I was sent Harvest Moon: Save the Homeland by Natsume because I was the only one with a spare PS2 at the moment. I wasn't particularly anticipating the game; I'd never played a Harvest Moon title in my life, and with Dragon Warrior VII and Golden Sun on my plate, I didn't see how a farming sim could pique my interested. Well, I received it, played it, and can now say: consider me piqued.
You play the role of a 21-year-old male who has taken it upon himself to run his grandfather's farm after the old codger bites the big one. You arrive to find a row of fields, a pasture, a barn, chicken coop, well, and magical pixies. Yes, pixies, Harvest Sprites to be precise, and the Harvest Goddess come to meet you and explain the plight Sugar Village is facing. Apparently a big, mean, nasty land developer wants to put up a theme park right where the village is situated, and if that happens all the animals and plants and magical fairy folk will wind up homeless. It's enough to make a 21-year-old male cry, but fortunately you don't. Instead, you set out to follow the subtitle of the game, and save the homeland.
The story's premise is simple; you have a year to figure out how to prevent the theme park from going up. In order to do that, you have to befriend the local villagers by talking to them and presenting them gifts. If you treat the people nicely, events such as a baking contest or finding an endangered species will open up, allowing you to save the village. Seems pretty straightforward, and it is, no doubt about it, however what makes this game special is that selfsame lack of complexity. There are a handful of villagers, each with their own distinct likes, dislikes, birthdays, and personality types. Each one has its own little quirks or mannerisms, that are, maybe not endearing, but certainly wholesome, for Harvest Moon is a very wholesome game.
The conversations you'll have with the characters won't be extremely witty, deep, or memorable, but they will be lighthearted, for the most part, and cheery. There are smiles galore in this game, and nothing will bring you down about it, with the exception of the stern lecture you get from Bob if your animals die. It's a very family-friendly game.
The graphics, on the other hand, are a little odd. Why Victor Interactive decided to use the cell-shading technique found in games such as Cell Damage and Jet Grind Radio, I can't fathom. It's not unwelcome, to be sure, however it makes the characters look two dimensional, rather than fully 3D. Harvest Moon games don't rely on graphical prowess to carry them, so it's strange to see them take such a different bent to the subject this time around.
Unfortunately, the extra effort put into cell shading could have been better used to throw in a few more polygons for each character. Clothes, hair, even faces, all of them look painted on. Imagine the faces in Skies of Arcadia, and apply that to everything about characters in Harvest Moon, and you'll have a good idea of how they're presented. There is a bit of a clipping problem, however, which shows when you're pushing your cows and horses into the barn and find that you're inadvertently playing proctologist. Still, none of the character models are an eyesore, just nothing special.
While we're on the topic of nothing special, I'd like to mention all the rest of the graphics, save the sun. All the environments (there aren't a lot of them, by the way) are very clean and orderly; it's just that there's nothing particularly special to them. The barn is a barn, the Goddess Lake is a little pond, the textures are fairly well implemented, but there's nothing special about any of them. The same goes for all the objects (fruits, veggies, food, etc.) in the game; you can tell what they are, but you're not treated to impressive tomato models. The only really impressive thing was the rising and setting sun: if you looked right at them, you got a nifty glare effect. Other than that, if you're looking for eye candy, look elsewhere.
If you're looking for something memorable, though, look no further than the music. That's not to say that it's particularly good, though the Harvest Goddess Lake theme was quite nice, but rather that you'll hear the same few tracks over and over so often that you can't get it out of your head. Thirty fun-filled days of the same tune will work its way into your mind and never leave. There are approximately 12 tracks in this game, and they're all just slightly above average in terms of quality. Fortunately, they punctuate the situations and seasons quite well, so at least nothing ever feels out of place. Still, there's no need to go out and buy the soundtrack.
Thank goodness for the sound effects, all ten or so of them. With the most realistic sounding animal noises I've ever heard, true to life hoe clanks, and authentic pot bubbling, Harvest Moon: Save the Homeland may just be the most aurally immersive farming experience ever. Seriously, though, as with the music, the sound effects are limited and will stick in your head mainly because you've heard the sound of six chickens simultaneously crowing (I thought only roosters did that), so many times, you never want to eat pollo again.
So we've established that you don't want to play StH for the graphics or music. So, what do you want to partake in virtual PS2 farming for? Why, the killer gameplay of course, and here I do NOT kid. As soon as I started farming I became addicted to this little gem of a title. As I stated earlier, your job is to run your grandpa's farm, and this means tilling the soil, planting seeds, watering them, harvesting the produce, and caring for and raising livestock. Here's how it goes.
The game is divided into four seasons of 30 days each. Time goes by at roughly two minutes a second, so that it only takes 12 minutes to get through a day. In those 12 minutes, which is actually more like 9 since you have to sleep at least 6 hours to stay healthy, you have to do all your chores and find time to talk to the villagers. This is not easy. In fact, on a scale of 1 to Considering Resident Evil To Have Decent Voice Acting, this thing ranks at least a 5 at the beginning, and can get up to an 8 when you have some cows and lots of plants to water. Fortunately, you can stop time by going into the status screen or being inside a house, barn, etc.
To better describe the gameplay, I'll go through a typical day.
6 A.M-7 A.M.: Wake up, find out tomorrow's weather on the TV, put food in dog dish, get eggs from chickens, brush and milk cows, brush horse.
7 A.M. - 10 A.M.: Till soil with hoe, scatter seeds in plots, water seeds and plants, pick ripe veggies from existing plants.
10 A.M. - 1 P.M.: Go to the store, sell produce, make a wish at the goddess lake for better relationship with girl/dog/horse, talk to and give gifts to villagers on the East Side of the village, forage for berries and flowers to give/sell.
1 P.M. - 5 P.M.: Do part time work at the Brownie Farm, visit the Clove villa and give gifts to the girls there, forage a little more.
5 P.M. - 8 P.M.: Fish in the ocean and talk to some people at the café.
8 P.M. - 10 P.M.: Push the cows into the barn, take in the chickens (if it will rain tomorrow), finish watering any plants I missed earlier.
10 P.M. - 11 P.M.: Cook some food, go to sleep.
It's all about "cultivating your own garden" as my film professor would say. Take care of your plants and they'll produce… produce. Take care of your cows and they'll give milk. Your dog can help you find buried treasure, herd your cattle, or just be cute and impress females. Just remember to take care of yourself: each task you perform drains your stamina, and if you run out you have to sleep or eat something in order to continue working. If you strain yourself too much by working in the rain or at night, you'll be sick and unable to work the next day.
Of course, money is not the end goal as in previous HM games; instead you're doing it so that you can impress the villagers, advance the storyline, and save the homeland. You could sell your veggies, but you'd be better off giving one or two to a villager, or cooking something up in that kitchen you bought. It's a nice little twist, and it made me feel as if I were working towards a nobler goal.
But, and yes, there's always a but, HM: StH requires you to do the same tasks day after day after day. That means that every day, unless it's raining, you're going to have to water your plants, take out the livestock, plant seeds, etc. Even when it rains, you'll still have to get the eggs and milk, make the rounds in the village, and be home in time to sleep. Everything is dictated by the clock, and if you don't do the necessary tasks every day, you'll quickly find yourself with dead plants and animals, and Bob doesn't it like it when you have dead animals. If you don't think you'd like doing the same thing over and over, do NOT play this game.
One final note I must make is in regards to the control scheme. I'm one of those gamers who was dragged kicking and screaming into the age of analogue controlled 3D games, and by that measure I sometimes find it difficult to control my character in three dimensional worlds. For the most part, Harvest Moon: Save the Homeland does not require any great feats of maneuvering or rapid button presses, but there were some times when I would get totally turned around when I was trying to sow seeds or water plants, which resulted in wasted time and, more importantly, wasted effort. It may sound trivial, but when you've got 64 individual crops to water and a horse and two cows to brush and milk, you quickly find yourself drained of energy and time, meaning that every movement needs to be conserved. Any extraneous engagement of the action button needs to be avoided at all costs, and the 3D environment is not the greatest medium for that.
What alleviated that somewhat was the ability to fully rotate the camera with the right analogue stick, meaning you can rotate the environment so it's easier for you to get at your crops from a good angle. The camera rotation is very smooth, and with the exception of a few places in which the camera can't be fully rotated (say, when it's blocked by a wall), does a very good job of giving you full visual access.
In the end, I'm not sure why I totally fell in love with Harvest Moon: Save the Homeland. Perhaps it was the wholesome environments that were such a welcome change from the violence and angst found in many games today, or maybe it was the feeling of accomplishment I got from knowing I made something by caring for it. Maybe I just have a deep Freudian urge to milk cows, but I prefer to think it's because HM:StH has solid gameplay and a happy atmosphere. With 9 different endings to get in a Chrono-esque fashion, there's a good deal of replay value as well.
If you only play one farming sim this year, make it this one, and thanks go out to all the statuesque people who stood behind me in the making of this review. May your corn grow as high as an elephant's eye.
|Can you help the Goddess save the village?
|Man's best friend, so long as you treat him well.