I was never a Harvest Moon kid. Something about the soothing life of growing your own crops just seemed like busywork to me. A Zelda game where you never leave your home village? No thanks; adventure awaits.
Turns out the simple life isn’t without its charms, though. Garden of the Sea showed me that.
This is the next game from Budget Cuts developer Neat Corporation. In fact, the Stockholm-based studio just launched it in Early Access during our E3 VR Showcase today. Well, Very Early Access that is. For Neat, this is a bit of an experiment. It’s a game the team truly wants to build alongside a community, molding its future with a passionate fan base whilst it also works on other projects (which may or may not also be in the showcase).
But don’t let this Frankenstein approach turn you off; Garden of the Sea already shows remarkable promise. It’s a curious fusion of VR game and meditation, fostering progression and exploration just as much as it does respite and relaxation.
You can, for starters, set to work growing your own garden. It’s not the back-breaking slog you might fear; prepping the ground for seeds is as simple as grabbing a hoe and taking it to the grass. Then you just shake a bag of seeds over your new patch, add a little water, and watch nature take its course.
Perhaps it’s the freedom you’re given that makes this so cathartic. Garden of the Sea has no interest in telling you what to do and how to do it; you can grow what you want, where you want, when you want. Neat is in no hurry to introduce you to the game’s crafting system or other features; it wants those discoveries to be fittingly organic. If you want to pull up a chair and lose an hour watching the waves roll on by or spend a day carefully orchestrating a flower bed, you’re more than welcome to.
Personally? I’ll be spending a lot of time with the game’s illegally lovable critters. Like you, they’re happy to simply plod about the island, occasionally wandering up to you to satisfy their lingering curiosity before trotting off again. They sport irresistibly adorable designs, from marshmallow birds that hop around your feet to cutesy penguins that have no earthly business in a tropical paradise. At one point what looks like a floating Moomin approaches me, offering a new crafting recipe resting in his mouth. I retrieve it and stroke his head as reward. He closes his eyes and squeals in delight. My heart melts (I would go on to unofficially name him Chocolate Milk).
Reinforcing the almost sickening pleasantries is something special; a dynamic soundtrack that responds to your actions. As I work away in the garden, merry jingles accompany my every move. It’s a deceptively fluid integration, the kind you might not even notice unless you’re told about it but invites you to experiment when you are.
This might all sound a little too dozy to you and that’s fine; I think Neat knows this isn’t going to be for everyone. But there are welcome traces of adventure, too. They’re driven by your own by your personal desire for exploration. I find several road bumps dotted across the island, some requiring certain tools and materials to fix. I can already picture what some of them will need in my head, whereas others require seeds that are hidden behind trees and in chests. There is purpose to be found here, if that’s something you’re seeking. I found myself eager to find new areas to unlock and treasures to uncover.
Neat has no shortage of ideas about where to go next, either. Speaking to the team, they mention plans for fishing and cross-breeding (for both plants and animals). But it also wants to hear from those that adopt Garden of the Sea in this early state, hoping to enable their dreams and whims as the game itself grows.
I’m crossing my fingers for the response the team is hoping for. This feels like a risk for a studio that made its name on stealth gaming. But I’d love nothing more than to see Garden of the Sea flourish. The seeds have been sewn, let’s see what sprouts.
Garden of the Sea costs $5.99 on Steam and supports Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.