"Whether you've had a video game farmer's tan for years or are planting your first crop of electronic wheat like me, I think you'll find enjoyment in this game."
If you're reading this review, you probably already know about the trouble surrounding the Harvest Moon series' name in the US. If not, I will point you to Neal Chandran's review of Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley
for the details. Long story short: The Lost Valley is a knockoff from the company that ended up with legal rights to the name Harvest Moon, while Story of Seasons is the true latest entry in that long-running series. And I'm here to tell you that it shows.
In Story of Seasons, you play a young person from the city who answers an ad from a small town trying to attract new farmers. You spend your first week living with one of the town's veteran farmers, a sweet little old lady who teaches you the basics of tending to crops and animals, after which the town gives you the vacant farm next door to work as you please. Their hope is that you will help them attract new trading partners from foreign lands and improve the town as a whole, but there isn't much to the story aside from that overarching goal. That said, there are occasional cutscenes that include some surprisingly touching moments. I can't give any details without spoilers, but seeing as this is not the kind of game people play for depth of story, those moments are a nice bonus.
What I imagine people play for is the chance to experience a bit of farming life without the incredibly hard work that goes into doing it for real, and in that respect, Story of Seasons definitely delivers. Once you advance past the tutorial stage and acquire your own farm, things start small, with naught but an old house, a barn, a cow, and a set of worn but still functional tools you need to start growing crops. Every day, you get up, milk the cow, water the crops, and if any of them have grown to maturity, you harvest them and plant new seeds. When you're done with that, you can run around the areas near town looking for the materials you need in order to upgrade your equipment and facilities, chat with villagers, and sell your wares.
The game runs on a calendar in which each season lasts 31 days, and you are given a schedule that shows you what to expect in town each day. Maybe the 27th is the Harvest Festival, where you can take your crops and see how they stack up to your fellow farmers'. Or maybe the 13th is the fishing tournament, in which you can win a prize for catching the biggest or the most fish. But the most crucial thing to watch for is which days traders will be in town to buy from you and sell you things you can't get at the local general store.
As time passes and you sell more things, new traders start coming around, and if you're going to sell more, you're going to need more land. The amount of land you actually own is limited, but the town has a number of public fields that you can borrow for varying periods of time. Only certain types of crops will grow in each field (root vegetables, leafy vegetables, wheat...), and you don't have access to all of those types of crops for a while, so you are unlikely to jump into too many fields right away and overextend yourself.
Unfortunately, not having access to things is the umbrella under which all of my complaints about Story of Seasons fall. Early on, for example, I was frustrated by the fact that I couldn't find more of the materials I needed to upgrade my tools. My poor cow wallowed in her own filth for a while before I was able to get enough iron to make a pitchfork, and once I had upgraded my house for the first time, I ran around everywhere wondering why I couldn't find the materials I needed for the next upgrade. Later on, I couldn't find the blueprints I needed in order to build a better hammer. My lack of knowledge might have been remedied by walkthroughs if I hadn't been playing it before its US release (hashtag firstworldgamereviewerproblems), but even knowing that I only needed to wait wouldn't have made me feel better about needing to wait. I wanted that new hammer now! My stupid old hammer made me too tired to use after a long day of farming.
I must admit that I might have brought some of that frustration on myself by choosing the game's new easier difficulty, which is geared toward new players like me. It meant that my chores took less energy, allowing me to accomplish more in a day, so I probably gained money more quickly than is the norm. The game features a number of other enhancements meant to reduce the tedium a bit, such as the fact that crops are now grown in 3x3 squares, which I appreciated, and which will certainly benefit players on the normal difficulty even more than it helped me.
Story of Seasons doesn't take huge advantage of the 3D features of its platform, but it looks good whether the 3D is on or off. The seasons all have their own distinct look, but items on the ground are always clear, as are the visual cues to whether you need to water specific crops. You can build a number of facilities on your farm for drying seeds, making fabric, or other common farming tasks, and they each have a lamp outside that lights up when your projects are ready to be picked up. The bottom screen normally shows a map of the area you're in, but you can tap an icon of a house to have it show you the path back to your farm. You'll only need it for the first week or two of the game, but it's immensely helpful during that initial period when you don't know the area well.
Sound, on the other hand, is the game's weakest element. The music that is present is fine (but not amazing), but the game is often simply quiet. The sound effects and minimal background music sound a lot better through headphones than they do through the system speakers, but the amount of sound there is to hear doesn't do enough to block out the sounds of the world around you, so I mostly played with the sound off.
In contrast to that low point, I feel like Story of Seasons controls extremely well. It's not a whole new way of doing things, it's that the right things are so convenient to you and that the game is very smart about prioritizing what you interact with. Hitting the R trigger once brings up a list of your tools, hitting it again switches you to the seeds you're carrying, and a third press gives you a list of items you've marked for quick use. This system helps keep the action going when you're trying to do your chores each day, which is extremely important.
When you head into the barn to collect eggs and such, your animals like to stand in your way, but if you hit the A button and there is an item near you on the ground, you will always pick it up rather than petting the animal. It might seem like a small feature, but the game would be more frustrating without it, and it's an example of the solid control design that permeates the whole game. The only improvement I could suggest would be an option when cooking or building to filter the recipes you know to only display those that you have the materials for, but that's just me being greedy.
Whether you've had a video game farmer's tan for years or are planting your first crop of electronic wheat like me (and Story of Seasons' main character), I think you'll find enjoyment in this game. About 40 hours into the game, I have reached the end of my first year, and my farm is about as big as I care to manage. But my preparations from year one have me well prepared with seeds and field space for year two, and that gives my farmer time to romance one of the girls in town. Or I can diversify my farm to grow a wider variety of things in the same space. Or get more livestock and corner the market on fabric. Or finally put in that winery I've been thinking of. No matter what I choose, there's certainly enough to keep me busy for a good long while.