"Story of Seasons is a bona fide Harvest Moon experience in everything but name."
It's a time of change for the Harvest Moon series. Natsume, who still owns the rights to the Harvest Moon title, is currently developing a brand new game under the subtitle "The Lost Valley
." Meanwhile, XSEED has picked up publishing rights to the previous game in the series, previously titled "Harvest Moon: Connect to a New Land," which now goes by the moniker "Story of Seasons." It may be a little confusing, but series fans have nothing to worry about with the game in XSEED's capable hands. In fact, after having hands-on time with both games on the E3 show floor, I would argue that Story of Seasons is far and away the better of the two — and with a more flavorful localization than ever, it could be the most memorable game in the series yet.
Like in the previous games, Story of Seasons puts the player in charge of a farm, its livelihood resting squarely on his or her shoulders. As an homage to its original subtitle, "Connect to a New Land," Story of Seasons features an emphasis on communicating with others, both in-game NPCs and real-life players alike. The shipping box that ruled players' routines in the previous game is gone; produce and other exports are now bought and sold via an international marketplace. Other countries within the game put forth requests for products, and catering intelligently to those demands results in increased profits and better relationships with vendors, more of whom come to populate the town square as time goes on. As always, money can be used to upgrade the farm, buy livestock (which now includes fluffy Angora rabbits and spit-happy camels), and continue to invest in lucrative crops.
Long before Animal Crossing, the Harvest Moon series put players in control of customizing their own unique living spaces. In addition to personalizing the interior and exterior of the farmhouse with decorations and other amenities, the player can upgrade other facilities around town and even open up a safari. Fans will remember taming wild animals in previous games and making them pets; now, an entirely separate, customizable space exists for this purpose. (Incidentally, I'll be filling mine with every mustelid I can find. Ooh, and penguins.) The player can even go swimming and dive for fish, adding each new discovery to an encyclopedia. Finally, the marriage system returns, with six potential candidates for each gender and guaranteed twin children after the player's honeymoon is complete.
Although I have enjoyed previous entries in the Harvest Moon franchise, I've always felt that their writing has been on the dry side. Thankfully, the localization process is a bit different this time around, primarily because XSEED is owned by developer Marvelous AQL. Previously, once the Japanese version of a Harvest Moon game was finished, it would be shipped to Natsume for translation. In this case, XSEED and Marvelous are communicating openly while the game is being localized, which allows for fine-tuning of its dialogue and naming conventions. My hands-on time with Story of Seasons revealed more nuance and playfulness in characters' speech, which enhances the experience significantly. The importance of presenting charismatic characters is tantamount to the success of a game centered around the idea of "connection."
While Story of Seasons does not feature a New Game+ mode, several all-new wireless features add to the experience beyond the scope of the original scenario. Players can enter each others' farms to help tend crops, trade items, and more. The developers also collaborated with Nintendo to make special Mario-themed crops like Fire Flowers, Stars, and Mushrooms available via DLC, all of which carry special effects like keeping surrounding crops from wilting.
Story of Seasons is a bona fide Harvest Moon experience in everything but name. With more customization than ever, a sharper art style, and increased online connectivity, it's shaping up to be one of the best games in the series to hit North American shores. I look forward to beginning my own farming story when the game ships later this year.