Garden Story – Vegetable Zelda
Games riffing on the classical Zelda formula are a dime a dozen these days, particularly on the Switch. This makes it a tough crowd to stand out in. Even such specific niches as Zelda-cross-talking-vegetables boast multiple games among their ranks.
I wasn’t expecting all that much from the recently released Garden Story, other than a cute, comfortable “one of those”. To my pleasant surprise, the game doesn’t just stick to a tried and true formula, but adds its own twists and turns to expectations.
After a gentle tutorial walking you through the opening of the game, you’ll settle into a steady, familiar, rhythm. Your cute little grape Concord wakes up, walks out the front door, and begins the day. The noticeboard out the front will list a few posts, jobs that Concord can do to help out the community. As a Guardian, it’s Concord’s responsibility to help the community out where they can.
The title suggests a combative role, but that isn’t always so. While it’s true you will be taking on The Rot – slime-like creatures with a variety of different forms – when necessary, just as much of your time is spent collecting resources from around town, popping some in special bins for the townsfolk when requested, or using them to patch together any worn down bridges or fences and the like.
Resources replenish every day, and you can stock up to 15 of each in storage lockers about the place. You gain a collection of tools that double as weapons as needed that can be upgraded, a handful of empty jars that can be filled with health replenishing dew, and a few other knick-knacks such as a seed pouch that give you more ways of interacting with the environment (usually to collect more and different resources).
The sun will rise, you’ll go about your day’s work helping out where you can, collect an inventory’s worth of bits and bobs, then head back home for the night to rest. Time will cycle through morning, day, evening and night as you do so, shifting the way The Rot reacts to you as you encounter them.
It’s a super compelling loop, in that Stardew Valley-esque “just one more day” way. To make things more player-friendly, there’s also a little customizability here as well. Day length can be doubled if you feel a little rushed, giving you plenty of time to get everything done if you want to wander. Time can also be fast forward by sitting on a bench for a few seconds and just soaking in the atmosphere.
To help guide you, there’s also a kind of in-built achievement system, but without the trophies. As you do different activities, you’ll unlock Memories in a photo album, any of which can be equipped in a limited amount of slots to give extra perks (get extra coins while fishing, plus 2 health, that sort of thing). Checking out memories you’ve yet to unlock will give you hints about other ways you can explore the grove and its many activities.
The grove itself is laid out somewhat differently from a traditional Zelda style adventure, in ways both obvious and subtle. Due to the emphasis on helping out each town, you don’t spend much time at all off in some form of wilderness stretching between settlements. You aren’t some outsider coming to solve the problems of a town and move on – this is your home, and you are a part of this community.
The game overall is much tighter as a result. You can blast through it fairly quickly if you want to, albeit with things being a little harder thanks to a lack of upgrades on your gear. But you probably won’t really want to – you’ll likely rather just chill in the town, help out where you can, doing the odd jobs as needed. Even aside from the upgrade incentives, it just feels nice, you know?
Each town you go to gives you a space to stay the night – an old lighthouse, the old barn etc – to help add a sense of belonging across the entire grove. Hanging around each settlement, sleeping in your own place each night, helps build each place up as familiar and homely. When you’re asked to go out and de-shell The Rot at Lily Landing, you come to know instinctively where to go and what to do, because these are the streets you grew up on so to speak.
Feeling connected to the grove and its inhabitants is then necessary to give the narrative of Garden Story a particular weight that isn’t at first apparent for such a wholesome-looking game. While it isn’t exactly brutal or heart-crushing, there’s a twinge of melancholy that lingers over the events that take place across your 8-15 hour journey.
You come to the grove as the last youngling to be born of The Vine in quite some time. Spending life in the Kindergarten, Plum comes to tell you they have chosen you to be the grove’s next, and probably last, guardian. They approach this with a seeming resignation and a heavy heart.
Your time in the history of the grove is a time of change. The Rot has become more aggressive, your predecessors left long ago in search of answers and never returned – all that’s left is for you to do what you can for the community that is here, now. It could have been a simple and straightforward “find the MacGuffin to save the day” story, but, happily, it’s more than that.
What I was hoping for out of Garden Story is a cute, chill experience without too much difficulty or fuss about it. What I got was that, but also something more. Despite the decades-old formula Garden Story pulls from, it still manages to feel novel. Can’t ask much more than that.
Garden Story was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch with code kindly supplied by the publisher.
When not playing games, Chris enjoys chilling with his Fiancé, cats and dog. He will probably never stop banging on about how amazing Outer Wilds is. Forever in search of the best Margherita pizza.
Chris writes on Latji Latji and Barkindji land.