Merry Christmas everyone! Let’s all celebrate being – at the time of writing – months away from Christmas with the release of Gnomes Garden 7: Christmas Story!
You get the sense that 8floor Games are having a bit of a clearing out. In the past two weeks, they’ve released this and Gnomes Garden 5: Halloween, neither of which are remotely close to the seasons they celebrate, and the impression is of a studio clearing out its back catalogue. Someone in the warehouse reminded Corporate that a couple of Gnomes Garden games were left in a corner, and they heave-ho’d them out.
If you’ve played a Gnomes Garden game before, you will know that the Christmas and Halloween stuff doesn’t really matter all that much. Ninety percent of what constitutes a Gnomes Garden game is the same across every release, give or take some map remixing, and it’s only a tiny ten percent that changes. So, while Gnomes Garden 7: Christmas Story might have ‘Christmas’ in the title, it’s about as festive as finding some cold turkey in the bottom of the freezer.
There are some penguins, which are Christmassy we guess. In one of the thirty-odd levels, you grow a Christmas tree. And, on occasion, you make a bauble. That’s about the limit of the Christmas cheer in Gnomes Garden 7: Christmas Story, which says bah humbug to festivity and gets on with some resource management and city building.
For those who are new to Gnomes Garden, you could start here if you fancy it, or you could start with any of the other six games. Not much has changed. It’s the same set of discrete levels, served up on a Super Mario World style map. Pop into a level, and you’ll be confronted by a mess of broken buildings and blocked roads. This is where you get your building gloves on and begin the clearout.
Using a cursor (slow and occasionally inaccurate, but not as painful as you might expect with a controller in your hand), you tap on resources that are blocking the roads, and a wee builder runs out and clears them. That banks those resources, which can then be used to rebuild some ruined buildings. Soon, you have sawmills generating planks, quarries carving up stone, and mills pumping out food. These are the basic building blocks for the rest of the level, and you will soon be generating merrymaker houses (for speeding up resource production), firefighters (for shooing away enemies, among others) and witches (for clearing fantastical blockages like sleeping trolls).
The objective for these discrete levels are presented across the bottom of the screen, but most of the time they fall into two camps. Either you have to reach the furthest corner of the map, tucked behind tentacles and giant holes, or you have to level a particular building to a certain level (it’s possible to upgrade everything in Gnomes Garden 7: Christmas Story, giving you more resources, faster). With all the objectives done, the confetti bombs go off, you’re handed a star rank out of three, and then you’re back on the game map, accessing the next level.
Our mistake was playing Gnomes Garden 7: Christmas Story immediately after Gnomes Garden 5: Halloween. Because, blessed Saint Nick, they are familiar. We wouldn’t go so far to say that level maps are identical, but the general themes of the levels most definitely are. There are levels that don’t give you the resources you need, so you have to trade for them at markets. There are levels that act like puzzles, where you can easily run out of a certain resource if you upgrade the wrong building at the wrong time. And throughout, the buildings, enemies, obstacles and resources are all directly carried over from the previous games, dumped on the ground in a Christmas sack.
Which meant we got immeasurably bored, particularly towards the end. The realisation struck that nothing new was coming, and none of it was going to be faintly festive. Each of the nodes on the game map was another brussel sprout being dropped on our plate that we were going to have to eat.
We’re being drama queens to a degree. Not everyone is going to be playing these two games in a double-bill. In small measures, it is actually quite fun, if a little easy and routine. There’s the opening phase, when you’re hoovering up resources with your cursor, and that’s got its appeal. There’s the moment shortly after, when you’re working things out logically: which building is most critical and needs to be constructed first? And there’s the end of a level, where everything is flowing, and you’re mopping up the final objectives. It’s the same routine every level, but there’s an idyllic, no-pressure charm about it.
There’s certainly no challenge. Perhaps our skills have been sharpened by Gnomes Garden 5: Halloween, but we failed even less this time, and we didn’t think that was possible. By the end, we had to restart one level once, while everything else was a cinch. That’s going to make the Command & Conquer players snort, but this resource management city-builder isn’t really for them. It’s for someone who likes to fill five minutes with some quick tappy-tap resource-collection, without the pressure of combat or fail states.
We’d like to save some review-space for a criticism that we didn’t get to share in our review of Gnomes Garden 5: Halloween. It seems that Quick Resume doesn’t work. Now, that shouldn’t be a problem, but it compounds with a second problem: there is no save feature. Turn off your Xbox mid game, and all of your progress will be lost, because you can’t save and the Quick Resume aborts and sends you to the starting screen every time. This meant we replayed one level a total of six times, as Gnomes Garden 7: Christmas Story failed to recognise that we completed it. We soon learned that returning to the main menu and THEN quitting the game seemed to save matters, but it was far from fool-proof.
We’re not getting the last five hours of our lives back. It’s not that Gnomes Garden 7: Christmas Story is terrible: far from it. In fact, if you’re on the hunt for a relaxed take on city-building, then we might even suggest you play it. Our problem is that we’ve reached our saturation point with the Gnomes Garden games, and this release changes so little from previous iterations that it puts FIFA to shame. If we hear the giggle of a goblin, stealing our lumber again, we might scream.