Whoever names the Gnomes Garden series must be the one who names Xbox consoles. A couple of weeks ago, we got Gnomes Garden 7: Christmas Story, and now the Xbox Store has been blessed with Gnomes Garden 5: Halloween. Gnomes Garden 6? Yeah, that one is called Gnomes Garden: Lost King, and was released in 2019. 8floor Games aren’t releasing the latest two over actual Halloween or Christmas, either. It’s enough to make you toss your gnome hat on the floor and stamp on it.
An admission on my part: I haven’t actually played a Gnomes Garden game before, so the double-bill of Christmas Story and Halloween has been something of a baptism. They’re a series that seems to release endlessly on Xbox, yet I had no clue what it was, or why they deserved seven different outings. So, I was curious, and there’s a chance that you might be too.
As it turns out, the Gnomes Garden series are resource-management city-builders that have been chopped up into levels, and they almost feel like puzzles to be solved. As the Gnome Queen, you wander into a new glade, only to find that sawmills and quarries have been destroyed, and you will need to rebuild them with what few resources you can find, so that you can complete the objectives that run along the bottom of the screen. Once those objectives are done, the ‘puzzle’ is solved, and you move along a Candy Crush-style map of nodes to the next one.
The fact that you’re only repairing buildings, and never constructing them, means there’s a wee bit of simplicity at play. You don’t have a sandbox to place things willy-nilly, like a gnomic Age of Empires. This is a map that’s largely been drawn for you, and you are determining the order that things are replaced on it. It makes a lot of sense, and we began to feel an understanding growing: there’s an easy, laid-back loop that happens with every map, and that must be a mellow routine for its audience. We understand how we’ve collectively gotten to Gnomes Garden 7.
In this iteration, things are vaguely Halloween flavoured. And we really do mean vaguely. The story – which, we have to admit, we began ignoring because it never really reflected the gameplay – has some vampires in it, while there are some walls that have been replaced by werewolves, and some trees that have been replaced by Jack-o-lanterns. There are a few levels that have had their backdrops spookified to the tiniest degree. It’s like a grumpy parent has sighed and given in, tossed a plastic skeleton on the side of their house, and then melted back into the sofa.
Which leads to criticism number one, and – having played both this and Gnomes Garden 7: Christmas Story – we suspect we’re walking into a conversation that’s been happening between 8floor Games and its community for some time now: there really isn’t much variety between levels within Gnomes Garden 5: Halloween, and with other Gnomes Garden games as a whole. We’ve moved from one game to the other and they are astonishingly similar, porting templates and puzzles almost directly. It’s a problem that’s plagued another long-running series on Xbox that we came to late – the Aery series – and it’s the same case here. The Halloween ‘spice’ doesn’t offer anything, really, to distinguish it.
Each level goes something like this: your little worker tent is where your focus starts, and the first job is to look around for scattered resources that might get you going. Food, lumber, stone and crystals are the main resources of Gnomes Garden 5: Halloween, with the crystals being more late-game. The following step is to think about the buildings you might need, as these produce resources over time. The puzzle is in identifying which one and in which order: often, you don’t have enough resources to build them all, so it’s entirely possible to get stuck, requiring a restart, as you build a quarry with your wood and stone, but neglect to build a sawmill to generate planks for other establishments.
With the buildings built and resources popping up on a steady rota (you’ll need to be fleet of stick and button, as they need to be collected via your cursor if you want the building to generate any more), the next step is a choice. Do you upgrade your buildings, or do you start pushing outward, breaking open the blocks and walls that obscure more building opportunities, and perhaps even the level’s objectives? There’s also the matter of goblin-like enemies, who turn up to steal your resources if they’re left unprotected. So you might need some counter-measures in the form of firemen (?).
In all honesty, this flow through a given level is pleasantly enjoyable. We got used to the rhythms of when a building might generate food, wood or stone, and hovered outside the door with an eager cursor. We began to learn which buildings were the ones to beeline to: the house of an ogre-like creature can ‘hurry up’ production, and we found it invaluable for getting the one resource we needed. Suddenly, we had battleplans for a given level, becoming a logistics expert in a red pointy hat.
But that enjoyment was on a gentle downwards gradient, mostly because things rarely got remixed or playfully toyed around with. The degree of challenge, for example, never managed to move up from ‘gentle’. There was the odd level that we needed to restart because we didn’t anticipate a limited number of resources. But, mostly, we were completing level one in much the same way as level thirty.
We began to realise that fancy new additions were just old additions but in new clothes. As mentioned, Jack-o-lanterns are mostly just trees, but orange. Werewolves are the same as sleeping giants, who are the same as bogs, which are the same as holes. Layouts tinker with things, and we enjoyed some levels that introduced trading houses, where certain resources are scarce and you need to barter to complete them. But otherwise they are simple mazes with blockages that need clearing out with the odd worker. And that can get a tad rote.
In hindsight, we should not have embarked on a double-bill between Gnomes Garden 5: Halloween and Gnomes Garden 7: Christmas Story. Because playing them in proximity only highlights how much they abide by a formula. Gnomes Garden 5: Halloween runs a relaxed, simple, city-builder formula, one that we’ve enjoyed in flashes, but it’s also one that has frozen us stiff with boredom on occasion. Much like a garden gnome, we suppose.