Release date: September 14, 2023
Developer: Awaken Realms
Publisher: Merge Games
Growing up, I never really believed that cleaning up could be a game. That was just a painfully transparent lie that my parents (no doubt inspired by Mary Poppins) told me in some effort to get me to tidy up, even knowing as I did that it was only going to get messed up again within five minutes. But as I grew older I learned that there was something very satisfying and rewarding about accomplishing a simple task, and Merge Games’ latest title, Fresh Start, aims to capitalize on that feeling through its cozy and relaxing gameplay. While it succeeds admirably on that front, it could have used a little more cleaning and polishing before it was brought over to the Switch, and the end result is a muddied experience that is tough to recommend.
Fresh Start’s gameplay might actually be best described as a simplified fusion of the core mechanics of Super Mario Sunshine and Luigi’s Mansion. Most of your time will be spent blasting giant mounds of dirt and rubbish with a steady stream of water, reducing it down into a handful of parts which you can then suck up to remove entirely. Overly high praise perhaps, because this game certainly lacks the charm and polish of a first-party Nintendo title, but one thing it doesn’t lack is a high level of satisfaction and enjoyment that you can get from doing such a simple task.
There’s a lot to clean up, and Fresh Start is a strangely cathartic and rewarding experience. The more you clean the more your nature bar will fill, and once you reach a certain percentage the map you’re playing in will change completely, becoming more vibrant and alive as animals and greenery return. You’ll get a nice little cutscene for you to see the benefits of your handiwork, and as you’ll have done a lot of the restoration work yourself through watering plants and removing dirt mounds, it feels quite satisfying to get a panoramic view of your hard work of the last fifteen minutes. You’ll also receive experience as you complete each task to invest in skills that will increase your efficiency in-game in small ways that will help lessen the tedium should you feel that any particular aspect of the game is taking too long to accomplish.
You’ll also be given a handful of objectives to complete which you’ll accomplish naturally as you play: key items can be uncovered and placed in your inventory, often to fix specific broken objects, although you will also need to help out the animals that are still roaming the area by feeding them or cleaning them. This being a cozy game, there is naturally a cat on every level which you can optionally give a themed hat, and you can of course pet every animal you meet with a disembodied hand. Unfortunately it’s a very small-scale interaction, and the animals feel more like set pieces as they stand or sit obediently in one place, but it’s a small detail that the target audience will no doubt appreciate.
There is also a surprising amount of variety in Fresh Start’s locales, and you’ll be dropped into landscapes of varying states of disarray that manage to feel unique despite all featuring the same gameplay loop and monotonous background music. I was quite taken aback when I started the Australia level and was greeted by multiple burning trees to put out. Each one takes about half an hour at most to finish, and there are more than I was expecting there to be for the price point.
It’s a shame that Fresh Start is let down by its visuals. Low resolution and blurry textures are a constant present throughout, and the overall effect is one that makes this feel like a title from at least two console generations ago. The grim and ugly scenery that greets you when you first arrive is no doubt an intentional part of the experience, but that things don’t noticeably improve as your nature level increases sours the proceedings to some extent. This is particularly noticeable on larger objects such as trees, but also on several animals the closer that you get to them.
Fresh Start also has a painfully inconsistent frame rate on Switch, and this for many people is understandably going to kill the mood the game is trying to set. Unfortunately, it persists throughout the game regardless of the state of the environment, and it’s very off-putting to have things slow to a crawl even when the map is less cluttered with debris; in some areas the slowdown will noticeably increase after you’ve increased your nature level, making the entire process feel counterproductive.
Fresh Start is a relaxing and enjoyable experience, but is tough to recommend on Switch due to its low resolution visuals and poor optimization. If you can look past these things there’s a relaxing cozy game here for you to enjoy that will give you a surprising amount of satisfaction and content. But on Switch at least this is a game buried beneath a mound of dirt that never shines as brightly as it could have if more care had been taken in bringing it over.