Have you ever seethed at the injustice of juicy, happy grapes being crushed underfoot? Probably not. I hadn’t either, but playing Zelda-like Garden Story has changed things. It stars Concord, a purple vineyard-venturer so stalwart and noble that my empathy for grapes is now at its apex. Sommeliers. Jam makers. Raisin(eers?). M&S Holiday advert charcuterie board arrangers. Watch your fucking backs. I’m ride or die for grapes now. Garden Story has radicalised me.
Important: Garden Story is not Stardew Valley nor Animal Crossing. It’s not really aiming for that, either. It’s a Zelda-like ARPG, with an important twist I’ll talk about in a moment. There’s some farming later on, for resources and profit. Much of the profit is used to buy nice hats for Concord. There’s also unlocking and building cosmetic fancies, fish tanks etc. There’s a fair chunk here for completionists, but it's largely optional.
Instead, Concord spends more time fighting to defend this idyllic world than they do gardening, decorating, or other such activities from the “B&Q departments” school of game design. “Even a harvesting tool like a pick carries the connotations of battle now,” a large plum named ‘Plum’ laments as they bestow Concord’s first weapon on the fledgling guardian. These aren’t the only hints of sadness and introspection in this seemingly whimsical adventure. A nice surprise, honestly. The story is much better for them.
Concord’s journey takes the form of an A to B quest to stop the source of a gooey sentient rot that’s getting itself all over everything, gumming up the natural order of things. Concord will travel from village to village, collect equipment, complete side and main quests, delve dungeons, solve puzzles, and fight bosses.
I mentioned a twist earlier, and here it is: Garden Story gives the player the opportunity to live in - not just pass through - the four main villages. Temporary homes await Concord in each. You can rush through the story, but you can also get comfy. Lay your grape hat in your grape home, and start pitching in. Protecting, restoring, and helping the residents flourish.
So Concord will arrive at a bustling beach town, meet the townsfolk, be given a place to crash, plonk themselves down on a big leaf, make the most heart-melting resting animation, then conk out. Each morning, new requests come in from the villagers. Repair a bridge, beat down some bad slimes, collect and deliver a rare resource, and so on. Complete tasks, level up the village, get access to new weapon upgrades and other shinies. It makes for lovely “loops within lines” progression, letting you alternate between climbing the beanstalk and enjoying the view, whenever the mood takes you.
Even static screenshots of Garden Story practically bloom out of the screen, so it’s no surprise that the presentation is a treat throughout. Unique animations nestle hidden in surprising places. My favourite was the deadly serious face Concord makes while impaling rot slimes with a parasol, as if performing some terrible ritual execution. Concord’s stair-walking animation is life affirming. When I first saw it, I squeed loudly, nodded in stoic appreciation, then repeated it for six actual minutes.
Take it slow, says Garden Story. Yes, peril approaches, but fences need fixing just as monsters need slaying.
Environments are dense, detailed, and colorful, although there is an issue here. Game art needs great functionality as well as form, and I often had to stare at my screen to parse out routes and elevations. It’s not cluttered, necessarily, just occasionally disorientating. The soundtrack is wonderful, though. Layers on layers of flutey, folksy, airy vibes. Breezy beach ditties one area. Ageless, crystalline percussion the next.
I need to talk about combat now, because despite all the cosy creativity and charming characters, hitting things is still at least half the game. I like the ‘RPG’ part of Garden Story fine - collecting and upgrading weapons, slotting in ‘memories’ to boost stats - I’m just not as sure about the ‘A’. The action is a bit fiddly, dictated by an initially stingy stamina bar that feels more like a hindrance than a challenging limitation, stifling flow rather than dictating rhythm. Foes feel like obstacles to be manipulated and cleaned up, rather than sparring partners. All game combat is pattern exploitation in one form or another, I know, but it rarely feels natural here.
Bosses are simultaneously high and low points. Great concepts and designs with punishing patterns that offer real challenges, but also often placed at the end of dungeons which are fun to navigate once or twice but chafe on repeat visits. I think it’s context as much as design that makes these fights feel jarring. A knuckle-clenching boss you’d be all warmed up for in a challenging pixel roguelite feels misplaced after you’ve just spent an hour fishing for shells to help some friendly frogs. There is a menu toggle to stop you from dying, though. I’ll be using it when I go back to Garden Story. Combat isn’t the draw here for me, although I think it will be for some.
So what’s calling me back, and why did I have such a nice time with Garden Story despite not being too fussed on such a large part of the game? It’s something a bit harder to pin down than the lovely animation and music, than the goofiness that results in things like a village elder with a gnarled wooden staff called ‘Elderberry’, something I enjoyed a frankly embarrassing amount.
It’s because Garden Story is...well...it’s sort of... profound? It would have been so, so easy for the game to just dump a bunch of silly talking produce in colourful pixel cozy land #584 with some crafting and farming mechanics and call it a day, without needing to explain itself. But there’s worldbuilding here. History. Characters with genuine concern for the fate of the land. There are hints of understated, archetypal, fairytale poetry to the writing that show an understanding of how a Zelda game makes players feel, rather than just how one functions.
And it’s a world to spend time in, too, not just turn up and smash a few pots and hoard a few coins. Take it slow, says Garden Story. Yes, peril approaches, but fences need fixing just as monsters need slaying. Fighting to save the world is a lofty abstract. Instead, fight to save the soil and the sky, the frogs and the flowers, the wise cacti and the talking pickles. Fight like only a grape in a green bucket hat armed with a parasol can.