For all the video games I’ve played this past year, very few helped calm to calm my mind amongst the constant reminder of the messed up outside world. We continue to live within the ‘new normal’ and the idea of going out and working has pushed my own stress and anxiety levels higher than ever before. No doubt a vast majority of people out there (perhaps even you, dear reader) have felt the same, so allow me to introduce to you the game that has helped me deal with 2021.
From the outside, Cozy Grove seems like any other resource gathering, family friendly game. Its cute character designs and rich, water-coloured visuals are welcoming, yet there’s something much deeper and thought provoking within this little indie that is easy to overlook. I took a punt on it when it first launched earlier this year, having previously played developer Spry Fox’s mobile titles Triple Town and Road Not Taken, and as the end of the year rolls around I continue to find myself drawn to it.
Cozy Grove begins with the premise of a stranded Spirit Scout on an island full of strange, bear-like ghosts that require your aid in remembering their past lives while bringing colour back to the island. Think Animal Crossing but with a greater sense of narrative, as your tasks of resource gathering and item discovery will have you saving the island and its ghostly inhabitants. Every day starts the gathering cycle over again, as noted by the in-game calendar, which brings new items and further progression with each bear’s story. With each completed favour you’re rewarded with spirit logs which can be fed to Flamey, your campfire friend who unlocks all the secrets of the island itself the more he levels up.
In a way, Cozy Grove is a mobile game without the intrusive microtransactions or the pesky need for energy or stamina in order to return and make further progression. The only trick to get you hooked is the need to bring closure to each spirit that comes your way, each one having a different story to tell as to why they remain on the island and what memories they need to rediscover in order to be at peace with themselves once more. Some stories are darker than others, tales of loss and pain, but there’s a sense of hope as each one comes to a close.
Cozy Grove’s dialogue is, at times, perfect
As of this article, I’ve put in over 64 hours into the game. That may seem like a lot, or perhaps a little depending on your point of view, but more often than not it’s the first game I log in to when I get home from work if only for a few minutes. Like Animal Crossing did last year, it’s the perfect place to just run around and relax for a while. Sure, there are quests to complete, but none of them ever feel like you need to rush towards the goal. This is a casual walk instead of a full sprint, and in that sense it’s exactly the kind of thing I needed to ease my mind, with the island being your playground to build out and shape in your own special way.
More importantly, Cozy Grove made me laugh and smile just when I needed it. There’s Mayor bear Valentina Oso-Fisher constantly swearing at the random spirits that plague her town, Patrice the post bear always losing packages, and Bruin Tram’s completely random conspiracy theories (and yes, there’s a foil hat item you can get from him). Each bear is amusing, thoughtful and written in a way that you truly care for them, even those who start off difficult or even rude (the money-loving Clyde Wallace who wants the key to the city, for example) but slowly warm to your presence and open up to you, remembering that their lives were so much more than they first thought.
This isn’t your Mother’s Animal Crossing
The cycle of gathering wood, fruits and iron has never felt more rewarding and enjoyable than it has here. Perhaps that has much to do with how simple it all feels, in a good way of course. Nothing ever feels complicated or unnecessary, every item has a purpose or a requirement elsewhere, be it crafting new items to decorate and light up your island or to complete quests for your spirit friends. As the year has gone on, Spry Fox has expanded the game to include catchable bugs, an accordion that gathers resources around you with a simple song, and special events such as the current winter season that includes snowball fights with spirits. It helps, of course, that the game is just damn cute just about everywhere. The hand-drawn animations of the bears and spirits burst with life and are wonderfully paired with watercolours that fill out the island’s surface, backed by a gentle score of violin and banjo.
As much as Animal Crossing was everyone’s getaway from the harsh reality of life in 2020, I found a greater sense of calm and accomplishment with Cozy Grove as 2021 rolled on. It allowed for a moment or two of respite each day from the energy-draining real world, reminding me that love, honesty and respect go a long way to ensuring your meaning and purpose in life even when everything may seem lost. In that, I must thank Cozy Grove for being there when I needed it the most, and will no doubt continue to be so in the days and weeks ahead.