I’ve been enjoying the stuffing out of Cozy Grove this week. As I mentioned on Channel F, I was pleasantly surprised after my first couple of hours with the game, which is an Animal Crossing-style adventure that sees your main character taming and prettying up a rustic island full of… cute ghostly bears who all need some help. It has plenty of Spiritfarer DNA — each of your ursine buddies is indeed a ghost, and, as you help them, you learn more about the lives and struggles and (presumably, I’m still 4-5 hours in!) help them with unfinished business. It even borrows a bit from Don’t Starve with an emphasis on crafting and that peculiar, sketchy style, though it’s much gentler, both mechanically and aesthetically.
It’s a deeply enjoyable game that I almost unfairly dismissed at first glance.
I thought it looked cute, and given my 700+ hours in Animal Crossing: New Horizons over the last year and change — and my affection for Spiritfarer’s whole vibe and story, I knew I’d find it appealing. Appealing, but perhaps not engaging.
I fell off of Spiritfarer when that game asked me to do too many little tasks, and frankly, I already have New Horizons, which I still play nearly every day. My “cute game about chilling on an island with animal friends” dance card is full, right?
I’m glad that I didn’t listen to that instinct, because Cozy Grove is fantastic. It’s not just a fantastic “one of these” either, as it blends story and crafting much more elegantly than Nintendo’s story-light (admittedly, purposely, that’s just not what they’re going for) series. It feels very much like its own thing, a thing I’ve been excited to check into every day this week, to see what new shells I’ll find on the beach, what new fishies I’ll catch, and what little story bits I’ll unlock with my bears.
Cozy Grove seems to have no problem at all lifting mechanics and general structures whole cloth from other successful series — fishing, for example, is so close to the AC system that I actually giggled a little when I first encountered it. I don’t think I’ve missed a single fish yet! You cast your rod out to sea, and silhouetted fish will take a few nibbles at it. Once the familiar “splash” animation on the lure indicates a real bite, you press the action button to reel it in. Sure, the indicator for the throw is a bit more explicit than the AC mechanic, but it’s largely the same thing.
Hey, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it! The developers at Spry Fox have genuinely improved a few similar mechanics: like the way you dig and harvest materials, with swifter animations and faster re-spawning than I see in New Horizons games. The whole experience feels polished and responsive.
Other choices make an even bigger difference: I’m as invested in these bear-spirits as I was with the characters in Spiritfarer, and as excited to help them out and see where things go. So much so that when I stopped playing this morning and switched over to my New Horizons village, I longed for a little more depth in the communication I have with my villagers.
Yeah, I give them presents every day, and yeah, they give me cool things. But you know what? I want to know what Tank’s life was like before he came here. Was he a professional athlete? A trainer? A coach? Just a dedicated fitness junkie?
I’ll never know, of course (unless I give him a backstory), because that’s just a different experience. Tank (and Tybalt, and all my beloved jock villagers) don’t have this kind of lovingly crafted narrative associated with them. New Horizons is a massive (and deceptively complex) toybox, where Cozy Grove is a narrative game with some lovely toybox elements.
I didn’t know I wanted such an experience, but now that I’m in it, I can’t see myself putting it down for a very, very long time.
Disclosure notice: I used to work at Zam.com (the precursor to this fine website) with Kris Ligman, one of the game’s writers.