Picogram’s Garden Story was a game I had my eye on from the moment I saw the initial announcement trailer for it last year. It looked like a perfect, adorable mixture of top-down Zelda-style adventures and slice-of-life task clearing simulators, which is more than enough of a hook to convince me to be there day one. So when it was given a surprise release on the day of the most recent Nintendo Indie Worlds Showcase, I was ecstatic. Unfortunately, I ended up walking away from Garden Story disappointed by its missed potential, and I couldn’t help but feel exhausted from the tedium of its core gameplay loop.
The story setup is simple enough: You are Concord, a cute little grape buddy who is suddenly appointed as a guardian to protect the Grove from being overtaken by the dreaded Rot. From there, you’ll explore new towns, make new friends, and complete tasks to your heart’s content. During your travels, you’ll come across four distinct zones, each with a pleasant seasonal theme (for example, you begin at Spring Hamlet and later make your way to Summer’s End). It’s a fairly small world map, but each area is dense with detail and beautiful art direction. It’s some genuinely impressive sprite work and I can’t stress enough how much of a joy it is to soak in.
Starting out in Garden Story is a bit of a slog, however. You begin with a paltry amount of health and one of the worst stamina meters I’ve ever seen in a video game. This meter is built to make the early game as miserable as possible, with most attacks and dodges eating it up almost instantaneously. On top of that, it really doesn’t help that Concord’s default moving speed is molasses (or jam I guess in this case). You can dash, sure, but it feels clunky and it eats your stamina just as quickly as any other action you perform in this game.
As you progress through the game and defeat bosses you’ll get health and stamina upgrades, but the core combat feels awful all the way to the end. Landing hits feels cumbersome and dodging never feels satisfying. You can also use a shield to block attacks, which I ended up relying on more than the dodge, and you’re provided with dew to drink which refills your health. It gets a bit better as you beef up, and there are a couple of solid boss fights that are built around these controls, but the feeling of unresponsiveness persists and I ended up dreading any kind of combat after a while.
While the combat does occupy a pretty good chunk of the game, you’ll mostly be carrying out tasks for the different zones and their inhabitants. There’s a day/night cycle, and at the beginning of each day you’re assigned a couple of tasks to complete, like killing monsters or gathering resources. This in turn will raise one of three levels in the zone you’re doing these tasks in, which can affect various things like resources becoming more plentiful. Unfortunately, the tedium of carrying out these tasks sets in almost immediately because they tend to just be a slightly different flavor of the same thing. Kill some rotten slimes, activate a bridge, gather four shards of glass, etc. It starts to become a real grind early on and the incremental progress that comes with completing these tasks never feels rewarding. You can also take on side quests from the various inhabitants of the Grove, but these are basically more of the same.
There’s a bit more variety as you get further in, and more mechanics start to open up like growing plants and building/repairing structures, but at that point I felt like I was going through the motions with Garden Story. These mechanics could have been introduced earlier or integrated from the beginning but instead it feels like an afterthought. And that’s really the best way to sum up the bulk of what this game has to offer. It’s a lot of disparate ideas and clunky mechanics that ultimately make for a frustrating experience overall. It’s a shame too, because the story manages to dish out some genuinely heartfelt moments, and the themes of community and the connections you make in life aren’t totally lost on me. I just wish they were in a game that felt more engaging.
Garden Story is a game that just doesn’t quite come together for me in the end. I kept hoping it would put me in a zen state the same way that games like Harvest Moon or Rune Factory do. Unfortunately, the constant tedium just kept me in a state of frustration. It’s an absolutely gorgeous game to look at, but it’s not enough to stave off the rot of boredom that sinks in.