A new release from Australian developer Sidebar Games came to Switch last week as quietly as a golf clap. Fans got their first viewing of the golf-infused RPG Golf Story at Nintendo’s September Direct, and a release date shortly after. Aside from this brief fanfare, however, Golf Story received almost no additional marketing from Nintendo, leaving some (myself included) concerned that it would fail to meet expectations.
Golf Story takes place in a unique world where almost every problem can be solved with golf. Need to return eggs to some birds? Hit them with your golf club. Looking for a place to hide expensive jewelry? Hit those, too. Undead minions threatening life as we know it? Golf shall prevail. The universe is self-aware and hilarious for it. I found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion because in this game, even the text boxes have personality. It’s not mission-critical for an RPG to be funny, but I can’t imagine one about solving problems with the power of golf being any other way. In the player’s quest to fulfill their dream to become a pro golfer the game keeps the tone light and the stakes high.
Graphically, Golf Story is most visually similar to the indie cult classic Stardew Valley. With serene, pixelated visuals and some excellent use of color, Golf Story is easy on the eyes. While I was initially concerned that the low fidelity would adversely affect my golf game, the physics mesh surprisingly well with the visuals. The ball will bounce in predictable ways, and it’s always clear to the player how the physics should work. The music ranges from reluctantly catchy to straight out bland, serving more as background noise than anything else. The presentation here is good on the whole; it’s not blowing any plaid socks off, but it does the job.
The writing, on the other hand, is well above average for an indie RPG. The characters aren’t one-note joke boxes but thoughtfully crafted personalities with understandable motivations. From the player’s coach, who is a washed up retiree with no notable prospects, to Lara, one of his students with an overly enthusiastic swing, everyone here feels distinct. Nameless NPCs litter the games many courses and I always felt compelled to speak with them to get more out of the witty writing. That I never felt like mashing through dialogue to get to a high-stakes game told me that Golf Story was doing something right.
Each course here has the player completing a number of tasks before playing its 9 holes in preparation for the pro circuit. These tasks are usually divided into a string of problem-solving side quests, almost all of which train the player by having them hit the ball into yellow circles. In fact, almost every challenge and side task in the game is hitting the ball into yellow circles. I promise this isn’t nearly as boring as it sounds, however, as the game does a pretty bewildering job of keeping this target practice interesting.
In one course, for example, I was chipping the ball in from insane distances against terrible winds. In another, I was feeding fish by hitting them plants from just off the shoreline. The core gameplay is so fun and intuitive that I was always up for these challenges and more opportunities to prove myself with what I’d learned.
The game is constantly improving your golfing skills in subtle ways through these outings, and it shows when the courses become more treacherous. Hitting the ball utilizes the standard three-button press setup: once to begin, another to set power, and one more to set accuracy. The ball itself can also be hit at different points to send it higher or further, critical when positioning bounces on the green. I felt like a master driving a ball through a cheeky shortcut to get to the green faster than my opponent, and opportunities to outsmart the course are plentiful and rewarding. If a course consists of many small islands, for example, hitting the ball to the furthest but most difficult one can give you the edge you need for a birdie chance.
One thing Golf Story does differently than any other golf game is your ability to tee up almost anywhere. You can use golf balls to solve hidden puzzles throughout the world, and I even found myself using my driver to simply explore the level. This makes you feel like an RPG protagonist who can use their special powers anywhere. It’s the sort of freeing experience only a blending of these genres could provide, and lends itself well to interesting off-the-course outings like hitting hidden buttons to open a mysterious mini-golf course.
It’s a little disappointing then that what Golf Story does lack could have been so easily implemented. Not having the option to view the hole you’re on from a large overhead angle, for example, is an obvious feature whose absence becomes painfully apparent. Aside from this, there are a few minor quirks, like songs not transitioning in any way and instead simply interrupting each other like two heated golfers arguing about scores. It’s easy to forget this game is made by a brand new independent studio due to its sheer size and quality, and while it has flaws, they don’t stop the experience from being an enjoyable one.
Golf Story is a colorful adventure with plenty of personality and packed with charm. Although I wish it did a little more to mix up its challenges, it’s a better golf game than it has any right to be, and a fun and engaging RPG to boot. The writing here is fantastic, and swinging the club at whatever catches your eye never gets old. An easy recommendation for fans of sports games or RPGs, and a must-have for even the most casual fans of both. Golf Story is my favorite out-of-nowhere release this year.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game, which was provided to us by Sidebar Games.
Golf Story is a good enough golf game in its own right, but combine that with a great script and RPG mechanics and it's packing more than enough to stand out from the crowd.