Review: Garden Story

Garden Story

Garden Story is an indie adventure game developed by Picogram and published by Rose City Games. Twitter’s algorithm is why I know this game, which is the discovery story for most indie games reviewed on Level Editors. I wish I had more interesting indie game discovery stories. But it’s true, Twitter is a marketing gold mine. 

I heavily anticipated Garden Story and purchased it as soon as it released on the Nintendo Switch last summer. What attracted me to the game the most is the warm and bright color palettes, along with the bold comic book lines of the pixel sprites. This is a style that most Mother series fans will notice right away. Add in the fact that the main character is the most adorable grape ever. 

At first glance, Garden Story is inviting and gentle, perfect for a summer day. I’m the greatest procrastinator though. I finished this game in November when it was dark and chilly. But it warmed me, and here’s why.

Leaving Your Garden Takes a Lot of Sacrifice in Garden Story

One of the cutscenes in Garden Story, it's depicted with a dark background with sentimental and somber twinkly music. You see Plum and another guardian. It says "The Grove, ever mourning, wants for a new Guardian to lead them."
One of the cutscenes in Garden Story, it’s depicted with a dark background with sentimental and somber music. You see Plum and another guardian. It says “The Grove, ever mourning, wants for a new Guardian to lead them.”

I did not expect the story to be a Zelda-like, although it was clearly marketed as one. Yet when some eerie, ambient twinkly music comes on and a mysterious tree guardian begins narrating the world lore of Garden Story, I’m in awe. When the scene turns black, the journey begins right away in our hero’s abode.

You see a small grape sleeping on a leaf and yawning as they wake up ready for a new day. Their name is Concord, known for being a modest gardener of few words. This little grape lives in the Grove, a world of gardens and lakes in several ecosystems. Almost every person who occupies the Grove is part of the Plantae kingdom, with a couple of creatures of the sea roaming the villages.

After Concord leaves their little house, you meet Plum, an elderly mentor who wants them to finally venture out as the new village guardian. The introduction reminds me of Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past, except that Link is living in a medieval fantasy world where the lifespan is like 35 and his grandpa dies alone. Thankfully, you will not wake up to such tragic family stories in Garden Story.

You quickly learn that this beautiful land has been invaded by dark slime creatures known as the Rot. These vats of grossness reduce quality of life and terrorize villagers. It is Concord’s duty to clean up these slimes and rescue the other guardians who sleep beneath their village’s soil. The Grove is a beautiful world that is fueled by the labor power of humanoid plants. So Concord is equipped with a watering can, eventually picks up a few more odd tools, and gains some friends to help clean this world.

This Indie Game is a Timeless Classical Tale

Concord talking to Plum in their hometown known as Spring Hamlet. Plum is Concord's mentor and cares about Concord's wellbeing.  It is night time and soon Plum will have to leave. He says "It would be nice to spend a few more moment with you before I leave."
Concord talking to Plum in their birthplace, Spring Hamlet. Plum is Concord’s mentor and cares about Concord’s well-being. It is night time and soon Plum will have to leave. He says, “It would be nice to spend a few more moments with you before I leave.”

Honestly, if you’ve played enough The Legend of Zelda, you can kind of guess what the plot will be like. This is a typical formula: your land is in trouble, you are now a hero, and there are several temples and guardians to meet. You must toss aside your comfortable bedroom and face the real growing up: making sacrifices. Legend of Zelda is all about making sacrifices, and so is Garden Story.

However, this is not a knock on the story. It’s a classic, timeless video game plot. The narrative in the cutscenes is what makes the story in Garden Story truly shine because, despite all the cute and bouncy sprites, it can be dark and lurid. After all, I don’t think it’s possible to make an adventure game without some bitterness added to the sweet. The world-building is more simple and cut in small pieces throughout. So don’t worry about this game being too similar to others or bogged down with the plot while on your wholesome trip.

In Garden Story, You Cultivate a New World

Concord is standing in an underground sewer in Autumn Town where they will eventually rescue a guardian.  This dungeon has a puzzle that involves pushing a crate to cover some kind of switch. The sewer is one of the darkest places in the game because well its a sewer.
Concord is standing in an underground sewer in Autumn Town where they will rescue a guardian. This dungeon has a puzzle that involves pushing a crate to cover a switch mechanism.

Since Garden Story is very Zelda-like, there isn’t much new to learn or master. You hit A to kill enemies, and lose health when they touch you. One mechanic that makes Garden Story more unique is the fact that you’re supposed to improve the quality of life for every village you visit on the daily in game. And you don’t need to remember songs or wear masks.

In Garden Story, many of the tools you use are every day items made for battle. The weapons you receive or purchase in this game are a pick, sword, parasol, wooden hammer, sickle, dowsing rod, and shovel. These are weapons that cultivate the land and harvest the Rot out of it. You will also have other items such as several shields, a pan flute, a bag of seeds, a toolbox, and many fashionable hats to wear. Believe me, you will be using every item I listed here except the pan flute. The flute is mechanically useless as it has no purpose other than being fun to play. I like it, but I’m disappointed you couldn’t open a secret door with it. And I have to admit that I wasn’t using shields often enough, and then complained about dying all the time.

If you’re finding combat difficult and having to end your days early, you can upgrade Concord. While you walk around the Grove, you will find odd-looking trees with bubbles. They come in different colors and require the use of a specific weapon to burst that bubble. Every one of these trees contains a diamond that Concord will consume. As a result of this consumption, our grape friend will experience increased health, speed, and stamina. 

What I found most interesting to use as a tool in combat is a jug. Unlike most adventure games where you have to collect hearts or foods to heal yourself, Garden Story makes you drink daily fluids. Concord is equipped with a personal jar to fill with dew from wells. You can also buy some fresh brands of dew at the store that have different health benefits. This means you need to keep hydrated in this specific adventure game to thrive. After all, you’re playing as a plant, so Concord will shrivel up without moisture.

Restoring the Grove’s Lands and Archives

The first library you see in is Spring Hamlet and it's all covered in papers. Underneath it is one of the first bosses of the game as well. Books and papers all over is a good representation of a library gone wrong.
The first library you see is in Spring Hamlet, which is covered in papers. Underneath it is one of the first bosses of the game. With books and papers all over, it’s a good representation of a library gone wrong.

Garden Story is all about taking care of a home in crisis. So as one of several guardians, Concord will visit 4 different villages: Spring Hamlet, Autumn Village, Winter Glade, and Summer Bar. Each village has its unique environment, weather, and problems. Concord must help the village folk according to the requests assigned on the village billboard. These requests tend to involve killing slimes in a certain location, talking to the village’s folks to solve their problems, and donating items to be shipped for infrastructure improvement. You will do this every day in Garden Story from morning to afternoon, and then sleep at night if you’re not a night owl.

You usually do 2-3 requests and each of them have a star rating to indicate their difficulty. At the end of the day, when you decide to sleep and save your game, the village’s quality rate increases. Village improvement means upgraded tools, new glass bottles, and new weapons to buy. At some point, you will also need to do some gardening to get special items.

Doing requests isn’t the only way to improve the village’s infrastructure. You also need to restore its history and memories. Historical restoration is done when you visit a village’s library. Every village has a unique library, where pages have gone missing thanks to the Grove going awry. So Concord must also pick up items that populate the local grounds such as shells, branches, rocks, or a unique flower, and donate them to the library. Doing this usually helps in restoring the village’s stability and gives you some cool furniture to decorate the world.

There is a lot to do in the Grove. So you need to manage your time and make use of your resources. Make sure you navigate every area and collect whatever is there, even if you don’t know its purpose. In Garden Story, every item, except an overabundance of wood and stone, has its use because you can upgrade tools and bottles, and donate them. The game’s all about living off nature after all.

The Perils of Gardening in Garden Story and Most Indie Games

The frog village in the Summer Bar. It's one of the most beautiful locations in the game, with waterfalls, lily pads, kelongs, and bridges everywhere.
The frog village in the Summer Bar. It’s one of the most beautiful locations in the game, with waterfalls, lily pads, kelongs, and bridges everywhere. Palaka says to Concord, “I just bought these clothes, and I don’t wanna get them all wet so soon.”

Garden Story may not come off as super original for many people who’ve bought every single Zelda-like indie game they could get their hands on. But indie game enthusiasts who don’t get enough of the genre will look over the familiar tropes. What makes the game stand out is how it’s built on your relationship with land and people. It’s also an adventure game that people will commonly describe as wholesome, but it goes beyond comfort.

As I mentioned earlier, Garden Story and adventure games about heroes are all about making sacrifices. Concord gives up their comfort, and guardians sacrifice their lives to keep their folks healthy. It’s an indie game that’s quite touching and so real in how it approaches a world needing help. Despite this life lesson, the dialogue for the characters in this game is delightfully punny in the right spots and filled with care.

Thanks to the beautifully drawn and animated pixel sprites, the characters themselves were also quite lively. The environments were my favorite. I loved the colorful little houses and their rounded corners, the chuckling lines as characters laughed, and the parasols on the beaches.

One Pea Size Issue in Garden Story

Concord in Autumn Town, another one of my favorite areas in this game. I've never seen so much hay in a game scene and I love autumn. Rapa, an NPC who seems to have an interest in Concord, says "You like pretend you a cute lil' Grape but I gotcha number, Guardian."
Concord in Autumn Town, another one of my favorite areas in this game. I’ve never seen so much hay in a game scene, and I love autumn. Rapa, an NPC who seems to have an interest in Concord, says, “You like pretend you a cute lil’ Grape but I gotcha number, Guardian.”

The only thing I didn’t like about Garden Story was the billboard requests. Once you get the hang of harvesting items and killing slimes, it does get really old after a while. I understand for the sake of scope and keeping code infrastructure stable, it’s not easy to shake up randomized events a lot. I also understand that Garden Story is a short indie game. And you can’t push a life cycle that’s already short. But I think if there were some slight differences, such as adding some mini bosses or even retrieval chores akin to Animal Crossing, it would’ve added some variety.

The lack of billboard request variety is definitely noticeable after you get through most of the story content and you need to upgrade towns for new tools. Thankfully, Garden Story‘s cozy vibe makes the grind comfortable until you actually beat the game’s story and there’s nothing to do except billboard requests. I beat the game and still have to max out the stats for two towns, but gave up.

A Sweet and Sour Berry for a Summer Day

Garden Story is a fun indie game to play on your bed or during breaks. It’s a definite must-play if you want to play a feel-good indie game or if you really like pixel art. If you find that Majora’s Mask crushes your soul with the limits of human mortality, you can play as a grape and talk to frogs in this sweet and sour bite-sized title. But don’t think Garden Story won’t hurt you a little, as it will. But you know that the canon story isn’t a world’s end.

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