Golf Story is a perfect example of something being the sum of its parts, not excelling in anything in particular but doing well enough in most, if not all, that it becomes a special total package. From the immediate charm of the aesthetics and the dry but cheery dialogue, which is filled to the brim with dad-jokes, to the actual golf portion of the Sport-RPG, there is something for everyone to have fun, just don’t look too deep. That’s the best praise I can give developer Sidebar Games‘ first effort, which is simple, teetering on incessant, and cheapened when playing in session long than a subway trip or bus ride.
If you’ve read reviews of this small indie from an unproven studio about a sports game that isn’t Football (both American and European) or the others in the Big-Four, you’ve probably heard the hype that has been built up from pre-release word of mouth. The game’s trailer brought back the feelings of serenity people experienced with Stardew Valley, which the game can justifiably be compared to, which is high praise in my book. It seemed to fit perfect for on-the-go playing or curling into your couch with your Switch.
Having spent some time with this game, this hype now makes me squirm and question every word I am currently typing. Don’t get me wrong, I truly enjoyed Golf Story. I have it beside me now, picking it up to run around Oak Manor and Wellworn Grove, making sure I haven’t missed any hidden bonus holes, or just teeing off and trying to hit people in the head for no rhyme-or-reason, debating on whether I have it in me to finish off a putting challenge I cannot wrap my head around. But why isn’t this game any better than pretty good?
Golf Story at its most diffused is near three parts Mario Golf: Advanced Tour and one part Stardew Valley, as previously mentioned. The game takes golf fairly seriously but isn’t afraid whatsoever to throw you into wacky and absurd situations. You’ll have to chip at an undead army of minions and sink puts when geese are running around the green. In my opinion, this is Golf Story at its best: taking the idea of golf into context that would make sense only in video games, and letting you have fun through challenge in ways . However, these moments are limited to one or two maximum per new course, and with only eight major courses, the quest log is, to me, left wanting.
That is not to say there is a shortness of things to do and see. There is a plethora of random sights and little quests to fill your time and build up experience or your equipment bag between the major beats of the story, but rarely do they come close to the uniqueness or plain fun of the more mainline quests. What is most disappointing is that the game starts with one of these scenarios: sink a putt while geese chase a mole around the green, but this is the only instance–it would have been truly special if they went more “all-in” with this sort of off-beat and haphazard circumstances.
Most of the quest-giving NPCs give you a bit of silly dialogue and then tell you to golf around the course, which is unfortunately, nothing more than giving you weird ways and constraints to hit certain holes or plots of course for objectives. Being that these quests are around the interacting world (where the full-on 9-Par courses are entirely isolated from the game worlds you run about), they end up being more boring than fun and don’t teach you how to better play the game for when you get to the tournaments or stroke play portions. By the last golf course, coupled with the jump in difficulty for these little side-missions, they become the absolute definition of tedium.
Running with the issues I have with the game play are more quality-of-life annoyances, most of these in the form of ambiguity with mechanics. For example, while there are maps for control, there is no map for the courses themselves—to the last hole of the game I screamed why isn’t there a way I can just see the whole damn hole in one map. To further this, I had to read online that there is a map pull-out by clicking in the Right stick, which isn’t ideal as it still doesn’t give you great orientation, but the fact that it is never mentioned at all is just senseless.
There are also no ways of “tutorializing” anything that you may have learned and then completely forgot or missed, leaving you to guess or just fumble around until you make it through. That sort of challenge through obscurity works with games like Dark Souls, but at least then you always know that you can do the stabby thing at least until you get your wings back under you. If you forget how to do the “hot potato” shot you learned towards the beginning of Golf Story, you’re going to have a real bad time trying to show-off for one of the characters later.
Now I want turn this to focus less on my gripes with the game, as it may read that I am being heavily critical of Golf Story. I know that bugs and these little “well this should/shouldn’t be in the game” mechanics are a tall order to ask from a small company. When it’s Destiny, or Battlefront, similar issues should be justly panned—these games have budgets in the hundreds of millions with hundreds of team members to iron out everything. Golf Story is an indie darling and deserves most the critical praise and all of the commercial success for several reasons.
To start, the game is wacky and earnest, a total reprieve from a stressful day either at work, or maybe tough times in relationships, and absolutely with all the politic nonsense going on, Golf Story is a fantastic way to spend some wholesome time with your Switch. The dialogue is goofy and filled with humor that is more dry and “punny,” where emotion plays through with its fantastic presentation. For a game that has no spoken dialogue, seeing the punctuation pops and swings expresses how the characters are speaking, making it much more enjoyable to sit and “listen” to the interactions. It would be great if more games adapted this style.
The golfing of Golf Story feels great; a simple three-click execution to tee off or hit from the rough feels good and is a fantastic way to play a golf game if you’re not interested in playing a serious one of those. It can get more complicated when you begin to deal with gusts of wind, sloped terrain, and the crazy layouts of the courses. You’ll learn to curve over and around trees, bounce shots off turtles, avoid moles and other critters, how to use the course’s conditions to your benefit, and match useful clubs to play specific courses better. But as I said before, you play a whole lot of golf through your adventure, and it doesn’t feel great when the game constraints you to hit weird holes in a limited amount of shots. The full on courses however are fabulous that offer a beefier challenge and a true sense of accomplishment when you have a great round.
Outside of golf, you’ll solve a murder/werewolf mystery, play disc golf, play virtual GALF (not a typo and also a progress-breaking bug so be careful until it’s patched), and drive an RC car among other kooky quests. Again, these are some of the best parts of Golf Story that can go by too quickly if you rush particularly because the game is pretty easy difficulty-wise, with hardly ever more than a few tries at side quests (some notwithstanding), and a pliable AI that really wants you to beat them in match play. There are always chances to play a round, but there aren’t many moments that feel truly unique, so take your time to enjoy them.
There are light RPG elements in the game, you’ll earn experience through finishing quests and finding things to inquire about hidden amid the environment. However, this never really felt like it was deeper than you just leveling up and earning points. In an odd design choice, you never need to do more than three or four quests to level up, but as you do, you need more experience to level up (typical RPG stuff). But through the game, you never need more than three or four quests to level up. so there’s never a feeling of having to do extra to grow “stronger.” You can put earned points into five categories: Power, Purity, Strike, Ability, and Spin, which let you outfit your character’s play style, however I mainly found myself adding one point to each skill upon leveling though later in the game I would dump more into power or spin in particular. It’s not a deep system or some sprawling skill tree, but it’s at least something.
You’ll find exactly what you are looking for from Golf Story if you want nothing more than a fun indie game with plenty to do—my final time spent playing the game to completion was just over 19 hours, and I still have one or two more side quests that I’m debating on letting lie unbeaten. And that’s just fine. I had fun for 18 hours and 30 minutes, all annoyances considered and that is awesome. Sadly, there is nothing to look forward to, in terms of end game content outside of cleaning up or running around courses, however you can play Quick play matches from the main menu unto your heart’s content. The game could have had more content, but it wasn’t billed to be anything more than a quick story of a wannabe Pro Golfer realizing his dream. For $20, you’ll certainly get your money’s worth and you will have a ton of fun going through the game.
Indie darling Golf Story is loony and sincere -- one of Switch's finest new treasures