First Impression: Golf Story

I’ve been playing Golf Story. Should you take a swing at it?
Let me tell you what I think so far.


Nice and Easy

I’ve always been a fan of golf video games, not because I enjoy the game in reality or respect the sport, but its pacing and pressure. The fact that each shot is critically important but you have as much time as you want in preparing and fine-tuning it is interesting. It’s a calculation game, but pretty much all of the variables are ambiguous. The wind, the slope of the ground, the spin of the ball — you try to take these into account, but the measurements aren’t perfect. You have a bag of tools, your gut feeling, and one crucial moment to put it all together in a single stroke.

Golf Story does the golf mechanics as well as anybody, but it adds a strange blend of RPG elements into the mix. There’s a compact world map connecting the various regions/courses together. You can come and go from any of them as you please, but have to unlock new ones through finishing quests. Some quests are simple tutorials and others are tricky challenges. Each course has its own quirks, such as moles that steal the ball or turtles that pop out of water and bounce the ball off their shells. When you’re not on a quest you’re free to run around the map and explore, but there’s not much to do. You can throw golf balls at stuff with your hands, or hit a ball anywhere you want to freely (albeit with limited stroke controls) and generally be a harmless pest. You never run out of golf balls, so there’s no cost to goofing around.

As you beat challenges you’ll level up, allowing you to upgrade your shot power. But if you only focus on upgrading your power you’ll end up with worse control over the shot’s trajectory, so you have to invest some of your points into other stats like ball rotation and slice control, etc. The penalties can stack up rather quickly, so it would be interesting to see somebody cope with a horrible swing that has tremendous power. You could theoretically compensate for it, but that’s a strategy I haven’t explored yet. The game seems to be holding my hand so far, trickling out concepts without really pushing the competitive aspect, which isn’t bad. It’s a casual feeling, but I trust that there will be serious tournament style play eventually. The characters you meet constantly hype up the idea of big tournaments, with students and coaches bantering about who has the best technique and areas they should work on. There are good guys, bad guys, and plenty of idiots to meet.¬†Golf Story is bright, friendly, and charming without being saccharine at all. Characters mock each other, point out mistakes, and hatch selfish plots. There’s no voice acting, but the word bubbles themselves are presented with flashy displays when appropriate. This is a hallmark of fun old games like Super Mario RPG.

 

In The Rough

The soundtrack could use improvement. Golf games have always had a patchy history when it comes to music. I mean, should they be relaxing and atmospheric? That sort of deflates the tension of the calculated shot. Should they be upbeat and jazzy? That could be distracting and tedious. It makes for a strangely compelling spectator sport that is simultaneously incredibly boring and yet highly intense, so the music could theoretically play a big part in setting the tone. Golf Story’s music changes depending on the course you visit, but I found myself wanting to leave and not come back to certain ones after I got sick of the oddball tunes played there. It’s not grating or irritating, really, but it feels like a missed opportunity to really drive home the easy going and smart tone of the game.

Certain selling points have yet to live up to my expectations. The game promises you can play frisbee, which I assumed meant play often and in interesting ways, but the reality so far has been little more than a novelty hidden away here and there. Minigolf is a very real feature in the game, but so far the courses have been painfully bland compared to the rest of the game’s creativity. Are these just all just warm ups for the big leagues? Will there be proper “disc golf” courses you can play competitively and minigolf overload with wacky courses? Considering that the game isn’t full priced I find it hard to believe that would be the case, which means it could all end up underwhelming.

And that’s the big question I have for Golf Story at this point: how far does it go? There are a few courses I haven’t unlocked yet, and various pieces of equipment I still need to buy or uncover, but when do the training wheels come off and the real challenges begin? I’m enjoying the ride, I just hope it cranks up the gameplay before its over.

 

Multiplayer Redemption

Confession time: I don’t know anything about the multiplayer mode yet. I’m saving that for later. But if Golf Story gets multiplayer right it will make up for any shortcomings in the single player mode easily. I could accept that. I think it should be a pure golf tournament approach, complete with the ability to hand off the controller to up to four or five players and take turns. It should have profiles, remembered statistics, and some kind of strategic choice. Online might be nice, but the Switch is a portable device and Golf Story is about as accessible as you could ever want. There should be a minigolf multiplayer mode as well, with a good selection of holes to play on. Icing on the cake? Disc golf multiplayer mode with some huge, wide open maps to compete on; but I won’t hold my breath for this.

The world needs a resurgence of old-school sports games that are fun to just pick up and play. The old SNES style of brightness, music, and simplicity was far better than the dull race for photorealism and simulation. Boil them down, spice them up, and make them easy to pass around to your friends.

I wouldn’t want to tell you whether to buy Golf Story based on my experience so far. I feel like this one is still up in the air and I’m waiting to see whether it’ll land on the green or the fairway. I love the presentation, characters, and simple joy of golfing on the Switch, so it’s got a strong start. But it’s possible that the core elements of classic golf games aren’t even present, and in that case I don’t see how I can suggest paying for it. It’s about $20 on the Nintendo digital store, which is very cheap if you’re getting a fully functional golf game with a whole story mode attached, but rather expensive if you’re just getting the story and not the normal features!

Looking forward to playing more of this and deciding whether it’s a bogey or a birdie.

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