Several games shadow dropped after a showing in Nintendo’s August 11th, 2021 Indie World showcase, but only one made a declaration so powerfully wholesome that my heart demanded I play it immediately. Garden Story, created by a one-person developer, Picogram, embraces a Legend of Zelda-like sense of adventure bolstered by light sim elements. A winning combination of genres to be sure, but does Garden Story live up to its potential?
On the presentation side of things, Garden Story absolutely nails it. Gorgeous pixel art visuals and delightful character and enemy animations treat your eyes on every new screen you explore. To complement this visual beauty, the entire soundtrack oozes wonderfully chill vibes that easily pull you in for a stroll through Garden Story‘s cozy season-themed towns and areas. Both the UI and menus blend right in with the world, but being thematically resonant does nothing to hurt their usability. I particularly love your currently equipped items being displayed strapped to your backpack in the lower-left corner of the screen.
Garden Story begins by introducing its protagonist, a young grape named Concord, who tends the Kindergarden. The Kindergarden is tended by the youngest Greenling (the plant-based inhabitants of Garden Story) until the next Greenling is born. This time around, however, there is a problem; Concord has been tending the Kindergarden for far too long. A visit from Plum, the Guardian of the nearby town of Spring Haven, reveals the lack of new Greenlings is due to the encroaching threat of The Rot, which needs to be dealt with. With the other Guardians missing or dead, Plum assigns Concord as the new Guardian of Spring Haven before venturing off on their own mission.
Throughout Garden Story, you must help each of four towns on an island known as The Grove defend against The Rot and reconnect with each other. You do this by completing tasks from the village elders, daily requests from bulletin boards, and favours from villagers. Progressing in Garden Story involves various types of gameplay, including defeating enemies, gathering resources, clearing dungeons, solving puzzles, and repairing structures or roads.
Adorable fruits, vegetables, plants, and frogs, each filled with personality, populate The Grove. At its heart, Garden Story is a simple tale, but every one of these inhabitants offers unique and often humourous dialogue that brings the world to life. As you bounce from town to town and meet new characters along the way, your desire to save The Grove from The Rot grows from a tiny seed into a mighty oak.
In each town you visit, you are granted a home to use as your base. There you can store materials, change outfits, refill your bottles, and rest through the night. An in-game day-night cycle serves to refresh requests found on the bulletin boards in each town. Upon resting, towns gain EXP from any requests you completed for them during the previous day. This EXP belongs to one of three categories based on request type, and increasing a town’s level in each category upgrades the inventory in various shops. Sometimes, the main story is gated behind reaching a certain town level. Rather than being an annoyance, this method gives you enough time to familiarize yourself with the area and its charming inhabitants.
Battling The Rot will feel familiar to anyone who has played a 2D Legend of Zelda or games inspired by them. However, Garden Story changes things up a bit by introducing a stamina system used for all of your actions. Each attack or roll you perform spends a segment of your stamina gauge. Unfortunately, stamina does not feel particularly well-balanced, as it is punishing at first, but halfway through the game, you have more than enough stamina to do whatever you wish.
Shattering orbs scattered across the island and consuming the gem inside permanently upgrades your character stats, including HP, stamina, resistance, and mind. You can also customize your stats and abilities with perks obtained from completing achievement-like tasks. These perks represent memories you make during your adventure and not only alter stats, but also grant passive abilities such as increased resources found or more potent healing. In Garden Story, you recover from your wounds through a Dark Souls-like system of bottles filled with dew. Using a bottle to heal takes a noticeable amount of time. Individual bottles function differently with more or less charges and faster or slower activation times.
Concord obtains several different weapons, including the pick (it’s a sword), the hammer, and the dowsing rod (it’s a fishing rod). Each weapon has its own stats, feels drastically different to wield, and can be upgraded at specific shops with the proper materials. Enemies might require a particular weapon to defeat them, like slimes shrouded in hay that must be harvested with a sickle to be revealed. These weapons also can be used for gathering resources and solving puzzles. For example, the dowsing rod can be used to grab items out of reach or pull switches.
I went into Garden Story expecting its city-building and farming elements to be just as important as its combat, and in that respect, I came away disappointed. Despite its name, gardening is more of an afterthought in Garden Story. You do not obtain the required tools (a spade and a seed bag) until the end of the third town section. You only need to grow a single plot of moss to continue the main story, and afterward, you can easily never garden again. Building is also an almost entirely aesthetic exercise. The only objects you must build to complete the game are repair boxes, which are used to clear paths by spending resources. Sure, you can add lamps and umbrellas and other odds and ends to the world, but these must be placed in specific spots and appear to serve no purpose or benefit. I wouldn’t say Garden Story is any worse because these systems are underutilized, but if you are expecting them to be more in-depth, you will likely be disappointed. Still, making the world more pretty can be its own reward.
Garden Story is not without need for improvement, especially in its repetitive nature. Requests are randomly chosen from a small pool of possible outcomes, so you often have to do the same request two or three times in a short span. Similarly, dungeons are made up of a few rooms placed in random order with very simple puzzles, so there is no sense of cohesion or progression. You may even have to do the same dungeon several times to gather resources despite already having solved its puzzles and beaten its boss. A lack of enemy variety (they are mostly palette-swapped slimes) further emphasizes how repetitive these requests and dungeons can be. The game’s final act has some nice callbacks to classic Legend of Zelda, but requiring you to return to each dungeon once more feels like unnecessary padding. It is something of a triumph then, that despite this, I never felt bored or frustrated when playing Garden Story.
As an inexpensive and relatively short title by a one-person team, it is hard for me to lend much weight to the game’s misses. Garden Story’s characters and world have a magnetism; it’s hard to stop spending time with them once you’ve begun, and once you’ve finished the game, it’s effortless to stop back in. If you are happy to delve into an experience where everything but the gameplay shines, then Garden Story is definitely worth checking out.
A note on technical issues: when enough enemies and projectiles are on the screen, the game slows to a crawl for the Nintendo Switch version, but I am not certain if this issue persists on PC.