God Damn the Garden probably wasn’t the best choice of game for our Christmas Eve. It’s a game where we were dumped into a dungeon by ‘Skeleton Bastard’; every conversation had a dialogue option to murder the person we were talking to; and we’d carved up more fluffy animals than a woodsman. There’s not much goodwill to all men in God Damn the Garden.
God Damn the Garden is like a Doom short story. It’s a single, sprawling level with the odd passageway blocked by a boss, key, or capybara. Your aim is primarily to please Skeleton Bastard by overcoming his trials in the Garden, becoming the next king (not queen, alas) of Badass Heaven. And that means exploring the full extent of the dungeon, picking up golden skull collectibles on the way.
It’s pretty clear what look God Damn is going for. This is rewinding the VHS tape way back to the ‘90s, when Wolfenstein, Doom, Rise of the Triad and more were swapped in the playground on floppy disks. In that sense, God Damn the Garden is pretty successful. It’s completely feasible that this was a lost game from that period. Levels are flat but winding, the enemies are a mix of Lego-brick polygons or flat sprites, and bullets spray at you like a demaster of Returnal.
In fact, the ‘demastering’ goes a little too far, particularly in the first moments of God Damn the Garden. It is incredibly hard to tell where you’re going and where you’ve been. There is no map in God Damn the Garden, and every path looks the same. Even on the edges of the arena, the doors and jungle look the same. It also doesn’t want to give you an objective. It’s more interested in you pushing back the fog of war yourself, in whatever direction you choose.
Although it gets better as you go on (the game’s map starts to build in your subconscious, and the further you stray from the temple hub, the easier it becomes to visualise where you are), it’s still easy to get turned around, circling back to the start and cursing the designers. There are few upgrades in the game, so you don’t get any better at defeating the enemies, so retracing your steps – fighting the respawned enemies all over again – is more frustrating than lifting a slice of turkey and finding Brussels sprouts underneath.
Your arsenal is the best bit of God Damn the Garden. You may only have one gun – a plinking pistol-like gun – but it comes with the neat ability to overcharge. As you enter a new room, you will be holding on to an already overcharged gun, ready to unleash a volley of bullets. There’s an auto-aim feature here (we’d hazard a guess that combat would be slippery and nigh-on impossible without it), so you’re quickly swinging your sidearm round to obliterate a stag beetle or t-shirt shaped demon.
Being a Doom clone, you’d think that God Damn the Garden would be a swift shooter. Jump through the door, strafe and fire before the enemies can really clock you. Well, that approach will get you killed. It’s a lesson you learn pretty quickly: although you have the customary 100 health, replenished through fruits that you find in the arena, enemies will strip it away in moments. That t-shirt demon can kill you in one go, as can a falling-hand dude who attacks if you ever stand still. They also have a habit of being tucked in the corners, hard to see and shooting you before even a pixel of your elbow has become visible.
So, you’re slowly ambling through levels, trying to spot enemies before they spot you, as the consequences of failing are pretty heinous. While there are plenty of skull-rings that represent checkpoints, there are sections that have few of them, and it’s so, so easy to become fodder for the demons in the Garden. Which raises the question: is tip-toeing through a game of Quake fun? On our side at least, the answer is “hell no”. It’s not the strength of this kind of game, and it shows. We wanted to be pumping lead into waves of enemies, not making incremental steps.
God Damn the Garden is at its best when you’re finding new areas, working out what they want and bookmarking some doors for later. There’s an undeniable pleasure to actually knowing where you’re going (gasp!) and finally stumbling through a skull-circle so that you have forever made progress. These moments happen more often in the last hour or two of the game (God Damn the Garden is roughly three hours long, give or take confusion and getting lost), so you’ll have to hang on through some pretty terrible onboarding if you want the good stuff.
God Damn the Garden is at its worst when it’s trying to force its humour on you. We’re sure that, to someone, the game has plenty of chuckles. You can chat to some incidental NPCs who want to help you to become the new king, or you can kill them – always represented as a ‘Kill them!’ dialogue option. They die in a shower of giblets, which might raise a smirk the first couple of times. But the dialogue is a choppy, edgelord-y mess, as characters try a spot of gallows humour, but too much is long-winded, mistranslated or just plain inappropriate. There’s certainly a setup here that could have benefited from laughs, but the writing team weren’t capable of it.
All of this adds up to a messy shooter. It feels like a game jam project where everyone was pulling in different directions. The combat designer made some fun creatures to fight, but the balancer made them vastly overpowered. The level designer created an intricate map that’s a joy to explore, but the artist made every route look the same, and the UI designer didn’t bother to turn up and add a map. And the narrative designer jotted some bad jokes and scrappy dialogue onto a napkin before disappearing down Subway.
Sift through the scraps of ideas and mechanics in God Damn the Garden and you might find the odd tiny nugget of gold. But it’s just about the loosest, most aimless game of Doom we’ve ever played, so you’ll need to be as adept at fighting tedium as you are at fighting demons if you want to get anything from it.
You can buy God Damn the Garden from the Xbox Store
- ‘Overcharging’ mechanics are cool
- Levels and bosses are well made
- No map
- Backtracking is a pain
- Story and humour wears thin quickly
- Death will be a constant companion
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to - Ratalaika Games
- Formats - Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS4, PS5, Switch
- Version reviewed - Xbox Series X
- Release date - 14 October 2022
- Launch price from - £4.99