Review: Golf Story

I do not do sports. A slightly sad statement, but most traditional sporting activities do not fall under my purview, and I especially don’t get the extreme fandom some people go to with it. Being British, this is especially true of Football, which, while fun to actually play on occasion, constantly baffles me.

An aspect of this bafflement has been sports video games, I mean if you want to play Ice Hockey or Football, just go actually play the sport. There is, however, a caveat to this: Golf. It is the one real world sport that seems to translate to the screen perfectly, with easy to understand mechanics and just a single player to contend with. I haven’t played a golf game in many years, but I remember always having a good time with them.

When Sidebar Games released Golf Story onto Switch, I picked it up as it seemed a  great take on the golf game. An RPG but you are a golfer? Sounds cool to me, and it is for the most part. The game has some issues, and a back quarter that is a serious slog, but the writing, graphics and depth of its version of the sport do makeup for a lot.

You start the game with your character leaving his wife. It sounds depressing, but she is pretty unsupportive and he needs to go and become a pro golfer to to fulfil a legacy to his now deceased father. It is a pretty simple setup, but it works, and from that point you travel to various locations and taken on challenges to get better and improve.

In many ways, it is a lot like what you might think of when the term RPG is used. The differences being that battles are now golfing challenges, which might be hit balls in a specific set of holes, or use only one type of shot to sink a ball, or get a ball into a certain area. Each golf course has its own challenges, both in terms of those and aspects of the terrain unique to that area.

For example, Lurker Valley, the second course, has tar pits and fossils that can affect your shots. It also has cavemen as other players and course officials. To say Golf Story doesn’t take itself too serious is an understatement, it is goofy and fun in all the right places, and this gives a unique twist to each new course.

The representation of the sport actually does have a lot of depth, as there are various shot types and clubs to choose from, and have to take into account things like ball bounce, wind speed and direction and green slope. It makes for a lot to take on board and learn, but the game does a bad job of telling you about these things, and I kept forgetting I could curve balls and all sorts of other things that would help with the most difficult holes.

There is an overworld you navigate with the odd secret as you travel to each course, each course has its own visual style and characters, and with each successful challenge you earn XP to upgrade your stats and become a better golfer.

Unfortunately, this is where the game starts to break down. It at no point explains what the stats really do, and how they affect your game. Most RPG’s stats are relatively obvious, with things like ‘Damage’ meaning you hit harder, and ‘stamina’ meaning you can do things for longer. Golf Story’s stats are: Power, Purity, Strike, Ability and Spin. A couple of those, like Power and Spin, are fairly self explanatory: add more points to Power to hit harder, but the rest are confusing, to say the least.

This is compounded because you can take points out of the power stat at any time and place them into the any of the other four, meaning you have a less powerful drive but be better at something else. The problem is that you can’t do the reverse, once those points are spent on the other stats, they remain there. Since it isn’t obvious what they do, it is very easy to slip into a mindset that doesn’t help you play the game, and can cause you problems as you get towards the end game.

I ended up having to look at a FAQ to figure out what the stats did and how best to arrange them, but I had already put twenty hours into the game before that became something I had to do to try and figure out why it was getting so hard, and even then I was still at a loss as what most of them did.

This might speak to the universal language of games, and the players that understand it. I can look at a game like Final Fantasy and understand the upgrades and stats almost immediately, because they relate to a standard gaming activity: Combat. Attempting to translate those same mechanics to something more real world is more a challenge than one might think, because the fantasy bit of fighting monsters is easy to understand, but how do you represent the skill of a human playing golf?

Golf Story unfortunately does fail to find the balance with this, and the leveling system becomes something you have to do, but not something you want to do. You never want to discover just how strong and powerful your character can get, or I guess how good in this case, because you just don’t get how it works.

Another issue is one that is given away in the title: Golf. Now yes, if you don’t like the sport or don’t want to play a game about it then maybe it was obvious this was an issue, but for those who want to play for the opposite, then the issue is simply the amount.

Apart from playing ‘disc golf’ which is basically frisbee, everything you do uses the golf mechanics. While this means that you naturally get good at playing through sheer repetition, it also means there is a lot of golf, and combined with a last course that is almost unfairly hard, burning out is a real problem. I slogged through for review purposes, but honestly the game could have done with one less course and a much lower difficulty spike on the final one.

That last course is basically ‘the final battle’, but honestly is so ridiculously hard that it requires an almost perfect run to get through, and I threw myself at it for most of the last five hours of the thirty five I spent with the game. The perfection required grew frustrating, and I almost put the game down forever before I finally got the run I needed.

It adds to the feeling that the whole thing is just a little too long, and there is just lack of variety of things to do. To be fair, the game does make up for this by throwing scenarios at you that require light puzzle solving and talking to various characters, and those are well written and funny in spots, but it just isn’t enough.

Golf Story is a good game that misses out on being great due to a lack of task variety and an end game difficulty curve that is just way too steep. It’s just a slavish dedication to the idea of golf that ultimately lets it down, just a few different challenges and a slightly shorter overall play time would have led it to be something so much better.