The Harvest Moon series has already found a huge handheld following on the Nintendo DS. It seems like games spawn out for the system in bushel quantities. Unfortunately, the PSP hasn’t quite seen the same love that the DS has. Sure, we’ve had Harvest Moon: Boy & Girl, a *cringe* remake, and Innocent Life – a game that had new ideas and a futuristic backdrop, but fell way short of being praiseworthy due to its subpar execution. These games didn’t come close to really utilizing the PSP’s full capabilities, though, nor did they fully capture the spirit of handheld gaming. When I heard about the release of Harvest Moon: Hero of Leaf Valley, I thought two things: either third time is going to be a charm or it’s three strikes and Harvest Moon is out for the PSP. Thankfully, the former is closer to the true verdict than the latter. I’m happy to report Harvest Moon: Hero of Leaf Valley just does enough new and just enough right for a handheld iteration of the series that you’re bound to find yourself packing in the hours – in bushel proportions.
Amusement Parks are Nature’s Equivalent to the Devil
First things first, yes, Harvest Moon: Hero of Leaf Valley is similar to the PlayStation 2 release Save the Homeland, but it’s also different in many ways. It’s true: Hero of Leaf Valley does use a lot of the same characters as Save the Homeland. However, the game also offers new characters exclusive to Hero of Leaf Valley. The premise for the stories in both games are also very similar; in Save the Homeland you are trying to save the land from being turned into a resort, while in Hero of Leaf Valley you are saving the land from being turned into an amusement park. That being said, Hero of Leaf Valley has a lot more layers to the story; the amount of sub–events and story events are quite beefed up in this PSP iteration. The story also isn’t the same, line by line, as the story in Save the Homeland. I know there has been some heated debate about whether or not Hero of Leaf Valley is a remake of Save the Homeland, but as a hardcore Harvest Moon fan, I would have to say no. There are similarities, but you’re going to get an entirely difference overall experience with Hero of Leaf Valley than you would if you played Save the Homeland.
Now that I’ve put my two cents into the remake debate, let’s delve a little bit deeper into the story. With all Harvest Moon games, the set up for the story is very similar: the land is in some sort of jeopardy and you befriend the Harvest Goddess to try and fix the problem. Hero of Leaf Valley is no exception – a company is threatening to destroy the land in order to open an amusement park called Funland. You have two years to try and remedy the impending doom of bulldozers tearing up the land to build this “vicious” theme park. From there, you must raise $50,000 to prevent this horrible fate from befalling the land. I’m not going to spoil anything, but there are two other ways to save the land without shelling out that much cash. Regrettably, if you don’t find a way to save the town via the three ways available to you, you’ll be forced to start the game over at the beginning of the first year. If you succeed, you’ll be able to play a third year and onward. Now – and here’s what is pretty cool – you’d think once the main story is over there would be nothing new for you, but this handheld is packing some serious never–ending story heat. Once you reach the third year, there are events that you did in the first two years that have new story elements, or should I say “sequels.” There are also new marriage events popping up for whatever girl you choose to swoon. Not to mention that there are still general events that can happen at any point during the game. New characters also become available to interact with in the third year. You’re probably thinking you’ll be playing forever, and you’re probably right. If that isn’t worth the $29.99 price tag , I don’t know what is.
I do have to admit something to my readers: I’m finding it harder and harder to judge the stories and characters of the Harvest Moon games. I’ve come to expect them to be far from greatness, but as long as there are a steady amount of story events and remotely interesting characters for me to work for, I haven’t graded the story too harshly. I realize now that this is a mistake. I should be expecting something more from the story. Yes, the gameplay is the core of the Harvest Moon series, but does that mean we should continue to have such simplistic and lackluster stories? I don’t think so. It’s time for the series to stop writing like its audience is in kindergarten. I want more viscous villains – ones with malevolent laughter who think nature is theirs for the taking. I want more issues in marriages explored – maybe I’m a workaholic farmer who can’t say no to milking just one more cow, maybe I work so hard I forget to tell my significant other they are looking nice today or I forget an anniversary. Most importantly, I want more options in the dialogue and I want those choices to matter. I know this is all wishful thinking, but my point is Marvelous needs to push the series a little further. Think just how more awesome and addicting it could be if the gameplay wasn’t the sole focus of development, but there also existed a story that we yearned to experience. So, Hero of Leaf Valley, while you offer a lot to unlock in terms and story and character development, you just lack something to make the experience uniquely entertaining. Hero of Leaf Valley does just about what every other Harvest Moon game has, and its unlikely to wow you beyond its base gameplay.
Gameplay that Utilizes a Portable System in All the Right Ways
As I stated previously, the main draw of the Harvest Moon series is its addictive gameplay and Hero of Leaf Valley is no different. The great thing about this new PSP title is it eliminates some of the monotony of your everyday tasks. No longer is mining just simply hitting rocks in the cave; in Hero of Leaf Valley, mining has become a strategic puzzle. If you hit certain colored rocks in the correct order or patterns, you can maximize the amount of rocks you can destroy in one hit. Fishing has become more than just tossing your line in the water and waiting for a bite. You can now control the depth at which you choose to cast your line and you also need to make button presses at the correct time to reel your fish in. You can even collect bugs with a bug net. These bugs are more likely to appear when you chop down trees, so you’re getting more of an incentive to cut down trees aside from just for the lumber you need for upgrades. My greatest hope is that more tweaking of the basic systems like Marvelous executed with Hero of Leaf Valley finds its way into other games in the Harvest Moon series.
The game also doesn’t force you to completely depend on your farm to bring in the big money. There are various part time jobs you can do throughout the game, such as chopping wood for the carpenter or feeding chickens, for some extra cash. These help you fight your financial challenges, especially at the beginning of the game. Perhaps my favorite addition to the game are the items you can collect for various townspeople. Each business has a list of wanted items that you can gather for them. If you complete these requests, they can net you some pretty decent dinero. They also give you something to strive for; to collect these items adds a greater sense of purpose to the game. The payoff is too big to pass up, and is definitely the way to go so you can buy some of the more expensive items and upgrades for your farm. I also found the request system, which is somewhat similar to wanted items, to be excellently implemented here. It’s very easy to pick up and play and complete bite–sized pieces of gameplay, a huge plus for a handheld title.
Another aspect of the game that reduces some of the repetition found in some games in the series is your lovable dog. In some previous Harvest Moon games, the dog has given you none of the benefits that your other animals might. More recently, the developers have tried to do more by letting you train the dog, but it hasn’t done much to spice up the gameplay. I’m happy to report that Hero of Leaf Valley improves on this significantly. First off, you have too woo a stray dog to even have said dog as your pet. Once the dog is yours and you develop a man’s–best–friend relationship, you can teach your dog various tricks. Your dog can even dig up buried items for you that you can then sell for profit. For once, the dog is no longer useless; he’s earning his keep on the farm.
I’ll just note that everything else that has been a major part of past Harvest Moon games are still intact, such as farming, raising animals, festivals, romancing a member of the opposite sex, and trying to make friends by giving them gifts. There is simply nothing new here to talk about with any of these aspects of the game. They still work well, there’s just nothing in the game to warrant me devoting more than stating their existence. I’m still waiting for a more complex farming system and interactive festivals. One day it will happen I’m sure, I just couldn’t predict when, nor do I think it will be anytime soon, but a girl can dream, can’t she?
Other than a sticking a little bit too close to comfort with the basic staples of the series, my only other gameplay complaint is that there is no crop box for you to put your items in. You’re forced to trek to various shops to sell them directly to the owner. At times, it can feel like a time sink, but sometimes its useful to visit the shops on a daily basis if not to improve your friendship levels with the owners or find new requests to complete. However, there is one peripheral complaint I need to address: the load times are absolutely awful in this game – at least with the UMD version. Let me ask you something: are you a patient person? Can you handle load times every time you enter a new area or building? Did it detract from my enjoyment of the game? Not to the extent where it ever stopped me from playing it. Sure there were times I was frustrated, but I managed to get through this roadblock. Regardless of that big flaw, though, the game still succeeds for a handheld iteration and its definitely perfect for the pick up and go type of gaming that most of use handhelds for. I’m fairly sure if you buy this on the PlayStation Network the load times are alleviated somewhat, but they’re very long on the UMD.
The Music isn’t My Hero, but it Sure Looks Pretty
I warn you all – brace yourself for some of the most annoying melodies yet. Harvest Moon games tend to have a little bit of cheese factor when it comes to the music, but this is by far one of the worst. It’s also very torturous because you have to listen to the majority of the melodies over and over for an in–game season. I couldn’t handle it, so a lot of the time I found myself lowering the volume or banishing the music altogether with the mute button. The music is cheery, sappy, and repetitious. It’s nothing but a recipe for disaster.
Despite the game’s problematic music, it does looks great on the PSP. It’s definitely on the level of a PlayStation 2 Harvest Moon title, and I was especially impressed with how vibrant and colorful it was. Although every Harvest Moon is colorful when you look at the environments, on the PSP it really is eye candy. The characters look just as good, especially as they all have their distinct attributes and it’s great to see them up close. I’m used to playing Harvest Moon games on the DS where you are left to look at a character portrait in the dialogue box to see the character. In Hero of Leaf Valley you are looking directly at them. However, I do wish the characters had a wider variety of facial expressions. Despite that singular flaw, the game is very appealing visually on the PSP.
It’s a Hero for the PSP
Hero of Leaf Valley is by far the best offering on the PSP to date. It’s too bad it is marred by some awful load times and another cookie cutter story without any novel ideas to keep even that afloat. Interestingly enough, the gameplay is tweaked in just enough ways to warrant this game an overall winner. Hero of Leaf Valley is really a portable title that you can sink hours on end into. I guarantee you will keep it in your “pick up and play pile” and it will help you pass the time on a long trip or two. If the developers put some serious effort into the story along with consistently spicing up the gameplay, it would really make all the difference in the world. For now, us PSP owners will have to be content with this as the best of the Harvest Moon titles. It will no doubt tide you over until the series improves further.