Sports Story review – a swing and a miss
This one hurts. When I first started Pocket Tactics, with my job interview a solid quarter of me waxing lyrical about Golf Story, I immediately asked if I could do our Sports Story review when the game arrived. Now I wish I had shut up. I wish I had shut up.
For those who don’t know, Sports Story is a follow-up to one of the Switch’s premier indie darlings, Golf Story, a retro sports sim with its heart on its sleeve and tongue in cheek. Golf Story, which emerged as one of the early hits for Nintendo’s vindictive entity, has since joined every generic indie Switch game list imaginable – including ours, of course – while developer Sidebar Games has been teasing the follow-up since December 2019, with the title finally released in late December 2022. I wish the team would wait a little longer.
First, in its current inception, Sports Story is buggy as hell. It’s entirely possible to softlock yourself in a couple of places in the game, the sports segments struggle with slowdown in a way that hinders gameplay – especially on the all-important golf swing – and in less than ten hours my game crashed four times, with a distinctive out of bounds experience included. The most fascinating glitch I experienced was when I leveled up my license – which requires a certain amount of missions to be completed to go from C to S – and for some reason the game allowed me to bypass A license missions, essentially skipping a whole part of the game. Of course, I exit before saving so as not to spoil the experience, but this kind of error is good for no one but speedrunners, and shows the strange state the game is in at release.
The characters all return from Golf Story, and while still more inviting and engaging than the cast of the regular sports title, the rich history of the first game definitely fits the bill. There’s something disjointed about the dynamic here, and while you can pretty clearly see what they’re trying to do with the satirical nods to the world of corporate sports, you wonder if it could be done better with a fresh batch of protagonists, or with a little less ambition. Things often feel rushed, especially getting hold of individual sports with no tutorial option.
Sports Story begins at a new sports facility owned by sports conglomerate Purestrike, with your golfing hero visiting as part of an upcoming tournament. From here you start a quest across a new country, picking up new sports as you go, and playing a few nine-hole courses here and there too. At first it feels like it could be more of the same, and I honestly would have been so into it that you could almost call me Captain Hook, but instead you go to the mall in an hour and Sports Story becomes proper Sports Story.
Now, this next criticism is a bit subjective, considering I think Golf Story is one of the first sports titles on the Switch, but the move away from concentrating on golf to cover more sports just doesn’t work for me. This is partly to blame for how good the golf elements still feel, especially the full courses where you can challenge your skills, but they feel tied to a story and experience that I struggle to find much fun in. The fishing has some of the least intuitive fishing mechanics I have played to date, cricket is dull and doesn’t make a sport that I find boring look more fun – sorry cricket fans – and tennis just doesn’t do it for me, there’s a certain sluggishness to it and with every serve I long you after the days on the fairway, or even in the bunker.
I will say that when it is not affected by errors, the game of golf is still pretty good. Although it now clearly plays second fiddle, perhaps even third behind the tennis tour and core story, completing each nine-hole course was the most fun I had with Sports Story, and at times tricked me into thinking I was playing Golf Story- the follow-up I had dreamed of. Then the golf would end, and the illusion would be shattered.
The problem with Sports Story, essentially, outside of its flaws, is that everything that felt charming about the first game just feels different this time around. The mini-games are boring, especially the ones outside of golf, the lack of a map makes navigating anywhere a nightmare of retreading the same ground looking for some detail you might have missed, and saddest of all, the tongue-in-cheek humor of Golf Story feels forced here, with way too much dialogue and not enough gameplay. That is not to say that the writing is bad. It just feels a little microwaved compared to the hot oven-roasted dialogue of the original.
A perfect example of what I’m talking about comes in the third chapter of the game, when you team up with a cricket team to defend themselves and their city from the game’s gang of antagonists. The cricket itself isn’t great, the balls you hit don’t score you, you just have to protect the wicket – or in this case the wheelie bin – against an unseen bowler, which all feels pretty boring while you deal with just too much dialogue from the commentators. The end of the level requires a simple golf game to beat three enemy players, not only reminding you that you can play golf, a sport this series has already mastered, but rubbing salt in the wounds by requiring a shot almost impossible if you haven’t changed your setup from the tee – and why would you, when there is so little golf going on – without the ability to change equipment mid-round.
It was at that point, when I was hitting pointless cricket shots at the unfunny crowd, that I started to realize that I wasn’t comfortable with Sports Story, even disregarding the glitches that make your drive stutter or trip you up up on a BMX race – which I hate, by the way, I hate the BMX bits, the thing steers like a tank. Considering I still preach the gospel of Golf Story to anyone who will listen, my lack of enjoyment with Sports Story comes as both a shock and a disappointment, and I’ve found myself just playing through for the sake of this review, instead for wanting to experience more of what the game has to offer.
Rather than being a spectacular sequel, Sports Story as played today exudes an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” vibe like no sequel I’ve played in a long time. Ignoring the obvious irony that Sports Story is actually broken right now, most of the additions to the sequel take away from what I liked so much about the original, leaving the things I don’t really want to do in its place. As it stands, I’d actively recommend waiting to try Sports Story until an update arrives, and even then, some fans of the original will surely feel alienated by the new direction.
In the end, I couldn’t even finish Sports Story, having lost an hour and a half of progress thanks to—you guessed it—another crash, before putting my Switch down in frustration. It’s clear that the development of Sports Story has been a struggle, with a hidden room found in a hacked version of the game full of developer complaints, but even with a solution on the way, according to Sidebar Games, I just don’t know if it will be worth it for me to go back to Sports Story. I hope one day there is a true spiritual successor to Golf Story, but this is not it.
Sports Story review
Sports Story is essentially unplayable in its current form, with issues like softlocking, out-of-bounds areas, and perpetual crashes. Aside from the technical issues, much of the mechanics and story feel disappointing too, with the tongue-in-cheek humor still present but struggling to breathe amid the various problems. The disappointment is real with this one.