Cozy Grove, from developer Spry Fox, is likely to remind you of something. Firstly, its art style looks like that hand-drawn survival game Don't Starve. Its ursine cast of characters look a lot like they've been lifted from Beartopia, which checks out seeing as it's the same studio. Thirdly, the mechanics are like those of Animal Crossing, and the narrative is a little like Spiritfarer (again with a striking animated art style), with a dash of the pacing of Stardew Valley. In short, it's a seance with the sweetest games you could muster, yet the spirit of Cozy Grove is quite its own.
The protagonist of Cozy Grove is a Spirit Scout, someone who is trained to explore and deal with the activities on the other side. Not a ghost buster, rather a ghost buddy. Washing up on the shores of the titular island, the player is able to customise their character extensively with hair styles and eye colours, each with an esoteric flavour text to accompany it. Their campfire, named Flamey, is a magical source who senses the lost souls on the island. The thing is that a Spirit Scout was originally assigned to Cozy Grove, but their time isn't remembered fondly by the spectral inhabitants. What happened here is a mystery, and by helping out this adorable pack of anthropomorphic bears, they'll dredge up new memories and fill in the blanks of the story.
Cozy Grove, in its abandonment, has been drained of its colour. Quite literally. The world has the yellow-green tinge of heavy paper expectantly waiting for that all-important drop of ink to enliven its gorgeous line work. The only colour that is afforded to this place is to you, and to the impish spirits, who hover in groups curiously observing and then scatter as soon as you come close. The characters will task you with collecting various natural resources to craft or create new things with, and picking them up from the bleached-white grass was always a surprise. Personally speaking, I became attached to collecting shells from the beach which would become bright pinks and reds once they'd been packed away in the character's backpack.
Fulfilling these tasks increases your relationship with the characters, represented with a series of hearts that appear above their heads. The design of these wayward souls has to be commended, and I'm just going to dedicate a few words to them now. There's Francesca DuClaw, a very particular bear whose coat is swirled with whorls like the cross-section of felled timber. Patrice Furbac is in charge of the post office, and their sash is tied round their middle like a traditional parcel with string. And, I must say, my favourite is easily Captain Billweather Snout, a grizzled yet good-humoured "bear" who is most at home on the open ocean. Once they're happy, they'll give you a spirit log.
This is then given to Flamey who burns perpetually in your campsite, and they ingest it with glee. They're a bit like Calcifer from Howl's Moving Castle, if Calcifer spent less time complaining and more time guiding Sophie to the answers she sought. With each spirit log, new areas of the island are revealed and more ghosts trapped in the shadows will be introduced. This isn't Flamey's sole purpose, though. The fire will upgrade the storage space, burn resources to transform them into new ones, store clothes bought from the caravan shop, and offer hints for how much is left to do with the day. Oh, yes, Cozy Grove progresses over real time, and it offers about half an hour of gameplay every day before prompting you to wait til tomorrow.
Of course, you don't have to switch off then and there. You are a Spirit Scout, after all. Achievements are marked with badges - for example, slash 10 shrubberies. Once the player surpasses these, they'll be rewarded with coins, which are exchanged for things in Mr. Kit's shop. Yes, he's a red fox with a pop up shop, which is really like another game that Spry Fox has stated was a core inspiration for Cozy Grove. Decoration is also key for maximising the happiness on the island, as ghost animals will have different likes and dislikes. I have five spirit birds, actually. They glow in the evening and their eyes are glassy, but they love a good scratch under their beaks.
The thing that strikes me most about Cozy Grove is that it seems to be several games stood on each other's shoulders wearing a large trenchcoat. It's a patchwork quilt of harmonious colours that's been warmed in front of a fire before you wrap it round yourself like a cocoon. Spry Fox have either capitalised on this wholesome hygge in the sweetest way I've ever seen, or this combination of lots of things might be interpreted as the antidote to uncertainty. In an interview, the studio's CEO explained how important the "cozy" vibe was to the happiness of the team over the three years the game had been in development. But, it's not enough to offer that respite without the depth to pursue and seek out that same reward for relaxation.
Occasionally, I was stunned by the sheer volume of collectible resources in Cozy Grove and their accompanying tags. This one is "common" but "spooky," and this one is "rare" and "spring". I'd hand them over to the collection that Captain Billweather holds for goodies like coins and quartz, and realise with dismay that I'd hardly scratched the surface of the total. Again, I needed 12 eggs for a recipe for Allison Fisher, and I had two. Impatience bit into the edge of my experience on this cutesy little island. But, I recalled there was no deadline on this task. I remembered that I like trying to spot the new shells that had been washed up. My birds were strange (and slightly scary) creatures that I didn't understand, but I wanted them to be happy with the decorations I'd built for them.
Technically speaking, I'd recommend playing the game on something other than a Switch because I did see significant frame rate drops and the UI would benefit from a big screen, though I did enjoy sitting in the sun and checking off a few tasks for the day. Furthermore, the touch controls were a little finicky, and it's difficult to place objects exactly where you want them, unlike Animal Crossing. But, it's the curious text that accompanies the various odds and ends that intrigues me. Letters that arrive on the island, apparently unanswered, probing the appearance of a wrecked boat on the shores. As my collection of resources grows, I want to know what else is out there on this weird haven where the boundary between worlds is thin. It doesn't offer the very same adorableness of other games in the genre, yet its muted colours and purposeful pace is welcoming. If you're looking for a low impact and narratively engaging life sim, then spend a while on Cozy Grove.
Pros: mysterious writing, lots of customisation, story unfurls over time
Cons: technical hiccups, sometimes a bit too slow
For fans of: Animal Crossing, Spiritfarer, Stardew Valley
Cozy Grove was reviewed on Nintendo Switch with code provided by the publisher. Cozy Grove releases April 8 for Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, and Apple Arcade. Read a guide to our review scores here.
Featured Image Credit: Spry Fox
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