As crazy as the world is right now, this has been an opportune time for crafting/life simulators to really reach gaming audiences, simply because they have been the ultimate source of vicarious living. Games Animal Crossing: New Horizons and the excellent Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town no doubt satisfy that sense of community and belonging, joining other time-sinks like Stardew Valley.
There’s no shortage of these relaxing time burners, and so a new release like Cozy Grove certainly has something to prove in order to differentiate itself from the rest. It may not reinvent the wheel or offer something drastically different from the aforementioned hits, but there are some unique quirks to the experience which might pique the interest of genre fans.
What immediately sets Cozy Grove apart is its basic premise and setup, where you are essentially a spirit scout looking to help rectangular bear spirits to find some sense of closure and direction on an island grove that functions as some quasi-afterlife. Honestly, what kind of parent signs a permission slip to send their kid to a spiritual bear realm? It’s certainly a strange and unusual backdrop, but it does enough to help Cozy Grove differentiate itself from something like Animal Crossing.
The bears come in all styles and colors, including one fused with a seagull early on. There’s meant to be some karmic symbolism here, but while Cozy Grove doesn’t explain the meta-physics of its setting in great detail, it provides just enough to create intrigue, and for players to care about the various bear spirits and their quirky personalities. Each bear has certain tasks for you to complete, and in the process of doing so you earn scout honor badges depending on the tasks you engage in, and by completing story quests you restore a sense of color and life into the island grove.
The core gameplay attempts some variety with options to fish and dig, and so it bears (totally unintended pun here) some similarities with other titles in the genre, but much of the game involves fetching and delivering items, in particular, feeding logs to a living bonfire which drives the main narrative. It feels like a series of fetch quests for the most part, with the core gameplay lacking the kind of variety players would normally expect. It’s meant to be a light and relaxing experience, where the enjoyment is in interacting with the cast of characters and witnessing new events on a daily basis that are based on a real-time day/night cycle.
The core gameplay loop of collecting and forging various materials and items, and delivering these to the spirit bears, does get repetitive in a hurry with very little variation. This is an experienced design for short bursts of relaxation, almost like an exercise of mindfulness in a way. If that sounds like your kind of jam, then Cozy Grove might meet your expectations, but anyone expecting more will quickly run of out things to do. Still, there is some measure of achievement in collecting all the scout badges as you complete various tasks.
The presentation of Cozy Grove is likely what will win over most players, where the hand-drawn art style is presented in storybook fashion and animates smoothly for the most part, although there is a noticeable slowdown and frame skips every now and then. The music serves as a relaxing atmospheric backdrop to the setting, and it comes together nicely enough.
The only challenge with the graphical style is that it can be difficult to spot objects and areas of interest, in particular digging and foraging spots which all seem to blend into the hand-drawn backgrounds. Despite these hiccups, the gameplay is still smooth, especially when using the smooth touchscreen interface in handheld mode.
Cozy Grove definitely lives up to its namesake as a cozy gaming experience, one designed for short bursts of play, where playing a little each day allows you to get more out of it than longer play sessions. The basic gameplay loop is limited, but the charm of the game world and the basic premise provides a relaxing sense of achievement. While it doesn’t replace Animal Crossing as your next time-sink, it does enough to provide a lighter and less demanding alternative.
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