Cozy Grove (Xbox One) review
"Helping ghosts day after day may eventually become a bigger chore than some might care to bear."
As a Spirit Guide, your aim is simple: show up on an island, maybe help a few lingering spirits as they depart to the great hereafter and then paddle your boat back to the mainland to happily roast marshmallows with the other scouts while you gloat because you just earned a new merit badge.
But something goes wrong.
Cozy Grove is the story of what happens when a boat you improperly secured to the island's dock loses a disagreement with a sudden squall and drifts out to sea. That little tiff leaves you stranded in the middle of nowhere with just a sentient campfire for reliable company. Oh, and there are a bunch of spectral bears and imps and such, who still need your assistance when you're not busy fishing for food or shaking down trees for fruit or otherwise acting like a villager who just bought a house from Tom Nook in Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Released on a variety of platforms and developed by Spry Fox, a small studio previously best known for the addictive likes of Road Not Taken and Alphabear, Cozy Grove is a life simulator every bit as kooky as the latest installment in Nintendo's famous franchise. It's just not as polished, nor does it offer quite the variety of activities and customization options. Although the game is a passable clone with differences enough to forge an identity of its own, it serves better as a supplement to Animal Crossing than as a replacement.
The spectral bears you came to the island to help are presented in the patented Spry Fox art style that capably justifies the "cozy" part of the title. Initially, there are very few of them. But as you find success and word of your good deeds spreads, the NPC roster expands. You interact daily with the restless ghosts and complete tasks on their behalf, which unlocks additional revelations about their past. They reward you sometimes with logs to feed your fire, and doing so expands your environment or summons new critters.
You won't get to know a particular bear overnight. The process takes weeks of real-world play, even, and you can't rush it. A bear offers only so much work in a given session. This setup is frustrating if you have a large chunk of time you want to devote to the game. Technically you can play for as long as you want without interruption, but only to fish or scavenge. And the game already has you doing enough of that.
Scavenging activities really do constitute the bulk of the experience. Many of the bears want you to find multiple items for them. Those items are scattered all over the island. For instance, the postman might ask you to locate several packages of various descriptions. Another bear may wish for you to snag a handful of leaves. You can work on multiple objectives at once, but ultimately you're still just running in circles around the space, checking behind rocks and trees and digging up sand piles on the beach or tossing piles of leaves into the air as fuzzy onlookers just stand in place or patrol a limited space.
The island is cluttered with junk, a sorry state impacts movement in sometimes unpredictable ways. Sometimes you can walk right over a bunch of stuff without the expected consequence. In other instances, a small mound of dirt or a tree root or something might halt you entirely. Action is presented from an overhead perspective and obstructions disappear when you run behind them so the camera doesn't have to rotate. This makes it even harder to tell where a hard barrier might exist. You get used to sorting through the mess over time, but every once in a while, something is likely to trip you up and it gets tedious. That's especially true if you go to talk to a character and press the button, only to find yourself automatically circling him or her and getting stuck in a narrow crevice you had until that point cleverly avoided. Not good.
Fetching items in such an environment gets old in a hurry, and sometimes there is additional cause for frustration. Suppose you need to catch three rare fish. So you go fishing off the coast or one of the cliffs. You might well catch 7 or 8 fish without snagging a single one that counts as "rare." Or you might get two rare ones in a row. Any outcome feels too random to provide players with the desirable sense of agency, especially since there's probably nothing else to do in that moment if you want to advance anything.
Shelter customization might have helped break up the monotony a bit, but the developers don't really let you do a whole lot of tweaking. You can buy upgrades to your tent, but the modifications mostly just increase how much junk it stores. Cosmetic changes you might make are limited to placement of "relics" across the island, such as lamps that expand the glow of warming light, or chairs and tables and such that give everything more rustic, modern or whatever other appeal. You can also buy and place pets, which you then feed with mushrooms and other such goodies you locate while scavenging for more important loot such as empty cardboard boxes or crafting ingredients.
Cozy Grove doesn't cost as much as Animal Crossing: New Horizons, so a comparative lack of ambition is understandable, especially when one considers the development team's more limited resources. However, Spry Fox has put together some very compelling games in the past. Cozy Grove, despite featuring a predictably charming aesthetic and some generally good ideas, lacks the substance required to completely repeat that accomplishment. The haunted little island is a satisfactory place to chill for a few minutes at a time, but no more. You may need to spend literal months, checking in daily and performing the same few repetitive tasks, in order to see everything on offer. And you may decide well ahead of that point that you don't especially care to bother.
Staff review by Jason Venter (April 20, 2021)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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