Garden Story: The Cutest Game of 2021?

A couple of months ago, I signed up for my own Steam account! I’m still learning Steam, so I don’t know how to find other users. In any case, my username is “WeebPleizGamezHere”; you’ll know it’s me because it has my same blog logo. Anyway, from the brief time I’ve been on Steam, I noticed that its discovery queue is perhaps the most accurate algorithm I have ever seen. For instance, it actually recommends things I might like that I would have never heard of! And one of those is Garden Story. It has everything I like, from whimsical graphics, to the satisfaction of restoring an area to—and beyond—its former glory. So without further ado, let’s talk about it!

In Garden Story, the lovely grove the game is set in has a problem known as the Rot. These are not adorable, marketable Totoro things from Kena: Bridge of Spirits, but rather an assortment of ugly gross things. They’re bad, and one young grape named Concord ends up shouldering the burden of having to restore the entire effing grove.

Immediately, Garden Story shows off that distinctively indie-game-like charm with its whacky, cartoon-like writing. Unfortunately, the story is pretty typical for the most part. It’s nice, and suits the game for the kind of experience it wants to be, but if you want your mind blown then Garden Story will fall short. The characters aren’t the selling point either. They’re likeable, but don’t really stand out as far as indie games are concerned.

Fortunately, it’s still easy to get lost and immersed in Garden Story‘s grove. Thanks to the simple and vibrant pixel-artstyle, and chill midi soundtrack, there is plenty of incentive to just relax. In fact, the Steam page for the game encourages doing just that!

But as relaxing as it is, Garden Story has plenty to do. Like in many games of its kind, you’ll be whacking stumps and rocks to gather resources to do all sorts of fun stuff. As expected, you progressively unlock different types of weapons to buy and use in combat. Every action consumes stamina, which needs time to replenish.

Before you think that this game is a shallow Stardew Valley wannabe, then read this paragraph. One way that Garden Story shakes things up is with different types of Dews. They mainly restore HP, but can have a wide variety of used effects. Also, weird orb thingies are scattered throughout the grove, and when broken with the proper weapon type, drop permanent stat buffs. The weird nuance with them is that some will say “Concord needs a stronger tool”, when in actuality, you can break them with a charge attack if the weapon is upgraded enough.

Another thing that Garden Story does is the Memory system. Concord will gain memories through fulfilling specific conditions, and an unlocked Memory can be assigned to his… hippocampus (or something?) to apply great perks, from stat buffs, to new combat techniques.

Building is… unusual in this game, and I mean that in both a good and bad way. The resources needed to craft buildable objects actually have to be stored in a chest. One nice feature is that Wood and Stone are essentially treated as currency, as they have their own compartments in which they can stack up to 9999 times. Unfortunately, built utilities can only be placed in limited locations. Planting crops is tied to specific spots as well, but at the very least, you only have to water them once, and can be left alone while they grow.

One of the biggest issues with Garden Story is no doubt its slow start. A lot of the rudimentary mechanics I’ve explained aren’t even doable until quite a ways into the story. Furthermore, you start off with two Stamina blocks, which is really gross. Upgrading Concord’s stats, especially his Stamina, is essential for the flow of the game, otherwise it’s a chore; I already dread the whiplash of returning to the grove with a new file (good thing I never have enough time for stuff like that). 

Inventory management can also appear to be kind of yikes. Items do not stack in Concord’s inventory. This can be alleviated by placing as many chests throughout the world as possible. However, items in chests can only be stacked fifteen times. And I don’t mean that you stack fifteen, and the sixteenth one starts a new stack; I mean fifteen of a given item type, PERIOD. But despite these very bad-sounding choices, Garden Story actually feels designed around these constraints. I honestly didn’t have a problem with inventory management as I thought I would.

Garden Story looks super simple and adorable, yet it caught me off guard several times. In addition to the limited Stamina early on, the enemies are deceptively annoying. Most notably are actually the super-basic regular blobs. When defeated, a core spits out, which needs to be struck to defeat the enemy for good. However, they bounce around and can damage you or inflict status effects. I’ve had a single one of these cores reduce me from full to half HP numerous times.

What I ended up enjoying the least was getting completion. Normally, games of this kind are tedious, but since Garden Story is so compact and streamlined, I figured it would be easy. And while completing the four libraries and finding all of Concord’s Memories is more than doable, maxing out every Village’s stats is the real problem. They cap at Level 5, and the transition to that from Level 4 is significantly longer than any other level gain. It doesn’t help that this will require repeat runs through the game’s dungeons, and the problem there is that it resets the puzzles AND bosses every time. Fortunately, upgraded weapons can make rematches go real fast.

But perhaps the biggest issue with Garden Story is that it doesn’t exactly feel rewarding to finish. There is a post-game, but all it gets you is the fifth and final Jar; nothing else changes in terms of content. Also, there are no Steam Achievements for things like completing libraries, maxing village stats, or getting all Memories. Furthermore, I’ve learned the coldest, hardest truth of all: that there is no Steam Badge for getting 100% Achievements in a given game.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 8.6/10

I’ve knocked games for being overly simple, but for some reason, I loved Garden Story from beginning to end, flaws and all. It’s one of those games that are just “nice”. I can’t really describe it any other way. One of the things that definitely offsets the game’s issues is its very reasonable ~11-15 hour length to finish. In the end, you’re the only one who can decide if you’d like this game. Now you know what you’ll be getting into.

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