There comes a time in every reviewer’s life when he has to break down and play a game he knows he won’t like, within a genre he doesn’t particularly care for. I can knock out SimCity games one after the other, but something about Harvest Moon games has always seemed… unfinished. Granted, I’ve only played two previous iterations of the series, but that’s the entire problem: whether I’m playing on a Super Nintendo, GameCube, or DS, I’m essentially playing the same game. But Natsume keeps cranking these suckers out, so here’s to you city-dwelling farming addicts living vicariously through an overall-clad child-suitor.
Huh? Whassat? Sorry, I just came out of the coma that A Wonderful Life induced.
Not much going on here. The game opens immediately with the Witch Princess and Harvest Goddess fighting to a draw. After the Witch Princess and Harvest Goddess part (since they’re equally matched), the Witch Princess complains about the goddess’s irritating habit of saying “Tadaaaaaa!” Now, I realize that I’m a 26-year-old playing a game that’s most likely intended for a younger audience, but couldn’t the writers try a little harder? At any rate, the goddess shows up, and, sure enough, says “Tadaaaaaa!” What ensues is what those on the Internet would describe as “epic fail” – the Witch Princess turns the Harvest Goddess into stone. Then, in an attempt to reverse the effects of the spell, she accidentally sends the goddess to another world. Or something. So here’s the part where the Witch Princess “kya ha ha ha”‘s and claims victory, right? Nope. Her life would be boring without the Harvest Goddess, so she orders the 101 innocent bystander harvest sprites (I counted around seven or eight, but whatever) to save the Harvest Goddess. After they disappear, the Witch Princess takes note of our protagonist (aka you), and says he has to help, because only he can save her. I am not paraphrasing.
Here’s the part of the review where I say that gamers aren’t playing Harvest Moon for its story, but for the gameplay. Well, that’s not entirely true. Sure, farming, raising animals, and wooing a lass are probably the most immediate draws, but Harvest Moon is an “experience,” rather than a level up and beat secret bosses kind of game. For those new to the series, discovering the confetti of characters whose favor you can curry will likely prove an intriguing or frustrating venture. Whether this is a favorable experience or not completely depends on how the game is approached. Unlocking the inner workings of the denizens of Mineral Town takes work, and that’s part of the fun.
Painting this fence is so much fun!
I have two choices: I can slam this game for its emphasis on repetition (aka grinding) or I can appreciate what the developers tried to do… for the fifth time. Secret option three sounds good: a little from column A and a little from column B.
Anyone with an ounce of understanding of the Harvest Moon games knows exactly what they’re getting into when they embark on a new journey into this franchise. The big question for veterans is whether this game does anything especially novel to warrant double-digit hours of commitment. No, it doesn’t. This is “Harvest Moon DS,” without a subtitle; no Grand Bazaar, no Sunshine Islands. What folks are getting here is vanilla flavor Harvest Moon. But hey, maybe that’s what the doctor ordered.
For those new to the series, or who, like me, have only played one or two games before, some additions are worth commenting on. First off, the emphasis on harvest sprites allows for much-needed help around the farm, since cutting grass, watering crops, and taking care of animals can easily take an entire day to do. Time is not our hero’s best friend. Generally, different colored sprites aid in all of the tasks available. To earn the sprites’ favor, offer them gifts, and they’ll work harder. Some of these wee folk are hidden around Mineral Town, so make sure to button mash walls, trees, and fences. Obsessed with achievements? No problem! Repeat any given task a thousand times and someone’s bound to pop up.
Have a deficient dopamine-2 receptor in need of an addiction that won’t cost a cent? The harvest sprites have a solution. A casino in the sprite HQ offers very basic games such as single-player poker and hi-lo – the usual fare (thank you, Dragon Quest…). With a basic knowledge of statistics and probability, or even a bit of common sense, players will be able to buy virtually anything offered at the casino in a short amount of time. This is fantastic, because the casino’s shop offers much-needed aids that should be automatically available in the game by default, but are not, for some really, really, really bad reason. These aids include, but are not limited to, warping to various parts of the town and detecting the attraction level of various townsfolk. Rare seeds are also available, but that’s justifiable.
Giving gifts to your neighbors is a staple of the series, and not much has changed here. Offer someone the wrong thing, and a lot of hard work may be lost. This is tedious and unnecessary. What’s worse, the game goes the Majora’s Mask route and forces the player to keep track of who is where at different times of day. This may be fun for some, but those less inclined to chase people around on their schedule every day may find this to be more of a task than a charm. Hell, at least Majora’s Mask gave the player a built-in notepad.
Gamers hankering for some action may find it in the mines. After digging deep enough, players may gain access to creepy crawlies in other parts of the mine that want nothing more than to eat your delicious farmer’s-tanned flesh. A slash of the scythe or whomp of a golden hammer will take care of them!… so you can do some digging. Farming-related tasks are inescapable!
Equipment upgrades are a necessity. Not only does upgrading equipment shorten the time it takes to accomplish any task, it also saves our poor protagonist a lot of sweat, since stamina is painfully limited, and unless you want to eat like an Olympian, upgrading equipment quickly becomes goal numero uno. But precious metals and gems aren’t enough to fetch an upgrade.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from Harvest Moon DS, it’s that being a farmer is hard! This is less about the manual labor, and more about the price of everything. A quick glance at the cost of expanding one’s farm reveals that growing a simple pumpkin patch won’t cut it in this economy. This is a critical flaw in the design, since novice players less inclined toward exploitation of money-making scams (and they’re there, for sure) won’t get to explore all of the game’s features for a long time. What features, exactly? Oh, I dunno – raising animals?
Festivals crop up (see what I did there?) all the time, which is fantastic – assuming the player has a beautiful cow or well-trained dog. These things take time, but that’s okay, because even if the prodigal farmer can’t participate in the festivities immediately, these events give the player goals and incentives to try harder, or to focus on one thing. While the consistency of festivals are a great way to break the monotony, the downside is that shops are closed on holidays, which can get in the way of a farmer’s busy schedule.
While these additions make Harvest Moon DS more interesting (at least at the time of its release), the core gameplay remains the same: farm, raise animals, find a wife, have a kid, and never, ever stop. Having a foundation that fans of the series can depend on is great and all, but I can’t help feeling as if the series falls short in every installation that I’ve seen or played. The gameplay’s almost there, and I can very easily point out flaws that some would consider strengths, but something more enigmatic seems to hold the games back from being fantastic, at least within their niche. In essence, these nuances are the flavor of the month, but the base is still the same.
A return to bleep-bloopin’ sprites
Harvest Moon DS strays from its home console counterparts primarily in that it doesn’t use polygons. Although preference toward sprites vs. polygons varies from person to person, the graphics in Harvest Moon DS are charming, cute, and definitely encourage continued gameplay. If players get caught up in the virtual second life that HM has to offer, the traditional graphics will serve as a suitable home. The artwork during dialogues could be a little better, but the anime style is also fitting. What’s not okay is the menu design. Yuck! From the boring design (there is no design) to the lack of customization to the hideous font, navigating required tutorial reading couldn’t be more arduous. Normally the way menus look doesn’t matter, and they’re constructed competently – I mean, it’s a menu. But for some reason, the designers put no time into the way they look here.
The sounds are delightful, but may grate over time. This is less the fault of the sounds themselves, and more the fault of repetitious gameplay. Chirping birds sound fantastic in the background, and serve adequately as background noise, while jumping over weeds and rocks is amusingly cartoony. On the other hand, the music is limited in variety, and gets old quickly. I suppose it’s appropriately calm and relaxed for this kind of game, but that doesn’t make it entertaining.
But, I gotta ask: if we can get an Engrish-speaking, motherly chef, why can’t we get a little voice work here?
Is my ‘A’ button not working, or is that a bug?
The controls are not intuitive. Several times throughout my adventure I misclicked buttons when I wanted to do entirely different actions. After several hours of gameplay, I still didn’t register the commands into muscle memory. That is a critical issue.
But what’s more critical are the bugs. Although I didn’t experience most of the bugs others have complained about, I still lost countless seeds and crops due to bugs. These were usually minor annoyances, but they were common enough to get on my nerves. Quality assurance, please?
Another sun sets on Mineral Town
Veterans of the series may find something interesting here, but more than likely they will either welcome the game’s reliance on formulaic game design or gnash their teeth after planting their 100,000th crop with little to show for it. If hunting down sprites, delegating to a team of servants, or competing in festivals tickles your fancy, then you may enjoy what Harvest Moon DS has to offer. If these seem like slight deviations from the norm, then you’re probably assessing these novelties correctly.
Harvest Moon DS isn’t a bad game. The Harvest Moon franchise is a rare case where taste reigns supreme. If someone wants to ditch reality by running off to live in a small town where everyone knows each other, a farmer can earn an honest living, and a girl’s just waiting to have a ring put on her finger, then this is a safe escape. It’s a sandbox game. Do with it what you will. For the impatient, goal-oriented gamer, this game couldn’t be worse. For me, this probably won’t be my last Harvest Moon game. There’s enough here to give me hope that Natsume might find and fill that elusive hole every Harvest Moon seems to have. Until then, happy farming.