Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley

"If you fake sick to stay home from school to play this game, you'll probably decide to go to school after about 10 minutes."

Natsume's latest Harvest Moon game, The Lost Valley, is surrounded by controversy. Basically, it's a Harvest Moon game in name only, because the real Harvest Moon games cannot use the name Harvest Moon in the West. Confused? Here's a history lesson for you.

Back in 1996, Victor Interactive Software made a game called Bokujou Monogotari ("Farm Story") and contracted Natsume to localize it for the West. Natsume did not think much of the name "Farm Story," so they renamed it Harvest Moon. Since then, Harvest Moon has been a sleeper hit series with a steadfastly loyal fanbase.

Victor Interactive was acquired by Marvelous Entertainment in 2003. They continued to make Harvest Moon games, and Natsume continued to localize them. The wrench in the works is that Marvelous has their own localization studio now: XSeed. Therein lies the question: why hasn't XSeed been localizing these games, since their localizations are superior to Natsume's? Well, as it turns out, the "Harvest Moon" moniker belongs to Natsume and not Victor/Marvelous, and Natsume did not want to give up a successful nameplate.

This strained relationship continued for a while, but with their latest release, Marvelous decided that enough was enough. XSeed would localize the next Bokujou Monogotari game and not Natsume. Therefore, the real next installment of Harvest Moon cannot use the "Harvest Moon" name in the US and is being released under the name "Story of Seasons."

Of course, Natsume did not taking this lying down. Thus, they have the rights to the Harvest Moon name and have decided to release a game called "Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley" to go toe-to-toe with Story of Seasons. Basically, the new Harvest Moon game is being made by a completely different team than that of the real Harvest Moon team, who can't call their game Harvest Moon.

This lengthy and confusing history lesson for a non-Harvest Moon game called Harvest Moon is all well and good, but it does not answer the million dollar question: is this game any good? The one word answer is an emphatic "no." The Lost Valley is more of a Minecraft-inspired game with a Harvest Moon veneer and, despite a decent idea or two, is an unpolished exercise in tedium that is simply not the Bokujou Monogotari fans know and love.

First impressions count for a lot, and this game looks more like a kid wearing a farmer costume for Halloween than the real McCoy. I personally think the character art style resembles poorly done Western imitations of anime. The environments are influenced by the cubist tendencies of Minecraft, so the lay of the land is compacted into squares, but it does not look anywhere as appealing as Minecraft. Because of this, the set pieces don't look as fluid as they have in prior Harvest Moon games, and the colors, shapes, and textures look very plain. Not helping matters is the utterly forgettable music and sound effects.

Harvest Moon games aren't exactly known for having deep storylines, but this one is shallow by any standard. You're an unnamed boy or girl wandering up a mountain during a snowstorm when a creature that looks like a small Teletubby points you to a quaint little cabin. You decide to spend the night in this cozy and fully furnished house, where you have a dream of some blue-haired fairy princess asking you to find her bracelet. You wake up the next morning and meet Rowan — a wood sprite who looks like a yellow Teletubby — who teaches you about farming. Ever since that night, you have the urge to farm the massive tract of rugged land outside the cabin to reawaken Rowan's wood sprite friends and restore the fairy princess's waning power to end this accursed winter and bring favorable seasons back to the land. The mystery behind the eternal winter is eventually revealed, and players can experience classic series milestones like choosing a husband or wife (since you can play as either a boy or girl) from a variety of spousal choices, each one staler than the last. If you're anything like me, you will probably be too bored of this game to even care to get that far.

There is no town in this game, so any character interactions consist of a limited cast of random people walking by the cabin at random times or sometimes hanging out in your big backyard. I understand the game's setting being an isolated one, but no matter how long I played the game, I simply could not get used to it. It would have been bearable if the limited cast of characters was interesting, but all of the characters were dreadfully duller than dirt in terms of both personality and appearance. The people all have schedules as to when they're around, but their schedules aren't in their character profiles on your bookshelf, so keeping track of their schedules manually is required, and doing so is not enjoyable.

The game throws you into the deep end from the onset. Play starts in the middle of winter and stays that way for what feels like forever. Even when the seasons change from spring to summer, in your little valley it's still winter until you've done everything possible ten trillion times over. Winter is not an ideal season for farming, and you begin limited in what you can do in order to fulfill objectives. For example, one sprite requires planting lots of flowers, but it takes a good while before you have access to flower seeds. Until then, you're basically stuck doing the same menial tasks over and over again, and it gets old after a while. By the time any new plot arrives with new people to show you new ways to blossom your land, you're already sick of the grind. And though your tract of land seems vast, you're unable to cross streams and build bridges until much later on. Any objectives or motivations to farm are few and far between, making the game painfully boring and repetitive.

I know Harvest Moon games typically play at a relaxed pace, but this game progresses excruciatingly slowly. Individual tasks like planting crops or fishing, are pretty easy to do, but the challenge lies in keeping track of all your crops, animals, and peoples' schedules, and the game feels less like a fun time waster and more like work, especially since many tasks have to be manually done one square at a time and there is no in-game calendar for you to keep track of events. When you have vast fields of crops to tend (especially during the long, hard winter when you have to take extra steps to prep the land), the simplest tasks like watering your crops, can take forever. It also doesn't help that the analog control is sensitive and there is no option to use digital pad to move in proper straight lines. I could never quite face the square I wanted to interact with, and sometimes I performed an unwanted action on a square because I wasn't quite facing the one I wanted to interact with.

At least when working the land, for some tasks like tilling a square after shoveling snow from it, there is no need to cycle through menus to switch between a shovel and a hoe. A simple button press enacts the next action. There are a few instances where menus need to be cycled through, such as when selecting the desired seeds to plant, but menus are minimal. I only wish that this automation mechanic had been expanded upon to make mundane tasks more automated as time progresses and you "level up" in your farming skills.

The game is obviously not Harvest Moon as we know it or even a "real" Harvest Moon game, but even when taken on its own merits and values, it's simply a throwaway game. If you fake sick to stay home from school to play this game, you'll probably decide to go to school after about 10 minutes. In fact, I could barely play this game for more than about 10 minutes at a time because it was so tedious and repetitive. The Lost Valley could have at least been a passable game, but as it stands now, it's a clunky, half-baked game whose ideas are not fully thought out or executed properly. Basically, this game is a crippled Harvest Moon combined with a crippled Minecraft, and is thus doubly crippled. I recommend skipping this atrocity and investing in Story of Seasons instead.

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