A few months ago, the former Switch exclusive ‘Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion’ made a surprise Xbox Game Pass appearance. While we found much to enjoy, the quirky humour especially, it was hard to award it a score higher than 7/10. In less than two hours, it was all over. Considering a physical copy costs around £25, you can see why we were expecting something more substantial.
If you felt the same, Garden Story will put a huge grin on your face. It too stars a cast of cutesy veg, fruit, and fungi, while also featuring a similar direction for its 2D pixel art. It shares a lot of the basics too, being a top-down RPG with Zelda-style adventuring and dungeons with a boss to beat. We even had to check that it wasn’t by the same development team, given the glaring similarities.
Everything here has been deepened and expanded upon, however – this is a fully-fledged RPG, with a run time of 10+ hours. It has both central quests and daily chores to complete, with the latter proving a steady income. Dungeons, while only spanning a dozen-or-so screens, are randomly generated and their bosses can take a couple of attempts to beat. There are even a few modern elements, such as resource management and crafting – letting you put your own stamp on the world by placing foraging bins and decorations where you see fit. Like an onion, there are a lot of layers.
You play as Concord, an unlikely hero. Not just because they’re a grape, of all things, but because they’re small in stature. They’ve been chosen to become a guardian of The Grove; a hero of the realm tasked with saving their homestead from The Rot – an ominous purple goop that warps and consumes. Talk about grape expectations. They aren’t alone in their struggle, thankfully, with other guardians providing the supporting cast. There’s a tribe of frogs too, with their personalities being bolder and more outspoken than regular folk.
Although Garden Story appears to be aimed at younger gamers, this isn’t quite the case. There’s a learning curve – which definitely suggests some RPG experience is required, even if it’s just familiarity with the Zelda series – and the UI is reasonably complex, spanning several screens. If you don’t look at the map often, especially after picking up routine daily chores, you may find yourself getting lost. We also found ourselves dying surprisingly often during the opening hour or so – Concord’s health gauge is small initially, and enemies have a few different attack patterns that can catch you off guard. Eventually, though, everything clicks into place.
It then beginnings to slowly build on those basics. As the rot is pushed back, more shops and services re-open – including a library seeking donations. A couple of hours in, the crafting element is finally added – something hinted at from the outset. Suddenly, the rocks, twigs and other junk crammed in Concord’s backpack have a purpose. This assists greatly in rebuilding the world, and opening up new areas, while also making the daily grind easier going.
On the subject of progression, the stamina boosts and health bar extensions feel significant. It’s possible to alter stats too – another modern touch – by adding snapshots to a book of memories.
Combat feels floaty at first, but as stronger weapons/tools are added, it becomes more enjoyable. Some enemies require a combo of attacks to defeat, such as yanking off protective shells with the fishing rod before commencing attack. Most enemies drop resources, so there is an incentive to engage in battles, and minor stat boosts are doled out after using certain weapons for a while. Concord also carries a shield that can be rotated 360 degrees, although it’s only useful when dealing with projectile-spewing bosses.
Garden Story’s other flaws are minor. The straight-on perspective can make navigation tricky, and as the world opens backtracking becomes more common. These aren’t problems severe enough to deter from the game’s wholesomeness. Rebuilding a community, strengthening bonds, and unifying the world – you’d have to be a real sour apple not to approve of Garden Story’s themes.
Picogram’s Garden Story is out now on Xbox One. It launched on Switch and PC in 2021.