An alternative to Animal Crossing, where every difference is both for the best and for the worst.
Animal Crossing was one of the franchises I desperately wanted to get into, after I fell in love with Stardew Valley; they are not that similar games, but it was a Nintendo franchise that had similar goals, and that promise of the quality and charm that is usually found in Nintendo, games was enough to make New Horizons one of my most anticipated releases of 2020. I got exactly what I wished for: an introduction to being an Animal Crossing fan. I still believe, wholeheartedly, that ACNH is a bad game overall, but its best parts are unmatched by anything I’ve ever played and I believed that a lot of its faults could have been easily avoided; similar to Stardew Valley, I’ve kept my eye on alternative offerings and not too long after I was done with AC, Cozy Grove pops up and steals my attention with its pencil-drawn art-style. I no longer believe that the faults of ACNH could have been easily avoided; I’m sure more talented people will eventually figure it out, but Cozy Grove is proof that what I thought were no-brainer decision that AC just screwed up on, are actually really difficult balancing acts spanning the entire design spectrum. Where Cozy Grove tries to differentiate itself from AC, it makes a decision that is so close to my preferences it might as well be made with me in mind; those are the best moments and why I spent 3 weeks logging in daily. Those are also the decisions that make the game worst in some crucial aspects and where AC fans may realize that it’s too much of an alternative; I plan to keep logging in daily, but whether that lasts for 6 months like it did with AC remains to be seen, however I’m not planning on it.
There is one change that is holistically better, where Cozy Grove improves (without caveats) on ACNH: The writing is great, not only in giving the characters charm and a personality, but also giving them, their world, and their stories, some great bittersweet and wholesome moments. In Cozy Grove, you are a Spirit Scout stranded in an island with forgotten spirits; the only way to make it back is to help these spirits (that take the form of bears) with whatever’s troubling them. One is a former Scout, like yourself, who wants to help you become the best Scout you can be, but also, despite being a spirit, desperately wants to feel useful and helpful to others; another is a crafter, who only wants to build and destroy things. Obviously, most of these spirits have a double purpose of providing the necessary mechanics of crafting, hints, mail, and more, as well as being the characters that give charm and the eponymous cozy feeling; however, the writing and characterization on display is genuinely good. There are some heavier themes with some of these Spirits and some can get philosophical and kind of sad, but they still keep balancing that fine line between too much of a downer and too cutesy with sensitive topics.
Beyond the writing and the focus of the story, Cozy Grove’s alternatives to life-sim games like AC could not be more fundamental; for starters, Cozy Grove would probably not fall into the life-sim category by some purists, given that it changes the focus of the moment-to-moment gameplay. AC and life/farming sims’ moment-to-moment focus is best summed up as “chores”; what you do can be tedious and repetitive, but the results are worth it. Cozy Grove replaces this with a hidden object component to make the experience more active and provide some challenge to a skill, freeing the devs up to use different means of progression. In some aspects, this is a solid idea; it is more active and adds a “puzzle” element to gameplay, with objects having short descriptions of where they are hidden for the player to locate them. At its best, this is as monotonous as any other life/farm sim out there, but at its worst, it’s a frustrating and self-defeating change that makes the game less interesting. It is too “pixel-hunting” for my liking, but even worst, it takes one of the best moments of the game and makes it feel like a chore rather than a reward. As already mentioned, the game’s biggest draw is the pencil, hand-drawn art style, with the game having a white style (similar to draw it yourself books that have the outlines but lack the color) when a bear Spirit has a new quest or is still pending for an old one; when you complete their quest, their area is filled with color in a moment that never gets old, visually. When the area is in color, hidden objects are not that hard to spot, but in white areas it is too annoying and that is something that you will do for most of your daily playthrough.
This is basically the motif for the rest of the differentiations attempted in Cozy Grove; it works at times, but mostly frustrates and delivers something less interesting than traditional takes of the genre. Another good example that I’ve seen having mixed reaction from players is the RNG and time-gating elements of the game; since the game doesn’t need too many resources to build bridges or form the landscape, the game has different gating and variety strategies. You’re meant to play Cozy Grove for months because some items needed are locked behind character quests that you won’t access for quite a while or have better chances of getting when you progress the game further; I’m personally okay with this strategy, but at times it gets frustratingly stale when you have to log in for 3 days in a row and not complete a one-item quest to move on. Another element that may not work for most is the visual variety strategy; instead of having areas remain the same and let the player shape them in different ways, Cozy Grove will leave your items alone but will procedurally generate everything else. It will adhere to some rules like the postal scooters are always near the postal bear, but it disoriented and frustrated me for a few days until I got the hang of where things would respawn, etc. (also, the Scout bear gives hints that direct you to the exact location of items for a small fee and I started using that a lot more than the game probably intended, which is also a solution!)
In my mind, the biggest change Cozy Grove makes (or at least the most impactful) is how it handles “farming” and customization. On the island, besides the bear spirits, there is a native wild life and plantation; there are birds and deer, as well as fruit trees, mining rocks, berry bushes, and more. “Farming” changes are mostly positive; the producing creature or object can be harvested once per day and the output will be bigger if the player meets more of the likes and none of the dislikes the creature/object has and if they can feed it the food it wants; it then produces its specific output, which the player will know from before, and it makes planning for resources easier while not really caring for “chores” like watering crops or feeding animals daily. The likes and dislikes of each animal and plant are indicated by a “tag” system that shows which decoration or world object they prefer or don’t want – this is where the customization changes come in. Each decoration piece has a “tag” like cozy, rustic, bustling, and others; these tags are important to the efficiency and have gameplay motives rather than purely cosmetic or for the player to place as they like. This is, again, one of those decisions made just for me, a player who doesn’t really like decorating and customizing just for the sake of it; customization in Cozy Grove is important for gameplay…too important. It has the same effect but with a different method; I still don’t care about decorations, because to me those are flagpoles with different flags. I don’t see a “spooky” chair, I see a box with the tags I want for the specific bird I’m trying to get max rating on; I’m not making a “fun” playground or a “scout” area, I’m throwing all items with those tags together with the animals and plants that like them to gain essence and eggs tomorrow. Furthermore, this creates different problems that I wasn’t expecting initially; since it makes sense to keep animals and “tags” close by (with some exception like animals not liking a rarity or other animals near by), my island is a bunch of stuff and animals/plants squished together and getting to click on the thing you want (an animal to feed for produce) becomes a nightmare that may end up taking 2-3 minutes to complete. That may sound small, but this is something you are supposed to do daily, for a few animals/plants, and it’s supposed to be a relaxing, cozy, activity, which is anything but.
This will sound too negative, but my intentions are not to dunk on any game, let alone one that I enjoy; I’ve been playing this game for about an hour or less for the past 24 days in a row, so it does a lot of things right. It is a genuinely cozy, relaxing, and fun game; the moments where you feel the world with color, you help a few cute bears deal with the afterlife and feed creepy-yet-cute birds a pastry so it can give you a paranormal, metaphysical essence, and an egg are genuinely enjoyable. This is also a game that keeps getting meaningful updates; I’ve had sections of my notes and this review change in the course of playing the game, because updates fixed some issues I had like sorting inventory and having to exit out of inventory screens instead of clicking away, which was annoyingly susceptible to errors. My intentions are to convey how eye-opening the experience has been in terms of understanding how even the smallest, most “inconsequential” decisions in games are actually really hard balancing acts, as well as provide some honest reactions to a game and idea that I really like and would like to see its best version.