From the compulsion of Stardew Valley to the rhythms of Farming Simulator, there’s something that just feels right when farming meets video games. Perhaps it’s because farming, like gaming, is a loop, as you cultivate and then harvest, cultivate and harvest, likely getting better 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 be growing yourself.
We mention this because Garden Story isn’t actually a farming game. The title might make you feel it is, the press materials keep invoking Stardew Valley, and the opening has you managing a Kindergarden, your own little garden in the corner of Spring Hamlet. But Garden Story swerves quite early and becomes something more like a handyman simulator. It’s a rugpull that surprised us, and might disorient a few potential players. If you wanted your next farming sim, this isn’t quite it.
Think Animal Crossing, but diluted to about a quarter concentrate, and with a nomadic edge, as you move between four little towns. Now tuck a Legend of Zelda-style dungeon at the end of each town, and you’ve pretty much nailed Garden Story. Ta-da!: whether that proposal does anything for you will determine whether you get much out of Garden Story.
You play Concord who, as mentioned, is the custodian of a tiny garden. But they are soon seconded by a giant plum called, um, Plum, to become a ‘Guardian of the Grove’. This is a rather important title in the Grove, as it effectively positions you as one of the four towns’ champions. Being a Guardian means that you will be fixing bridges, clearing out water supplies and boshing the odd slime on the head with a hammer.
The four towns have seen better days. They’re in various states of ruin, and often share animosity with each other. There’s a civic feel to Garden Story, as you learn the benefits of helping each other and working together to a common goal. It’s a warm, cuddly message that does work, but it replaces any high-concept stories, plots or even particularly interesting characters (only a frog, Rana, really registered with us). While there is an easy-going comfort to interactions in Garden Story, they don’t really capture the heart or mind.
A pattern begins to form as you play through Garden Story. A new town is made available to you, themed to one of the seasons. You must abandon all of the other towns to visit this one (presumably to keep your focus from straying), as you are quickly given a place of residence and some initial chores to complete. Get those done and a new tool will be tucked into your backpack: perhaps a dowsing rod, which acts like a fishing rod in all but name; or a scythe, for chopping down reeds.
Then you’re gathering the area’s unique resources to complete jobs from a bounty board. These fall into categories of combat, delivering resources, and fixing up the town, and completing enough of the tasks will level the town up. Suddenly, new stock arrives in the shop, new locations open and – eventually – the town’s dungeon is revealed, which loves to crib from Legend of Zelda. They’re 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 town’s new tool. Once they’re downed, the town will love you dearly, and you will shuffle over to the next one.
It is all rather nice. It’s the abiding, non-committal word that keeps buzzing in our head as we play Garden Story. Nice. It doesn’t stray into the negative aspects of the word by becoming twee, and we can feel the day’s worries wash off us as we play.
You can sense the ‘but’. While Garden Story is nice, it is also perfectly happy to pull up a deckchair in the middle of the road. There is nothing here to be wowed by, and it doesn’t have the depth, story or compulsion of so many of its forebears. It’s not as engaging as Stardew, not as exciting as Legend of Zelda, and doesn’t have the sweep of Animal Crossing. It’s in danger of being castaway between them all.
Take the combat. You can close your eyes and imagine a Garden Story without combat, and it would likely have been a better, more accessible game for it. But combat is here, and it’s a tad tiresome. Your attacks use up a chunk of stamina and, at the start of the game, you have three chunks. So, you’re whacking a slime or acorn-beast, and then you’re waiting several seconds for your stamina to replenish. Other aspects also use the stamina, like a shield and dodge, which only cannibalises the small amount you have to play with. As a result, combat becomes a stilted, unsatisfying experience as you hit and run, wait a bit, then return to the fray. Rarely do you have the damage capability to kill an enemy in one go.
This improves, of course, but the damage is done in the early game. And even with Concord stacked with lifepoints and stamina, combat still feels rigid. Attacks feel tick-based, forcing you to wait before loading up the next attack. The shield – essential for certain bosses and projectile-firing roots that make up a lot of the game’s combat tasks – is also painful, taking a second or two to activate. It shares a button with a toolbox, too, and it’s frustratingly easy to find that you’ve waded into battle with a rusty (but useless) spanner.
The handyman (handy-pea?) side of Garden Story is good, if a little limited. You soon learn to construct amenities in the village, but almost all of them are for you (stashes, bounty boards, health refills in the form of dew), and precious few actually improve the town. Townsfolk want resources, but you can only stockpile a small number in a given day – farming only really comes into Garden Story in the final hours of a lengthy campaign – so you feel fenced in, progressing only as much as the designers want you to progress. Missions, too, quickly get repetitive. There just isn’t a big enough library of them.
Combat, farming, dungeon-delving, handywork, story and construction are all present, but in half-pints. They never quite reach their full potential, and we couldn’t point to a single one of them and say “yep, Garden Story nails that one”. Garden Story emphatically sits between stools.
So, why did we play it to completion, and why didn’t we regret it? First of all, we come back to the niceness. There’s a softness to the pastel pixel-art that draws you in, and the characters – while not oozing personality – are always positive towards you. Helping them out gives you a kind of Readybrek glow.
And there’s a simple loop, done well, here. We soon came to memorise the layouts of each town, and found a minor satisfaction in tidying them all up. Garden Story contains the joys of a spring clean, as you potter about, tidying things away and getting things done. Progression bars slide upwards and more and more of the Grove becomes accessible. You never feel like you are min-maxing anything, or getting into the intricacies of a crafting system, say, but it’s genial and frictionless.
Garden Story introduces itself as something of a Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing, but can’t possibly compete: its systems are too shallow, and its plumped for some combat when it might have been better without. But if you’re a fan of those games, and the idea of a contained, completable campaign with barely a bramble to snag yourself on appeals, then Garden Story will be an appealing companion for a dozen hours or so.
You can buy Garden Story from the Xbox Store