All those who are lost deserve kindness.
If the success of Animal Crossing: New Horizons has taught us anything, it’s that even the most battle-hardened, adrenaline-hungry gamers have a soft spot for the wholesome. Sometimes players crave an experience that brings about a sense of warmth and peace, the gaming equivalent of being wrapped in a fluffy blanket with hot drink and a favourite snack. And the success of Hades at the BAFTA Games Awards shows how much an indie game is capable of. Enter Cozy Grove, the new life-sim adventure game from developer Spry Fox and publisher The Quantum Astrophysicists Guild. The perfect alternative for those like myself who crave a little more than creation and expansion and never quite warmed to Animal Crossing’s character models.
Cozy Grove puts you in the shoes of a ‘Spirit Scout’, a customisable cub scout who can communicate with the dead, who camps on an haunted island with the task of helping the resident ghost bears recall their memories and pass over. You establish a campsite with your sentient campfire Flamey, reminiscent of Howl’s Moving Castle’s Calcifer, who illuminates the island and uncovers new areas to explore after consuming spirit logs. These are obtained by helping the unearthly ursine locals with daily tasks and bringing back their memories.
Before you even begin, the aesthetics have an immediate effect. The hand-drawn style is nothing short of sublime, taking the sketch-like qualities of titles like Don’t Starve and softening the harsh edges with charming character designs. The island begins as a blank, sepia-toned canvas, but as you complete tasks for the ghost bears, colour starts to spread, making lush greenery and vibrant natural beauty appear. Life returns to the island, in a manner of speaking, and the hand-drawn graphics fit perfectly with this aspect. It’s a beautiful visual representation of how the smallest things can aid the journey of self-discovery and finding your spark. The only minor niggle here is, because objects become transparent when standing behind them, it’s sometimes a little difficult to discern what you can and can’t manoeuvre around.
Like New Horizons, daily tasks generally involve hunting for items and resources or crafting things for the ghost bears, each with different personalities and trades such as an inventor, a postal carrier or a sea captain. Backed by a calming soundtrack and adorable animations, it’s easy to lose yourself in these little collectathons and zone out for a while. And the danger of straying into constant grinding is averted thanks to a certain aspect. The game and tasks take place in real time and when all current quests are completed (roughly around 30 – 40 minutes play time), players must physically log off and return another day — even the game itself encourages you to switch off!
This approach not only makes it a great option for mobile platforms, but encourages daily play and a sense of taking a little time each day to devote to replenishing your mental reserves. And if players do want to stretch out their Cozy Grove time a little more, there’s always resources to be found in leaf piles and burrows, shells wash up on the beach periodically to be collected or you can do a spot of fishing.
With an island life-sim concept, the Animal Crossing comparisons are inevitable. But Cozy Grove has a unique element that sets it apart from the Nintendo hit and indeed from most life-sims in general. You are not a creator. The island is not yours to turn into your own personal utopia. You are a helper. Everything you do on the island is to aid its inhabitants and to strengthen your bond with them. Even the more cosmetic side of things like placing decorations and cultivating animals is to increase their happiness and rediscover who they are. It’s an added sense of purpose within this little pocket of calm. Being a huge fan of RPGs, I crave story and purpose and like a typical Capricorn, I also like goals to work towards, no matter the size. Cozy Grove achieves the perfect balance of simulation and story with the former advancing the latter — as life returns to the island, the ghost bears open up to you and share their memories.
We could all use another helping of video game fuzzies these days and Cozy Grove certainly doesn’t disappoint. This indie gem simply radiates warmth and wholesomeness while still giving a strong sense of stories waiting to be told. Rewarding inquisitiveness and exploration with more than just money, it evokes the feeling of watching your favourite daily TV shows as a child; a half hour absorbed in another world that you never really wanted to end, but always had you looking forward to tomorrow when you could escape again. And those feelings are priceless.