Poor Concord the grape has a lot on their shoulders in Garden Story. They've just been appointed the newest guardian of the Grove, and now they're responsible for protecting a whole community of sentient fruit and animals, rebuilding their home, and defending against an invasion by gooey creatures called Rot led by big, scary bosses. Thankfully, Concord the grape is you, and you'd never let such a cozy place be consumed by Rot, would you?
It also helps matters that the Grove is just an immensely enjoyable place to be, even with all of its problems. The pastel-heavy color palette paints diverse scenes of a quaint village, overgrown forests, and atmospheric dungeons, with a day and night cycle changing things up every so often. Then as the seasons pass, you're granted access to new parts of the map, each with its own look and feel and each more visually striking than the last.
Every song in the soundtrack perfectly sets the mood and sinks its way pleasantly into your brain, where it'll play on repeat long after you've stopped playing the game. Seriously, fair warning: Garden Story's score is packed with earworms rivaling the Lost Woods tune from The Legend of Zelda series.
The Legend of Concord or Stardew Grove
The Zelda comparisons don't stop there. In fact, more than anything, Garden Story mostly plays like a classic Zelda game with some city management features, yet it's one that's decidedly more chilled-out and accessible. That being said, the Stardew-like aspects are robust enough that you can easily decide to pass on the whole 'saving the world' thing and just take on community requests for a while, and you'll still feel like you did something worth your time. In fact, if you ignore the bulletin board in-town that shows what needs doing around town, it'll often have a negative impact on the story.
One day, I decided to head straight to the dungeon before taking on any community tasks, promising myself internally I'd get to them later, maybe. Well, I died in the dungeon, which automatically ends the day and leaves its bulletin board unattended to. When I woke up the next day, I was met with a screen that told me all about the tasks I so selfishly ignored in trying to save the world, and the consequences of my in-action. The villagers were too scared to work because I didn't kill any Rot, someone's crops died because they didn't have any dew, and the guards had to sharpen their own tools - oh, god forbid they sharpen their own tools.
Harkening back to earlier when I was explaining how much responsibility you're assigned in Garden Story, I must admit I didn't always feel appreciated. Despite you being their guardian, some residents of the grove treat you like a nuisance more than a hero, even when you go out of your way to do exactly what they asked when you could've just napped on your cute little leaf-shaped rug, gone fishing, or done some gardening.
Earlier in the game, I'm asked to rebuild the library, which of course I'm happy to do - I love reading! But after doing all the work literally by myself, I'm told by the owners of the library that the guardian before me - some apple named Fuji - would've got the job done a lot quicker. Then, after restoring some books for the library, the old grape that made me guardian says the books are useless because ol' Fuji's not around to interpret them. So, should I just leave, or?
Not all of your neighbors are so ungrateful, though. Once, I was asked to find some crystal lenses for a cherry named Maraschino (of course). After delivering the goods and helping to fix Maraschino's broken goggles, they offered to stand guard outside my house and keep Rot away, and they actually showed up! From then on, I was able to sleep peacefully aware of Maraschino's ever-watchful presence.
This fruit isn't always so sweet
Maybe I'm slow - or maybe Garden Story just isn't very good at explaining what you're supposed to do - but I was surprised to find that it took me several hours to reach the first dungeon. I was even more surprised to find that the dungeons and boss fights are my favorite parts of Garden Story. Don't get me wrong, I could tell there was potential in the combat from the get-go, as Rot move around sporadically and the big, nighttime variety are downright unpredictable, but it isn't until the library dungeon that Garden Story really comes into its own as a Zelda-like, and a damn tough one too!
You'll eventually acquire a variety of weapons - a sword, hammer, sickle, etc. - to fight off enemies, but I can just about promise you'll feel overwhelmed by enemies often. At best, you've only got a few hit points in your life bar, and two swigs of dew to partially heal you during fights. Not to mention, your stamina meter is only good for a few swings of your weapon, forcing you to plan out each attack carefully. Enemies will bounce around every which way, shoot across the screen randomly, and explode upon dying, sending one last obstacle your way. The most annoying trick they pull is when they die and turn into a little tiny blob that bounces around and won't die until you squash it.
I haven't made it to the final boss yet, but the two bosses I have faced - Bookworm and Octopihi - kicked my ass. The battles aren't quite Souls-like in scale, obviously, and they aren't quite as bullet-helly as Undertale, but they borrow liberally from both of those genres, and the result is surprisingly challenging for a game where you play as a concord grape. Regardless, the bosses I encountered were thrilling to fight and genuinely satisfying to beat - even if it took me more tries than I'd care to admit here.
The more I played Garden Story, the more I grew to appreciate the deceptively deep action RPG hiding under its thin fruit-flavored shell. It's not that rebuilding stuff and doing daily tasks isn't enjoyable, it's just that it isn't as core to the game's makeup as you'd expect from the outside looking in. That said, if it's a highly polished, aesthetically wonderful Zelda-like you're looking for, Garden Story is exactly that, plus a serviceable city management sim thrown in for good measure.
Garden Story is out now on PC and Nintendo Switch.