It starts off innocently enough. You’re a little scout, heading off to a fun little scouting adventure in a little place called Cozy Grove. I hadn’t heard much about Cozy Grove except that it was supposed to be some sort of Animal Crossing clone type game. I was tentatively excited for my scouting adventures, because, let’s face it, I was full on obsessed with Animal Crossing: New Horizons–not only did it come out at exactly the right time to be the perfect escape, but I’d already had some pretty big attachments to the franchise thanks to my husband introducing me to the series back in the days of the DS.
If it’s hard to do a sequel, it’s even harder to ape something so beloved and have people who liked the original thing like a new thing that’s like it. Fortunately, what I heard about Cozy Grove was…not super accurate to say the least. See, Cozy Grove plays a lot like Animal Crossing, but it won’t even take three hours for your tour to go, well…a little dark.
If you’re a little scout you’re probably expecting merit badges, arts and crafts, hikes and songs around the campfire. What you might not be expecting is a forest full of ghost bears, who aren’t too keen on your presence, since they were all killed in a big giant forest fire that was the result of the negligence of one of your fellow Spirit Scouts. Shortly after talking to the first bear who’d let me in a little, Charlotte Pine, I had to talk to a strange and, I still assert, somewhat sus campfire named Flamey, who helped me get acquainted with my new life on the island, and helps hook you up with the various residents to meet their needs. Now that you’re here for the long haul thanks to an unmoored boat, you’ll have to help repopulate the island with its ursine residents, and help guide them through their memories to restore them to life and the island back to full glory and color. Help them uncover more of their stories and you’ll in turn get that day’s allotment of Spirit Logs, which keeps Flamey happy, if sort of scary in his insatiableness.
You’ll accomplish this through a series of daily quests and tasks that include fishing, collecting, finding hidden objects, cooking and talking to various bears who have some truly strange dispositions and backstories, and day by day piece the story of the island back together, in the hopes of proving yourself as a Spirit Scout and maybe one day getting back home to your parents.
Cozy Grove features a lot of the same sorts of mechanics you’ll find in Animal Crossing or even Stardew Valley. You start out with a small plot of land and a tent that you can expand, and a backpack and campsite that offer precious little storage. The various bears will teach you how to craft things, including the tools you’ll need to mine for ore, fish, dig and chop down the big twisty weeds that crop up all over. Eventually, as days go by, you’ll add the ability to bake and even use a dowsing rod to look for relics to unearth.
Just like in Animal Crossing, there’s a fashion element, with a giant kitsune fox named Mr. Kit who offers a daily selection of wares including some fun fashion choices for you to peruse and lust after. You’ll earn money selling items you harvest, including fruit from trees, and mushrooms, tubers, radishes and the like from the ground. There’s even a seagullbear who catalogues new discoveries and rewards you for your donations a la Blathers.
There’s a few other interesting mechanics at play, though, including one I both love and loathe–the color mechanic. When you first arrive at Cozy Grove, precious little of it is in color. As you work to unlock a bear’s story and help guide it to peace, the story progresses, as indicated with little hearts that fill gradually. Each time you unlock a new story point with one of the bears on the island, they’ll temporarily light up their corner of the world. This does a few things. Most obviously, it adds some contrast and beauty to the land, making it easier to spot things like leaf piles and digging spots, but it also allows you to harvest goods in that area like fruits and nuts. It doesn’t last though, and you’ll need to keep progressing the story daily to keep the color going.
There’s also a decoration mechanic at play in Cozy Grove, beginning at your campsite. Every valuable object and creature in Cozy Grove has a list of likes and dislikes, and most have happiness meters to fill up, too. Decor, which can be crafted, gifted or bought, comes in a few varieties, like spooky, cozy or rustic, and can be rare, epic or common. Putting an item a plant or animal doesn’t like near them will reduce their happiness and make their harvest less fruitful, or nonexistent. And though you’ll start decorating at home, as the demand for resources goes up, so will your need to string more and more decor across the island, lighting up areas in full color and ensuring the happiness of trees, flowers, birds and deer all over.
My biggest gripe with Cozy Grove, at least in early gameplay, is that it has a pretty harsh ratio of available resources to required resources for quests. I got pretty involved in the character’s backstories early, but having to wait a couple of days to a week to get the resources to make one egg or repair one tool feels overly punishing. It’s something early players have mentioned to the devs and they seem to still be adjusting, but it’s a huge pain point. At current, I’ve got about 3 bears I wish I could unlock more story with that I simply can’t due to a lack of iron ore, eggs or some other such item that can’t be easily gathered in large quantities, even though the recipe for one boiled egg, for example, means collecting a dozen. This can be alleviated somewhat through the shop and wandering salesman, but they aren’t available every day, and I really feel like the resources required still needs a tweak.
Meanwhile, the dark undertones keep creeping to the surface, with references to liches and old gods, mysterious “you-should-have-said-something-fish” and drowned mermaid souls you’ll reel in, strange statues and relics and some truly terrifying stories and parcels received via my favorite bear on the island but probably the most troubled, Patrice Furbac, an extremely lovable bear who just wants to deliver mail and hang out with her wife, and keeps getting truly terrifying mail that leaves her in cold sweats, including a parcel full of bloody bear paws. There are terrible things that happened on Cozy Grove island, and after about a week and a half of gameplay, I feel I’ve only scratched the surface.
Finally, at least on Nintendo Switch, Cozy Grove doesn’t run very well at all. Not only did I run into save issues, my character would get stuck, and very often when the world would become colorful, it would jitter and sometimes even freeze my game, as it also did when digging or harvesting.
What Cozy Grove does best is cross the familiarity and cutesiness of a game like Animal Crossing with a sort of Lovecraftian kind of mystery and a forest of really odd but troubled characters you’ll like and want to help. I love its hand-drawn style, and though its sense of humor is pretty dark, it’s garnered real laughs. As much as I went in thinking I wouldn’t like the game, and as much as I still don’t like the game some days when resources seem scarce and I’m off on a wild goose chase for blue leaves, I found myself determined to keep going, to find out what really happened in Cozy Grove, and hopefully, help Patrice and her friends find real peace. Cozy Grove is cute, fun, slightly disturbing and a little frustrating, but I think it’s a place I’ll visit for a while longer to find out more.
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