Park Story is gloriously Scottish. It’s not Scottish in the kilts and cabers way that we tend to romanticise south of the border. This is no Outlander. It’s Scottish in a Limmy, Trainspotting, Glasgae Kiss way. It oozes caustic wit, gallows humour, a cheerful sense of pessimism, darkness, rain, syringes in the gutter, and sudden, unexpected bouts of violence. Hopefully that’s not irked any Scots out there, but we’ve wafted it under the few we know, and they’ve nodded sage agreement.
It’s what we love most about Park Story, a five-year passion project from Martin Perry. We’re hungry for games with new things to say and new cultures to scratch the dirt off, and Park Story is definitely in that bracket. It feels grimily, scuzzily Scottish, and that’s intended as a compliment. We’ve never explored that side of Scotland in video games – or much of the country at all, if we’re honest – and Park Story gleefully lets us do that.
It feels a tad reductive, but Park Story is an action-adventure in the mold made famous by The Legend of Zelda. You start the game as Parker, who has woken up in Mahagow Glen Country Park having crashed his car. Parker has that old chestnut, amnesia, and cannot remember a thing about his background. He’s only named ‘Parker’ because a cat called Domino wanders up to him and effectively adopts him, naming him Parker because he’s in a park. Oh yeah, and Domino can talk.
Parker, with a hatchet in hand, sets about finding out who he is, and – more importantly – aims to get out of the park, which is locked in both a physical and spiritual sense. He can’t leave, and it soon becomes clear that a supernatural entity called Caim has put a dome about the place, and rules over the park with his five generals.
Caim has stolen the park from its original owners, the Lairds, who are squirrels, foxes, ducks and other animals in reasonably dapper tailored suits. They enlist Parker to kill the generals (spread out nicely in dungeons themed around botanic gardens, sports fields and more), before moving onto Caim and returning the park to the Lairds.
Between these ‘dungeons’ is a vast open world with Metroidvania trappings. Vine-walls, locked gates and tranches of water block your progression, and it’s only after exploring the dungeons that you will unlock the abilities to pass.
Even writing this now, Park Story feels conventional, but it’s not. Absolutely not. For one, it just doesn’t feel like any world we’ve explored before. The Scottishness plays its part, of course, but there’s a perverse wit at the centre of Park Story. Take the first boss, which is just the first in a series of grotesques. We feel more comfortable revealing it, because it arrives relatively early in Park Story’s substantial fifteen hour campaign. It’s Thomas the Tank Engine, but twisted and effed up, and we died simply because we were laughing/crying so much. And there’s more of that to come.
That contrariness spills over into the mechanics. There’s no boomerangs and bombs here: the Zelda armoury is swapped out for frisbees that can be lit on fire as they pass through park bins. At one point, you can turn into a squirrel, which is made infinitely more hilarious by the pile of clothes you leave, Woof-style, on the floor. Nothing is as you expect, everything is skew-whiff.
And to think of the dungeons as Zelda-like is doing them a disservice. These are labyrinthine areas with intricate puzzles that connect and interrelate to each other. It’s not just a case that pulling a lever here will open a door over there. Often you are carrying items from one room to another, setting off chain reactions, and building up to a huge meta-puzzle that will take even longer to complete. It’s clearly been planned out meticulously on squared paper, and you have to appreciate the efforts.
The open world, too, is denser than nanny’s haggis. There’s secrets like orientation marks, newspaper clippings and coins to find (although too few of them feel like they contribute to anything meaningful. Park Story dearly needed a better upgrade and shop system). Minigames like combat arenas and races appear over the horizon. Getting to and finding the next location on your shopping list is a challenge in itself, as it can take fifteen minutes just to get to the place, such is the size of the Country Park.
And through all this are the characters, a motley cast that feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland written by Irvine Welsh. They are reprehensible human beings, mostly, or lost souls who barely know what to do with themselves. While the dialogue could have done with some editing (typos are common), they are sketched extremely well, and we beelined to any new ghost or animal that we found as we explored.
But here comes the sh** sandwich, as Park Story is far from perfect. It’s such a product of passion that you hope Martin Perry might address them, cutting them away with his chainsaw.
Park Story isn’t a pretty game. It has its moments, but mostly it’s brutalist and ugly. More problematically, that ugliness has an impact on legibility. Paths can look like walls and vice versa. You can be stuck in a puzzle, simply because you didn’t realise that something that looked blocking was actually the exit out of the room. We lost count of the number of times that we got undermined by the environment art.
Park Story loves to make puzzles tactile and realistic. It’s not going to put a barrel in your inventory: you have to hulk that thing around the dungeon to put it on a pressure pad. It will never teleport you to another location to save you walking. Everything is believable and slow, and we kind of got tired of it. When dungeons expect you to navigate huge labyrinths, back-tracking more than forward-tracking, then it gets on your teats. In those moments when we were stuck, and we were stuck often, the extreme slowness of Park Story got on our nerves. Why can’t you roll down stairs to speed them up? Why, when you leave a room and return, does it reset back to what it was before? It all feels antagonistic, as if done deliberately.
And then there’s the combat. Park Story is a hack-and-slasher that drops down some enemies, closes the gates around you, and forces you to fight for survival. Ghoulish beings with skull masks appear and start tearing chunks out of your health bar. Your only choice is to whack them with your axe and roll away from their attacks. But for a game so suffused with realism, the combat never feels believable. The axe hits are splashy and impactless, and you can only really tell that you’ve hit an enemy by a quick, easily missable flash. Parker has a habit of moonwalking out of combat, flailing with the axe as he goes, when you intended him to wade in. It all just lacks control and variety, and we groaned whenever the combat curtain fell.
It’s worth it, of course. The world of Park Story is a rough gem, and the combat, movement speed and unclear environments can’t take that away from it. But it can occasionally feel like a bullying, abusive relationship, as Park Story asks for too much. We’ve put the pad down in several dungeons and resolved to come back later when we were less angry.
Park Story is every bit the Scottish fable. It’s thick with humour, colour and character, and we were endlessly surprised by it. There’s a Legend of Zelda template at play, but mostly it’s scrawled over and rethought to create something new. We just wish it wouldn’t randomly and unexpectedly headbutt us like it does, causing pain with its slow movement speed, wonky combat and poor puzzle telegraphing. Because there’s something truly brilliant in the brambles, and we couldn’t help but keep reaching for it.
You can buy Park Story from the Xbox Store