Nowadays, if you pitch an RPG crossed with golf at most major AAA studios, they’d probably have you escorted from the building.
But here’s the thing. Golf Story works. It works far better than it has any right to. And actually, it’s one of the best independent releases I’ve played this year.
Suited to a tee
It’s not just because Sidebar Games got the mechanics right and crafted a calming, yet challenging formula, but they got everything else right along with it. The tone. The aesthetic. The nature of your interactions. Even the plot and the dialogue. Golf Story is one of those rare games that comes along and completely defies expectation. A bit like a certain other release from Ubisoft featuring plumbers and rabbits.
The game begins with a young boy and his father practising golf at the infamous Wellworn Grove course. Despite distractions from flying gulls and sausage roll vendors, the boy appears to have a natural talent in his swing which his father is keen to encourage.
But then the game suddenly takes a U-Turn and skips ahead twenty years. Your character has never fulfilled his potential, is now living alone, and appears to be in the midst of a messy breakup. The tonal shift is quite unexpected, and you start with the purpose of not only rediscovering your love for the game, but giving this career path one last shot before having to ‘grow up’.
Yes, the game is zany in every possible sense. You’ll bump into archaeologists keen on digging up fossils on some courses, wanting to learn more about the history of the land. You’ll also meet surfer dudes who are trying to befriend sea turtles and young kids throwing frisbees around while other people are trying to take their shot. But underneath all of that, Golf Story has a clear message to convey to the player. There is a genuine plot here and it’s not an afterthought.
After finding yourself a coach, the game opens up, and you’re tasked with completing the game’s many courses across a vast open world, all while helping random strangers out with their many problems. And despite the semi-serious nature of the mechanics, like adding in a precision mode for accuracy, as well as the variations on clubs, and the position in which you hit your tee, the creepy, haunted landscapes and scorched earth settings make this feel more like a souped up mini golf as opposed to Rory McIllroy’s latest licensed product.
Sure, the swing-o-meter isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but the difference between the clubs is clear from the off-set. You will need to accurately line up your positioning to stay on the fairway, and time your presses carefully so you don’t overshoot into the sand or water. It’s the simple three-tap-system you’ll have become accustomed to from the likes of Mario Golf. Tap to start the slider, then again for the distance you want to reach, and a final time for the spin on the shot.
If you enter precision mode, you can actually set up a bounce on your ball at the centre of your shot, also using ZL and ZR to adjust the size of the swing-o-meter and tighten that accuracy even further. As for the Hit Point Mode, you can strike the golf ball and thus the trajectory of the shot. And by completing certain challenges, you can even gain and switch out different clubs. For instance, a digging wedge shovel good for bunkers.
Putt a smile on that face
As with all golf games, the aim is to achieve par or better on each hole. Go a shot beyond that and you’ll get a bogey. Get one less and you’ll hit a birdie. This will all impact your scorecard at the end and see whether you’ve actually completed a course under or above par. Golf Story features other set challenges to mix up the formula though, like beating a course in 14 shots or less, or by only landing your ball in the rough and on the green before putting in.
The star of the show has to be the 16-bit setting, though. We know it works a charm in an RPG setting, but it’s just as effective and elegant when playing golf. The game is designed so you can run around the courses, talking to people, buying items, completing challenges and moving between areas with ease. But just as you would playing golf, the hazards you encounter will impair your movement appropriately. Walk through a bunker and you’re inevitably going to slow down. Stay on the fairway and you’ll whip around faster than Sonic. It’s these little touches that really maintain the game’s charm.
But equally something must be said for the SNES-like soundtrack. You’ll catch nods to the likes of Zelda, Earthbound, Chrono Trigger and many more in here. There is a real mysticism to the score that ebs and flows gently in the background, occasionally taking the spotlight in the hopes of drawing a wry smile.
Most importantly is that there is a substantially sizeable game here with various quests and worlds to complete, but there’s even a Quick Play which you can jump into at any point, supporting two players on individual Joy-Cons. Suffice it to say, the slightly premium price tag is both justified and value for money.
It doesn’t play a round
Golf Story just seems to have come out of nowhere and captured the hearts and minds of everyone in the industry along with it. It’s already shot to the top of the eShop charts, and propelled its small development team to fame overnight.
Sidebar Games have proven that golf games and RPGs are suited to a tee. They’ve even taken good advantage of the hardware and done an excellent job with the HD Rumble, each swing really coming to life in the palm of your hand. There are some slight issues, such as irregular screen blinking during some shots, and some challenges seem to kick you back to the main menu if you fail them, but they’re minor issues which don’t really impact the essence of the experience.
Golf Story is one of my favourite games in 2017, which is both mightly impressive considering the depth of the competition and surprising seeing as nobody even knew about it just a few months ago. Easily one of the eShops most essential titles.
+ Entertaining in all aspects.
+ Content rich.
+ Lovely aesthetic.
+ Local multiplayer support out of the box.
– Some challenges border on the impossible early on
– Occasional screen flickering between choices
– Challenges can kick you out of the game and back to the main menu
9 out of 10
Tested on Nintendo Switch