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The Harvest Moon series has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. Since the first SNES game, I've played every entry I can get my hands on. We've been through a lot – from Saving Homelands to succeeding at having A Wonderful Life to obtaining Magical Melodies to solving the mystery behind the Tree of Tranquility, and that's just scratching the surface. For some reason, though, I've started to feel a tad bit jaded with the series; my gusto for it just isn't alive and kicking like it has been. I can't say that it's true any more; all of that changed when I started playing Harvest Moon: Animal Parade. From the moment I put in Animal Parade, I caught that Harvest Moon bug that I had long hoped for and missed. The game is exceptionally well done for both beginners and veterans and, more importantly, has put me back on the Harvest Moon bandwagon.
Ah, the Harvest Goddess Needs Your Help… Again!
The Harvest Goddess, an entity who always been a big part of the story in many entries, takes the spotlight once again in Animal Parade. At the start of the game, you are accompanied by a sidekick, a Sprite named Finn. Finn informs you that you must find the Harvest Goddess because she needs your help. Only you can see the Harvest Sprites, so it's on your shoulders alone to take on this task. As soon as you reach Harmonica Town to start your life, it's obvious there really is something major going down. In addition to the land not being as fruitful as usual, the citizens all have a myriad of their own problems that they need your help to solve. Everybody has been affected by some sort of bad luck or downturn in their basic daily functions because nature's not doing its part in providing them what they need. A little investigating will lead you to the Harvest Goddess, who lets you know that because the power of the Goddess Tree has weakened, so have the five natural elements. In order to bring harmony back to Harmonica Town, you must ring five bells, each associated with one of those elements, that are spread across the land. If you fail, nature's power will be lost, and people will no longer be able to live off the land. You must locate the Harvest Sprites associated with each bell to assist the Harvest Goddess, and once you do this, the Goddess Tree will be revived.
Okay, so the story isn't anything groundbreaking, but here's why it works: for the first time ever, I did not feel starved for story in a Harvest Moon game! Each time you focus on a bell, you have a steady flow of story events. In addition to this, sub-events with characters constantly pop up to also keep you occupied. Usually, the biggest barriers to becoming totally invested in a Harvest Moon game are the brutal droughts in the narrative, but I never felt like that in Animal Parade. I always had something to look forward to and the steady progression of the story took away from some of the monotony you feel with the daily tasks. The narrative also helps complement the gameplay, as the tasks you have to complete for each bell and subquest aren't limited to basic story rewards, but for items usable elsewhere in the game, too. Again, this is a big help as it makes the tasks more fun to complete when you know it's for a bigger goal than just personal gain. For example, one task requires you to find certain ores. Some are rare and drop at random, so you never know when you'll find exactly what you're looking for. The plus side to this is that you get to mine and find other items to get some materials and cash while looking for the items that don't drop as frequently. Additionally, once you get the hard to find items, you just want to jump for joy since you really do feel a sense of accomplishment. I imagine MMO players can relate when they finally get a drop for an ultra rare item.
A lot of the characters in Harmonica Town you'll recognize from Tree of Tranquility, and while I do wish there was an entirely new cast of characters, this cast is far from horrible. Tree of Tranquility actually had quite engaging characters, and with the new story elements being so strong, it really didn't bother me that much. My only wish was that they gave these reused characters more layers than in Tree of Tranquility. Perhaps, they could have offered more insight into their personality or given them new problems and vices to deal with. As it stands, all the characters seem to have the same thoughts, conversations, and troubles as they did in Tree of Tranquility.
I also always find myself frustrated by the lack of variety in the dialogue in Harvest Moon games. The conversations with characters never seem to progress and will be the same day in, day out. With new seasons and discoveries, new responses will happen, but they still get old. What's realistic about having the same conversation with a person every time you talk to them? I don't expect new dialogue every single game day, but if it was even somewhat different on a more consistent basis, it would make the characters much more fun to converse with. Additionally, the festivals have really lost their spark. The game always makes such a huge deal out of festivals and they always turn out disappointing. Sure, you can bring a date to some, but I wish there was just more to them than what is offered. In fact, I wish you had some dialogue choices when it came to festivals, especially if you're on a date. They could even incorporate the dancing back into festivals as they did with earlier entries, but make it more interactive and let you control your character's dance moves. I know this is all wishful thinking, but the point is that with so much build up to these festivals, they need something to pack more of a punch once you get to them. There are a few minigames, such as livestock racing, but there really needs to be more as a whole during the festivals. As it stands, the story enhances the gameplay, and it makes me delighted to report that the game has an endless amount of tasks for you to engage in.
There's More than just Animals
The gameplay has all the typical staples of Harvest Moon: farming, raising livestock, fishing, mining, romancing a member of the opposite sex, cooking, and then some. Speaking of cooking, it takes a far more central role than it did in previous installments. In most of the previous titles, you didn't have to focus as much on cooking if you didn't want to – it was more there for your amusement, if you wanted some extra cash money, or needed something to lift the character you were romancing off his or her feet. That has changed completely with Animal Parade. In fact, once the circus comes to town there is a huge quest surrounding cooking. Part of this extra quest is to find animals that have accidentally been separated from the circus. Almost like a riddle, the ringmaster will give you certain clues to their whereabouts, and then he will give you a recipe of their favorite dish to get them to come back to the circus. You'll spend a lot of time getting the correct ingredients to make these dishes. I don't want to spoil anything, but helping the ringmaster locate his various missing animals will net you some pretty cool bonuses, including a special show to thank you for your help.
As in Tree of Tranquility, you'll also be able to tame a slew of wild animals to keep as pets. Some animals will appear all year, but others are only available during certain seasons. Even with obtaining pets, you may find yourself working in the kitchen a lot to please their needs or using some of your cash crops for bait. There are a total of 24 possible pets for you to befriend. Let's just say there's never a dull day in Animal Parade, you can spend the day chatting up neighbors or getting one step closer to making the cuddly pet of your choice yours. It has all of the standard social and minigame elements of the average Harvest Moon game, and they're all done well.
As for farming, there isn't much different from other Harvest Moon installments, so I'll comment on the controls. One thing that frustrated me about Animal Parade is the fact that if you don't hold the Z button down to aim in a specific direction, you have a good chance of missing your target. The problem with holding the Z button is it slows down the process of watering your crops a bit, and when you have a lot of crops to water that's more time wasted than you'd want. Raising animals isn't any different than any other Harvest Moon title either, but I'll confess it's still one of my favorite parts of the game. Building a good relationship with your livestock will not only net you higher quality items, but also there are festivals where, if you enter contests, you can win special prizes based on your friendship level with your animals. It's a nice change of pace, and it's enough to pique the interest of veteran farmers.
I suppose what most impressed me with Animal Parade was that the gameplay never got stale for me. It seemed like I was always discovering a new area, unlocking more tasks, upgrading my farm with spiffy tools, or rearranging my house with cool goodies. Hey, you can even buy yourself different villas to vacation at in all different areas. Also, one thing I must comment on is how awesome the water mill is once you fix it. The water mill allows you mill items such as sugarcane into sugar, wheat into flour, rock salt into salt, etc. It's great to increase your finances and if you give your milled items to your friends, it's sure to leave a favorable impression on them. Animal Parade also provides quite the challenge, as aside from keeping all these tasks in order, you are constantly spending money. Whether it be to finance new buildings, buy new cooking materials, upgrade your tools, or buy new livestock, your debt just never seems to go away. The stamina bar is also alive and kicking in this game, but it's not as obtrusive as I've seen it in past Harvest Moon games. There is a hot spring right on your farm for you to restore lost stamina, and eating certain foods will also gain some of it back. I never felt like it got in the way of my fun, and that's the way it should be. Needless to say, with the limitless activities to engage and the right amount of challenge, Animal Parade shines tremendously in the gameplay department. It might not do much new, but it does so much right that it makes the gameplay a pleasure to partake in.
An Explosion of Color and Sound
The first thing I noticed about Animal Parade was the bright lively colors. The environments definitely bring nature to life, and make it beautiful. The game is pretty to look at, especially during some of the cutscenes you unlock. Character models are adequate; the characters all have their own specific details that make them stand out and work. I really don't have any complaints, but I don't have any showering praise to give either. It certainly looks better than efforts like Magical Melody, which was ported almost directly from the GameCube, but it's clear that Marvelous didn't have a massive art team working on this one.
The music is actually quite decent in Animal Parade. It's really difficult to judge the music with Harvest Moon games because you listen to the same tunes for a month at a time in game. The music didn't seem to get on my nerves, and I felt it matched the seasons well. Also, the music will change when you enter different places, which adds some nice variety. There's the occasional sound effect here and there when you're using your tools and are around town, but they're not jaw-dropping by any stretch of the imagination. Much like they graphics, they simply feel like they're placeholders; good placeholders, but placeholders none the less.
I Love the Parade
Animal Parade is not perfect, but it is by far one of my favorite Harvest Moon titles. This is the most fun I've had with the series in a long time, and it's great to see the story integrated so well with the gameplay. This iteration of Harvest Moon provides the right amount of challenge without being too frustrating, and will not only draw in newcomers, but please hardcore Harvest Moon fans as well. The scope of discoveries, activities, and tasks to do is endless. If you're looking for a new simulation title to pick up, it's worth dusting off your Wii and spending some time in Harmonica Town.