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Virtual innocence
Golf Story Review

Published on .

Developer Sidebar Games
Release year

I’m going to start by putting my cards on the table: I think golf is a ridiculous sport. It seems almost specifically built to appeal to the corporate elite. The large playing field provides some good privacy—no opportunity for other annoying humans to disturb you in closing off on buisiness deals. Golfing does require skill, which makes for a perfect opportunity to show off to partners and rivals. But simultaniously it’s not all that physically demanding, so, as long as it’s not scorching hot summer, the game can be played comfortably in business attire. And just in case you feel the need of asserting your masculinity to those around you and yourself, you get to whack a tiny ball with a club really hard.

There is no converting me into a golf fan. If you like golf, that’s fine—many people like silly things, me included. However, there is something that makes golf particularly offensive to me, compared to equally silly sports like cricket or even minigolf, and that is the ungodly amount of land required for it. There are other kinds of sport that require a lot of land too, but among the popular ones, golf takes the cake by a wide margin. It’s not at all surprising that almost the majority of golf courses in the world are in the USA, a large country where during European colonisation settlers and speculators grabbed up large swathes of land on the so-called frontier. But beyond just what they represent, their environmental impact is horrible, too. Instead of a forest or a park with healthy biodiversity in its place, you have a giant green desert of finely trimmed English lawn, or sometimes—even more depressingly—astroturf.

Land is finite and we cannot mould the planet infinitely to our desire without environmental repercussions. But despite that, I cannot deny that there is something alluring in the scale of golf. So what about a digital version of the game then, like Golf Story? A virtual adventure that capitalises on all the ridiculous qualities of golf without triggering your gag reflex from the real-world opulence of it all.

Golf Story is pretty simple. Our unnamed protagonist, who is an amateur golfer, is trying to find new meaning in his life by following his late father’s passion for the sport with the dream of going pro. His quest leads him to meet many new people and travel across the world to all kinds of golf courses.

The twisted familiar

My research tells me, that the way that golfing is done in Golf Story does not deviate from genre convention, as established by Nintendo’s 1984 Golf. Doing a single shot is divided into three phases. First you select a club appropriate for the situation. Should the ball go far or are you close to the hole and it’s fine for putting? Next, you adjust the trajectory of the ball. Once that is locked in, you do a minigame to decide on the strenght and spin of the ball when struck. A cursor slides across a horizontal bar. The farther left that cursor is on button press, the stronger the strike. Then the cursor moves in the opposite direction. To get a straight shot you have to hit a small section on the bar. If you hit next to it, the ball will curve in the opposite direction. The more off-centre you are, the stronger the curving.

A top-down view of a golf course with pretty pixel graphics. At the bottom, there is a bar with blue background. On it is a white diamond-shaped icon. A part of the bar at the right is coloured purple.
The player character as he is about to make a shot. The genre-typical bar for deciding shot power and accuracy is at the bottom. Other important information, like the wind and sloping, is also displayed. (Credit: Sidebar Games)

There are several factors that make golfing in this game challenging. The first is that the farther the shot is supposed to go, the faster the cursor moves across the bar, meaning that it is significantly harder to golf with accuracy and distance. Also, since targeted distance will vary greatly, you can never fully adjust to the cursor’s speed and have to anticipate its changing speed constantly.
Other factors to the game’s difficulty are environmental. Getting your ball across the course in a straight line would be much easier if it wasn’t for wind and sloping of the ground. As a result, you have to plan with a crooked trajectory in order to hit your target. Learning how to do that well takes time. But hang on, that’s not it already: Golf Story isn’t a boring golfing simulation, the individual courses have some real character.

The game’s first course, Wellworn Grove, has moles everywhere. If your shot lands in their vicinity, they’ll take the golf ball somewhere else. Likely a sand bunker, or if you know which one, they take the ball from the rough grass right next to the hole. Another example would be the ice in Coldwind Wastes, off of which your ball bounces like glass and slides along like, well, ice.

So in order to be good at this game, you have to keep a lot of different things in mind. Full mastery of all of these things playing in unison is something only a few dedicated people will attain, but over the course of the game you will get better and have improved your skill noticeably. This simultaneous feeling of control and slipperiness is what makes the golfing feel great. Hitting a birdie as intended is amazing. But if it ends up like that as a lucky shot, it still feels pretty good. Some of the wild shots that I did definitely made me frantically push down the clip record button, despite knowing that, unfortunately, the game does not support the feature.

The golfing is affected by another central game mechanic: it’s not just your skills that get better, the protagonist levels up. When this happens, you get several skill points that can be invested in different categories. The major skill is strength—bigger numbers here mean that your shots go further. However, this improvement deteriorates all your other skills, like accuracy, that need respective investment to compensate. The way that I—and I imagine most players—handle these tradeoffs, is to level up strength and then compensate for reduced skills, and repeat. It would have been really cool if the game encouraged you to build a character with unique stats. I do find the idea of role playing someone like the game’s character Max Yards, who prioritises shot distance to his detriment, quite amusing. Although, the game isn’t really built around expressing yourself like that to other characters and you will probably just make the game more furstrating to play.

Fun and entertaining writing

Golf Story features a lot of dialogue and it’s great. The first thing that makes the writing so fun are the many unique characters. Let me give you some examples. First, there is Coach—your coach. He’s there for you every step of the way for your golfing career, but he’s also always downplaying your achievements, because of his son he pushed away with his over-enthusiasm for golf. When you play a course with him together, he only ever shoots straight shots. Another character made unique by is play is the golfing celebrity Max Yards. His own name regularly goes to his head. When he takes a shot, he usually prioritises distance, even at his own detriment.
The last character I want to briefly mention is your rival Lana. She is very lacking in the temperament department and is super competitive. She regularly challenges you to a match to prove her skill, which does noticeably improve over time. You get to know her not knowing how to shoot the ball straight, but in her final match with you, she starts out with a hole-in-one. But in the end, as you overtake her and enter the pro tour, the animosity melts away and she wants to see you succeed, even with some remaining hangups.

The other half to the writing that makes it so entertaining is the silly humour. Again, let me give you some examples. Each tournament features the same commentators accompanying the winner celebration. Since this is your story of becoming the best golf player, you win every single one, but since you are a newcomer, the commentators completely ignore you despite winning first place. It’s a funny running bit throughout the story. There is a similar running-joke situation with the golfing ‘simulator’ in Wellworn Grove. The simulator is inside and requires you to shoot a golf ball against an areal photograph of the course and then a dude standing next to you just intuits how well you would have done in reality. It’s just incredibly silly and the game delivers it smoothly with a straight face. Then there are moments where the game completely goes off the rails. One quest requires you to give decoy golf balls to the moles, since they seem to be collecting them, and the gardener wants to find their hiding spot. When you do find them, it turns out that the moles were in fact trying to collect eyeballs for two kids who are hoping to use those to give vision to their army of undead skeletons, it’s just that the moles confused the golf balls for eye balls. That scene comes out of left field pretty much exactly like that sentence just did. It’s great!

Top-down view of a golf course. A man with a headscarf is pushing two lawnmowers simultaneously. Behind him are three moles, each pushing a lawnmower of their own.
When Wellworn Grove wants to become presentable for a tournament, they have to mow the lawn… (Credit: Sidebar Games)

There is however one significant exception to all this fun. When appearing for the first tournament of the game, the protagonist’s wife with her boyfriend is also there. Clearly, their relationship is strained and the protagonist going for a moonshot career in golfing didn’t help. This is very briefly established in the opening, but quickly forgotten, so this appearance of her’s feels like it comes out of nowhere. Now that you actually stand a chance of winning some money, she is here to opportunistically cash out: ‘As your wife I am entitled to a portion of your winnings’, she says. Right, so this sucks. I’m not claiming here that there is no humour to be derived out of the prospect of a failing relationship. However, this certainly isn’t it. The rest of the game’s humour is pretty wholesome and whacky, so having a character based on the trope of the vengeful gold-digger wife is just not fitting the rest of the game. Golf Story didn’t really strike me as a game that wanted to join the seemingly never-dying wave of misogynist comedy. This thing would have been much more defensible if it went anywhere worthwhile, but no, at the end of the tournament she takes a cut of your winnings and disappears for the rest of the game’s narrative.

Technical issues

As praiseworthy as the so-far discussed elements are, on the technical side there are some hiccups, however. Firstly, just some minor aesthetic things: scene transitions are pretty rough sometimes. Regularly a scene fading from or into black precede with several stray frames. This isn’t game breaking stuff of course, but does take you a bit out of the narrative and gives these scenes an unnecessarily rough feel. The other issue that I experienced is not so minor however: I experienced two soft-locks during the game. The first happened when I was mashing through some dialogue and the other happened while playing a mini game. The blow of this happening is dampened by the game saving on each map transition, but it’s no doubt still annoying when it happens. The rest of the game is perfectly serviceable from a technical perspective.

The journey

Throughout your journey of becoming pro, you will visit many unique golf courses, be it at the beach, on a mountain, or in the snow. The main attraction there is to play the course, but sometimes you get to play a match or participate in a tournament. A match is played against an individual golf player. Whoever had the lower score at the end of each round wins that round. The fun thing is that if one player cannot lose anymore, the match ends with the remaining rounds unplayed. It’s fun to see just how fast you can beat your opponent. Tournaments, however, are played till the end. All your scores from the tournament are summed and whoever of the many players has the lowest score wins. This challenges you in a different way, you have to have decent mastery over the entire course and after each round you get a view of the current tally, telling you jut how comfortable or stressed you can be about the current situation.
For additional variety the game has many sidequests that need doing on each course. The ones where you play golf usually fall into the scheme of hitting targets within a certain set of tries. This is a fun enough distraction from tournaments, matches, and the course in general, but as you usually do sidequests in batches this can also become a bit boring. Luckily, that’s not all there is to sidequests. One quest line has you learning to do disc golfing, which has it’s completely original gameplay mechanics. Others involve you using your golf equipment in unexpected ways. For example, when an archaeologist is searching for fossils, you don’t help him by using a spade, but rather the game-appropriate implement: your digging wedge. All this makes for a fun and varied gameplay loop. But, of course, there are also some things that I didn’t like as much.

Golf Story features a steadily rising difficulty, with one exception: when you get to the icy Coldwind Wastes, the game is surprisingly easy for what comes before and after. This isn’t a huge problem, but definitely strange when you start hitting birdie streaks on a course you haven’t played before. Was this course supposed to come earlier sometime in development? Either way, things just feel off.

The other thing I do find a bit annoying is the inability to reset regular golfing challenges. You can reset in courses, tournaments and matches, so why not here? Some challenges take quite a bit and your only way of restarting is to fail and then talk with the character that gave you the challenge again.

And lastly, the ending is very abrupt and understated. This is fine, not every game has to go out with a long ceremony, but it is a bit of a disappointment considering all the cool characters the game sets up, and then most don’t make the comeback for the end of the game. They just stand there for your winning ceremony and then the game is over.


Golf Story hasn’t changed my mind on IRL golfing, and I wasn’t expecting it to. But it has managed to show me some qualities in it that I definitely enjoy. The weird and satisfying combination of skill and luck that is required to get a birdie. Or the ridiculous size of the playing field—still, a shame about the space and ecology in reality. Golf Story heightens the ridiculousness well with equally ridiculous characters, courses and story beads. What you get as a result is a fun little adventure game with a very satisfying core gameplay mechanic. I’m by no means all that familiar with golfing, but from what I can gather, it retains a lot of the qualities that make playing the sport fun. But in many ways it is also different and is better for it.
You know what? Maybe I’ll give mini golfing another try.