Back in the Wii and DS era, Nintendo tried something new: telling its players to take breaks. We're no strangers to the Animal Crossing all-nighter, and it seemed like Nintendo was finally starting to worry about our health, but very few people actually heeded the gentle warning. You're not our mum, Nintendo. In any case, we don't listen to her either when she tells us to go outside and play.
Cozy Grove is an extension of that ethos: it really, really wants to make sure you're not playing video games all day. It cares about you. As the CEO of developer Spry Fox puts it: "Cozy Grove doesn't make you feel like you need to play for 8 hours in a single sitting to "maximize" your experience, and it doesn't make you feel like you've seen everything there is to see in a few days either." To put it succinctly, Cozy Grove respects your time.
The Animal Crossing-inspired game is all about tending to an island and its inhabitants, providing the comforts that they need while also building and maintaining your own. Like Animal Crossing, its goals are pretty freeform, but gentle guidance will steer you in the direction of upgrading your tent, growing fruit trees, and raising pets.
By performing tasks for the people who live on the island, and engaging with the crafting, fishing, mining, and foraging mechanics, you — the Spirit Scout who was sent here by your mentor — can gradually bring life back to the island. Therein lies the twist that sets Cozy Grove apart from its inspiration: in Cozy Grove, everyone is dead.
You begin each new day in real-time with an island inhabited by ghosts, and all the colour drained out of the landscape. Each of the ghosts will ask you to do something for them — find a lost item, bring them some food, or go on a treasure hunt to find several things that they need — and, upon performing said task, their gratitude will ripple out in a wave of colour around them (and a bone-shaking Joy-Con rumble). It's beautiful, but it happens every day, which tends to suck the magic out of it and leave you feeling more like you're stuck in a Groundhog Day loop.
However, each little quest will bring you closer to the ghost, and perhaps give you a fragment of memory, a new tool, or something to learn about the island. They'll also give you a Spirit Log, which is used to feed the campfire back at your tent. The campfire, who is basically a less-mean Calcifer from Howl's Moving Castle, serves as your main guide for Cozy Grove, telling you what to do next and also taking care of your storage and tent upgrades.
It's a pleasant enough loop — help people out, do a bit of fishing, forage all the mushrooms and sticks from around the place, feed the fire, repeat — but there's not really much to do, and it feels like the game knows it, too. After just thirty-to-sixty minutes or so, you'll have completed all the ghosts' tasks, so the fire will tell you that there's nothing more to do for the day, and to come back tomorrow. You might be tempted to stick around, but beyond the ghost quests, there's basically just fishing and foraging, neither of which really lead anywhere.
Everything you find can be donated to one of the ghosts, who has a "Collection" (think of it like a Museum, but it's in his pockets, and you can't physically explore it) or sold to a really tall travelling merchant fox, who's a non-dead permanent fixture of the island. There's a basic cooking mechanic, but it involves throwing food into the fire, and doesn't include fish. When the fire tells you that there's nothing more to do for the day, he means it — and it's a real shame.
It's easy to imagine that this works a lot better on a phone. iOS and Android games are much more frequently played in short bursts, and it's probably pretty relieving to find a game that goes along with that, rather than punishing you for not playing as often as it wants you to. On a Switch, that's not really how it works. Paying £10 for a game that literally refuses to let you play for as long as you want is an odd proposition, and though it is possible to time-travel, we'd much rather just play the game without having to dip in and out of the settings menu.
What's more, those scant hours you spent in Cozy Grove's world are a real mixed bag. It's a really gorgeous game, which is unsurprising given Spry Fox's pedigree, and it has buckets of charm. The characters are all unique and weird in the best way, and the dialogue is sweet and easy to like. But the island itself is small and sparse, and at the same time, packed with unnecessary clutter.
Trees, shrubs, bushes, grass, leaf piles, rocks, and unmoveable furniture litter the place, and while they look pretty, they also make it really difficult to forage, move, or collect items on the ground. A ghost might ask you to find six leaves, and trying to find leaves in an island filled with green stuff is an absolute nightmare (although you can buy hints for 100 coins each that tell you exactly where something is).
When the island is drained of colour (which is every single day) it's even harder to see what's what, because everything is a pale green outline. Occasionally, you'll see something interesting in the pale parts — a tree with a bees nest in it seems to imply that you can get honey, or a birds nest might imply that you can collect eggs — but almost every time, it turns out to just be decoration, which is disappointing. It's lovely art, but when practicality takes a back seat to looks, it's hard to appreciate.
Just like it's hard to see anything in the sea of foliage, it's also hard to see what Cozy Grove is really about. There's an intriguing vein of something dark and mysterious within, and when the ghosts mention death, or there's something a bit creepy in an item description, it makes you want to dig deeper. But, like an overbearing parent, Cozy Grove snatches away the game just as it gets interesting, telling you not to eat it all at once. It feels artificial and frustrating to be slowly spoon-fed a story that we want to read at our own pace. The consistent re-desaturating of the island only adds to this, making us feel like any progress we made yesterday will be undone again overnight; like Penelope unweaving her tapestry.
To top it all off, Cozy Grove just doesn't run too well on the Switch. The beginning loading screen (there is mercifully only the one) is looong, and the cornucopia of shrubbery on-screen at any given time is often more than the wee Switch can handle. This leads to pop-ins all over the shop, a frame rate about as smooth as buttered gravel, and a couple of glitches that we think were glitches, but we're not entirely sure about, because Cozy Grove prefers to be coy about everything.
We really want to love this game. The pitch of "a game that respects your time", coupled with the beautiful art and the promise of a dark storyline in a genre that's usually quite twee, had us very intrigued. Cozy Grove just doesn't quite nail enough of it to make us excited about the prospect of being led on a breadcrumb trail for miles.