Much like the sport it’s based on, Golf Story is initially relaxing and enjoyable enough: a pleasant way to spend a lazy afternoon. However, after a few hours, Golf Story begins to get boring and the mind starts to think about all the more interesting things you could be doing instead. Both the game and the sport are improved by the entertaining company you keep along the way, but that doesn’t overshadow what is too often a rather dull and lifeless experience.
Golf Story starts off with a heavy emphasis on story over golf, presenting itself as more of an RPG than a sports title. You play as a nameless protagonist with fond memories of playing golf with his father when he was a child. After a messy divorce, he heads back to Wellworn Grove to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a pro golfer.
Unfortunately, after this strong introduction, the story never really goes anywhere. The focus switches to golf, with only a fleeting appearance from your ex-wife and little opportunity to build up personal relationships with the other characters outside of the fixed dialogue. The lack of conversation options is a particular shame because Golf Story‘s dialogue is funny and heartfelt. There were plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and appropriate fourth-wall breaking, with dialogue bubbles moving and resizing in accordance with the characters’ emotions.
Nearly everyone you meet is memorable in their own special way and yet you don’t get the chance to befriend them or enter into any meaningful relationships. I’d have loved to see a little more influence from Stardew Valley, which let you work towards a larger goal while also building a life of your own. Not every 16-bit game has to copy Stardew Valley, of course, however the premise of a recently divorced man trying to start a new life for himself is a perfect fit for something a little deeper. It feels like a missed opportunity.
The golf on offer follows the same pattern as the story. It starts off promising but fails to do anything interesting. Hitting the ball is done with the standard three-button system to start the swing, set the power, and determine the accuracy. You can also add spin and perform precision shots which are especially useful for chip-ins. All of these options are available to you from the start, however Golf Story takes a rather haphazard approach to tutorials, with some of them left rather late. This could be because most of the options are never required. I got through the entire game using normal shots and precision shots, with maybe the odd bit of spin if I got stuck behind a tree. Side quests show the potential for some cool trick shots, however you rarely get to do any in the main story.
Some of the mechanics are a little odd. Hitting the ball at the top or bottom only determines the flight of the ball and not the spin, which is a separate command. Putting is especially disappointing. You’re only given a vague indication for the roll of the green, so figuring out exactly how the ball will move is largely guesswork. This is compensated for by being rather easy and on many holes you won’t need to putt at all because chip-ins are so generous.
The entire game is rather easy, come to think of it. You’re always shown where your shot will land, so you don’t have to adjust your shot according to whether you’re on the fairway or in the rough. In fact, you never have to worry about your shot all that much at all. If you want to use a driver in a bunker then go for it.
As you can probably tell from the 16-bit visual style, Golf Story isn’t going for a simulation approach to golf. Unfortunately, its attempts at adding a bit of silliness to the sport end up falling a little flat. Early on, you’re encouraged to hit turtles in the water for an extra boost to help you reach the other side. This can feel incredibly satisfying if you bounce off one and land on the green after a 400+ yard drive. However, after the tutorial for this technique, you hardly ever get the opportunity to do it again. You certainly won’t need to because you’ll likely win every tournament you play by at least five shots anyway.
The courses themselves do a better job of adding variety. There’s eight in total including a prehistoric course complete with dinosaur bones and tar pits, plus the usual collection of hot, cold, and windy courses which each provide their own set of challenges. My personal favorite was Tidy Park, which was populated by old guys who insisted on using vintage clubs and had catchphrases like “a tidy 6 is better than a messy 4.”
Golf Story has plenty of side quests which, conveniently, can often be completed by using your golf skills, such as digging up treasure with a digger wedge or feeding alligators by hitting meat to them in the water. There are other minor distractions such as disc golf, drone golf, mini golf, and bowls, however they never transcend beyond being passable time-wasters for a few minutes. At best, they would be acceptable as mini-games in a Mario Party title. A few challenges are insultingly bad, such as the requirement to run around a course which simply requires holding sprint and moving from one colored circle to the next. These “races” literally made me yawn out-loud a couple of times.
Golf Story‘s light approach to the sport could have worked if it had leaned in a little heavier on the RPG aspect by including a deeper story, optional relationships, and a more interesting skill tree. Instead, all you get is a basic story that has you moving through the mandatory conversations until you win a trophy, no chance to bond with the characters, and a skill tree that only lets you make minor tweaks to your golf skills.
Golf Story dragged on at times, especially near the end when I had to challenge three more golfers to matches before being allowed to compete in the final tournament. Local multiplayer is entertaining in small doses but there’s no online play.
Golf Story has so much charm that I feel guilty for being bored. Likewise, I feel a touch guilty for writing this critical review. However, while the dialogue was witty enough to keep me going until completion, it wasn’t enough to drag Golf Story out of mediocrity.