Once again swapping her kitchen utensils for a pair of gardening gloves, the Cooking Mama series makes a return to the great outdoors in green-fingered spin-off Gardening Mama: Forest Friends.
Rather than perfecting your cooking skills, Gardening Mama: Forest Friends instead sees you taking equal care in turning patches of soil into a gardener’s paradise. Planting seeds, bulbs and seedlings is the crux of the experience here, letting you grow a steadily expanding selection of flowers, vegetables and fruit.
Nurturing your plants is as simple as watering them daily as necessary, players returning home for the day to pass and see how they’ve grown overnight while they catch forty winks. Overwatering will reduce the quality of their bloom, and players are rewarded with either gold, silver or bronze medals for their efforts. Success will earn you Garden Points before you head to bed when Mama shares how well you did that day which will result in a continual expansion of the plots made available to you.
You’d have cause for concern if that was all that Gardening Mama: Forest Friends had to offer, and thankfully there’s more to it. It will be the forest inhabitants that objectify your gardening plans, placing requests for you to grow them specific flowers and produce to help them grow their fledgeling businesses. That will see you growing flowers for Rabbit’s Forest Flower Shop, fruit for Penguin’s Ice Cream Shop and vegetables for Bear’s Restaurant, or responding to requests that land in your letterbox – leading to minigames that will test your matching and reaction skills.
These are a mixture in terms of quality, tasking you with throwing oranges into a blender, catching peppers falling from three conveyor belts with a box, or keeping a wheelbarrow balanced. They suffer in a similar way as Cooking Mama: Bon Appétit!, where gold medals can only be accomplished by being awarded a resoundingly perfect score. It’s particularly mean-spirited that there isn’t any leeway for the younger crowd inevitably more attracted to Gardening Mama’s cutesy exterior, and sends mixed messages when the on-screen characters appear miffed that you could only achieve a silver medal.
Customisation continues to play a key role, with completed requests earning the player Shopping Tickets. These can then be exchanged for all manner of items ranging from new fences and flowerbed borders through to playgrounds, giraffe-shaped topiaries and pets. The more exciting the item, the more tickets you will require meaning that those who really want to spruce up their garden will be in for the long haul. Purchased decorations are stored in your Shed as well as any picked plants, for you to do with as you please.
Gardening Mama: Forest Friends may have structure behind it to guide the experience, but after a few hours it soon becomes clear how drastically shallow it is. You’re forever on a cycle of accepting requests, planting and watering the necessary seeds, and then heading to bed to await their growth. Changing track to enjoy the minigames only rewards you with more seed choices, resulting in your friendly neighbours loitering outside your house the next morning to immediately make yet another request.
This over-reliance on your gardening prowess ultimately burdens the entire experience. Players rarely have the chance to manage their garden as they wish, instead responding to the relentless requests that your Forest Friends impart upon you. Ignore them and their businesses will suffer, although the resulting schadenfreude could be considered a reward in itself.
Gardening Mama: Forest Friends shows plenty of promise but places far too many demands on the player, constricting the experience rather than simply granting you the freedom to enjoy yourself. It quickly frustrates, but those that can look past that will discover a game that is still worth investing your time into.