Cozy Grove wants to challenge an assumption. It’s an assumption that has even wormed its way into how we talk about games: we have a ‘backlog of games to get through’, we’re going to ‘settle down for a gaming night’. Gaming is something we can only seem to do intensively, and for hours in a row. As reviewers we’re complicit: we measure games in terms of hours; how big they are, and how long they take to finish.
Cozy Grove doesn’t want you to play for more than half an hour. In fact, it would rather you only played once a day. Play for too long, and its resources dry up, quests are no longer given, and the world turns its back on you. Cozy Grove wants to be in your life, but not in an all-consuming way. It wants you to think about it occasionally, check in to see how things are going, and be your low-maintenance friend.
Breaking the assumption that games are there to be played exhaustively, and to be exhausted, is not completely new. Animal Crossing has been challenging that same assumption, and has seen its golden age over lockdown. Players have been booting up their Nintendo Switches for no more than thirty minutes a day to check their mail, visitors and the price of turnips, before turning it off and doing something else. It’s been a routine for people who are starved of routine, and a parallel universe when this one has been a bit rubbish.
Cozy Grove is not dissimilar, shall we say. You are a Spirit Scout, a kind of girl scout of the supernatural, and you have been dumped onto the island of Cozy Grove to camp and get your badges. You first meet up with Flamey, a sentient campfire, who encourages you to explore the drab and grey island. As you navigate round, you come across spirits who look like bears, and they have fetch quests for you: gather a few parcels here, a few twigs there. Complete their quests and they become corporeal for that day, and light up their section of the island, turning it from black-and-white into every colour of the rainbow.
You’ll also get a spirit log from these daily quests, which can be taken to Flamey. Collecting a set number of these opens up more of the island and spirit bears. Soon, your collection of bears includes a seagull-bear who is your Blathers, creating a library of every feasible item; a fox-bear who is your Tommy Nook, selling you goods; and a builder bear who helps you gather tools. With a larger island comes more expanse to cover, and you will be – again – doing things that are reminiscent of Animal Crossing. Shadows of fish move in the water, so you can fish for them. Xs appear on the ground, which you can excavate with a spade. A dowsing rod can be used to find artefacts, and leaf piles can be rummaged in for twigs. Your limited inventory will soon fill up, so you decide whether to sell them, drop them, or tuck them in an expandable camp inventory.
For anyone that has played Animal Crossing, this will all be extremely familiar. Cozy Grove likes to chase the same behaviours, so you will find yourself in similar patterns. We found ourselves doing the routines of canvassing the island, exhausting all of the interactibles, and then putting them into two piles: what’s there to be sold, and what’s there to be donated. Once everything was rinsed, we’d turn Cozy Grove off and play something else.
Cozy Grove is even more militant about pushing you away from playing it. Your progress is measured in how many spirit logs you’ve gained. If you’ve got spirit logs, then new bears and new areas will open up. But Cozy Grove deliberately withholds the logs and quests that can be gained each day, so there’s very little point to sticking around. If you have gained your logs, you might be able to make a bit more money (although not much) by selling things to Kit the fox-bear, and you might find some more items to donate, but the diminishing returns have diminished so much that you can barely (bearly?) see them with the naked eye.
The psychological differences between Animal Crossing and Cozy Grove are fascinating. Animal Crossing’s limits are less hard and more soft. Although you get diminishing returns from exploring your island, you can still work towards objectives that feel valuable. Money gets you something substantial, like a new home, while donations can be viewed and appreciated. Cozy Grove puts a hard wall in front of you, and none of the makework – donating or making money – feels impactful. As a result of this very small and simple difference, Cozy Grove feels unwelcoming when Animal Crossing feels relaxed, and it emerges as lesser as a result.
These hard gates create tension, too. Quests are HUGE in Cosy Grove, as they’re the key to expansion, and you only get a few a day. But sometimes those quests are uncompletable. You will have exhausted the environment and there aren’t enough items left to actually finish the fetch quest. Since quests are limited to a set number each day, leaving them incomplete can feel like an utter failure. They will take the place of a quest you could have received the following day. What it often leads to is prolonged play sessions where you’re desperately canvassing the island for a twig, parcel or walnut, and you end up spending longer than the designers wanted you to play anyway.
That last situation isn’t helped with the monochrome colour scheme. Without colour, it becomes extremely difficult to find anything. We would have given a kingdom for an iron ore, but they look identical to other decorative rocks in the world, as there’s no colour to provide contrast or highlighting. A quest for iron ore lay incomplete for a couple of days. Important stuff blends into the background, and – while it makes for wonderful screenshots – it can get you cursing at the telly. And while you might sporadically make the island colourful, it all resets back to grey at midnight.
Otherwise, the island of Cozy Grove is beautiful and a joy to spend time in. Clearly deviating from Animal Crossing’s toybox look, this is muted and sad; a wistful Limbo for spirits. We wouldn’t go so far to call it mature or for adults, but it has a darker edge that pushed it to an older crowd. And the artistry is superb: this is a colouring book where your actions suddenly pour colour over the top, and that sudden enlightenment never gets old.
Cozy Grove never quite capitalises on its world though, and the story of these spirits can sit too far into the background. Any interactions with characters are in the moment: they’ll want something, and you can get it for them. We wanted to understand the world of Cozy Grove more, but it’s again given to us piecemeal. The quests are also one-note when they only needed a dash of colour. Too often, you will be looking for ten of something around the island, and coming back daily doesn’t hide the monotony. Would it have hurt to add in something amounting to a story quest?
For all the repetition and unnecessary tensions, Cozy Grove is still a place we’ll return to every day. It can feel driven more by FOMO, rather than relaxation or a desire to spend time with the characters and world, but it’s an itch that we’ve enjoyed having scratched. The expansion of the island and the spirit bears that come with it are carrots that rarely failed to draw us in, and – most of the time – the quests feel like little chores that we were happy to complete. The wistful tone also makes for an original backdrop, and there are mountains of things to collect.
Does it do enough to challenge that assumption, that games don’t have to be played for hours on end? Yes, we think it does. There’s certainly room on the Xbox for a game to graze on, and there’s a thirty-minute routine here that offers just enough variation and growth to keep you visiting. But we can’t help thinking that it’s the same answer that a certain other game offered, and more convincingly.
Cozy Grove on the Xbox lies in the shadow of Animal Crossing, and the moments where it steps out of that shadow are its weakest. While Animal Crossing never stops feeling welcoming, Cozy Grove keeps pushing you towards the door, and a lot of the charm goes with it. Regardless, there’s plenty of room on the Xbox for an experience as undemanding and beautiful as this one, and you’ll find yourself rummaging for walnuts in a spare thirty minutes. You certainly can’t live in Cozy Grove, but it’s great to visit.