines, or even particularly interesting characters (only one frog, Rana, is really recorded with us). While there’s an easy comfort to the interactions in Garden Story, they don’t quite capture the heart or the mind.
A pattern begins to form as you play Garden Story. A new city is available to you, on the theme of one of the seasons. You have to ditch all the other towns to visit this one (probably to keep your concentration from wandering), as you’re quickly given a place to live and some initial tasks to complete. Do them and a new tool will be tucked away in your backpack: perhaps a dowsing rod, which acts like a fishing rod in all but name; or a scythe, to cut the reeds.
Then you gather the region’s unique resources to complete tasks from a bounty board. These fall into the categories of combat, resource delivery, and city repair, and completing enough of the tasks will level the city. Suddenly, new stocks arrive in the shop, new locations open up and – finally – the town dungeon is revealed, who likes to rock from The Legend of Zelda. It’s a sequence of rooms, split roughly half-and-half between puzzles and combat. At the end of them is a boss, which will require mastery of the new tool in town. Once downed, the town will love you very much and you will move on to the next one.
Everything is pretty cool. It’s the permanent, non-binding word that keeps buzzing around in our heads as we play Garden Story. Pleasant. He doesn’t stray into the negatives of the word by going twee, and we can feel the cares of the day washing away from us as we play.
You can feel the “but”. While Garden Story is nice, it’s also quite happy to set up a deckchair in the middle of the road. There’s nothing here to be impressed with, and it doesn’t have the depth, history, or restraint of so many of its ancestors. It’s not as engaging as Stardew, not as exciting as Legend of Zelda, and lacks the Animal Crossing sweep. He risks being shipwrecked between them all.
Take the fight. You can close your eyes and imagine a backyard story without combat, and this probably would have been a better, more accessible game for it. But the combat is there, and it’s kind of boring. Your attacks consume a portion of stamina, and at the start of the game you have three portions. So you hit a slime or an acorn beast, then wait several seconds for your stamina to replenish. Other aspects also use stamina, like a shield and dodge, which cannibalize only the small amount you have to play with. As a result, combat becomes a stilted, unsatisfying experience as you punch and run, wait a bit, then return to melee. You rarely have the ability to do damage to kill an enemy in one go.
It gets better, of course, but the damage is done in the early game. And even with Concord stacked with hit points and stamina, the fight still feels stiff. Attacks seem tick-based, forcing you to wait before charging the next attack. The shield – essential for certain projectile-firing bosses and roots that make up many of the game’s combat tasks – is also painful, taking a second or two to activate. It also shares a button with a toolbox, and it’s frustrating that you’ve entered into battle with a rusty (but useless) key.
Garden Story’s handy-pea? side is good, if a little limited. You quickly learn to build equipment in the village, but almost all of it is for you (hiding places, bounty signs, health refills as dew), and very little actually improves the town. Townspeople want resources, but you can only stockpile a small number of them in any given day – farming really only comes into Garden Story in the final hours of a long campaign – so you feel surrounded, only progressing to the extent the designers want you to progress. The missions also quickly become repetitive. There just isn’t a big enough library of them.
Combat, farming, dungeon mining, crafting, history, and building are all present, but in half pints. They never quite reach their full potential, and we couldn’t point to just one and say “yeah, Garden Story nails that one.” Garden Story sits between stools.
So why did we play it through and why didn’t we regret it? First, we come back to kindness. There’s a sweetness to the pastel pixel-art that draws you in, and the characters – while not brimming with personality – are always positive towards you. Helping them gives you a kind of Readybrek shard.
And there’s a simple, neat loop here. We soon came to memorize the layouts of each town, and found a small satisfaction in arranging them all. Garden Story contains the joys of spring cleaning, as you tinker, tidy up and get things done. The progress bars slide upwards and more and more Grove becomes accessible. You never feel like you’re min-maxing anything, or getting into the intricacies of a crafting system, for example, but it’s great and frictionless.
Garden Story feels like a kind of Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing, but can’t compete: its systems are too shallow and it’s plumped up for some fights when it could have been better off without. But if you’re a fan of those games and the idea of a contained, workable campaign with barely a bramble to hang onto the calls for, then Garden Story will be an attractive companion for a dozen hours or so.
You can buy Garden Story at Xbox Store
From the compulsion of Stardew Valley to the beats of Farming Simulator, there’s something that feels right when farming meets video games. This may be because farming, like the game, is a loop, as you farm then harvest, farm and harvest, likely improving with each cycle. Or maybe it’s because RPGs and farming both revolve around growing something, watching it improve with every action. It’s just that in an RPG you tend to grow yourself. We mention this because Garden Story is not really a farming game. The title might give you the impression that it is, the press materials keep…
Garden History Review
Garden History Review
- Laid back and endearing towns and characters
- Satisfying loops keep you rolling
- Nicely presented
- Many systems, but almost all superficial
- The fight leaves a lot to be desired
- No remarkable element
- Many thanks for the free copy of the game, go to – Bought by TXH
- Formats – Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS4, PS5, Switch
- Reviewed version – Xbox One on Xbox Series X
- Release date – July 12, 2022
- Introductory price from – £16.74