Square Enix is releasing an absolute deluge of games this holiday season, so it’s no surprise to see some games fall short of the spotlight, rightfully or wrongfully. Thus, while unsurprising, it is unfortunate that an absolute gem like Harvestella is missing its chance to gleam. Harvestella finds itself in a strange spot. Its place in the RPG and farming sim genres is hard to define and wasn’t cleared up by marketing. It was released surrounded by other Square Enix games and more popular titles like God of War Ragnarök and Sonic Frontiers. Also, as of this review, it is only available on PC and console-exclusive to Nintendo Switch. However, despite some blemishes, Harvestella is the perfect game for the right sort, and hopefully, I can give you an idea of whether you are such a player.
First, I would like to clarify what Harvestella is and is not. Harvestella is primarily a JRPG. It has farming elements, but it is not truly a farming sim. It is a game about managing resources, including time. It is not an action game. Romance exists as a possibility within the post-game but is not a focus. There are many games I could compare it to, and Harvest Moon or Rune Factory are not even the first that come to mind. Instead, it is games like Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, Final Fantasy XIV, Dark Cloud, and the Atelier series that I find myself placing Harvestella alongside.
Our tale begins with an amnesiac player-created character who is granted a small farm on the outskirts of Lethe Village to tend while they endeavour to regain their memories. The premise is simple, but it belies hidden depths. After a slow start that may lose some players, Harvestella never again rests on its laurels. In fact, it isn’t long before the game exposes a barrage of mysteries — strange robotic beings, an enigmatic girl from the future, the sudden appearance of modern structures, an aggressive unicorn in search of his princess, and an eerie fifth season called Quietus that brings death to all who brave it to name a few. I will not spoil where it all goes, but know that I am pleasantly surprised, not only by how much I care about the world and its characters (Aria might be one of the most well-done scientists in gaming), but by how much the story feels like a greatest hits of classic Square Enix titles (I see you Xenogears).
Yet, the writing shines its brightest in the side content. Side quests tell various tales that bring the world to life, especially with how often they tie into continuing story arcs. Even so, it is the character stories that blew me away. Every party member sends you letters that lead to bonding scenes, as do some important NPCs. These scenes unlock various benefits but are truly their own reward. Cres is a doctor who struggles with the nature and purpose of her profession in incredibly authentic ways. Shrika is a missionary who has to reconcile the meaning of faith with the realities of organized religion. Heine is an inventor chasing a dream that he can’t be confident even exists. The breadth of human experience illustrated through your relationship with these characters is staggering.
Only so much of your day-to-day can be spent in cutscenes and dialogue. Delving into dungeons, tending crops, cooking delicious dishes, and crafting useful items are all integral to your progress. Everything you do also costs time. I don’t mean time in real life, though that is true too; the in-game clock ticks away as you conduct tasks. Come sunset, you must return home to get some shut-eye. Even trekking across the breathtaking, classic-style world map makes time pass quickly, though you can obtain and upgrade a mount to traverse it faster. This focus on time may intimidate if you aren’t used to it from farming sims or Atelier games, but it does a lot to make the world feel like a living place. It also is never used to press the player in any meaningful way, which is a bit of a letdown for me but makes the game more accessible in the end.
So, you know that all of Harvestella’s gameplay elements take in-game time to do, but how do you go about doing them? First, we have dungeon delving. Each dungeon in Harvestella is a multi-floor affair unique in looks and gimmicks. For example, Heaven’s Egg (an advanced, desolate city found near the town of Nemea) has wind crystals you can interact with that make you hover for a short time. Hovering allows you to cross gaps you otherwise couldn’t and often signals an out-of-the-way treasure chest to grab. There are also small dungeon-like areas between towns, and you only need to cross these once before you can walk through them on the world map, but many side quests have you returning to these areas to grab items or find people.
Some features are common to all dungeon areas. FEAR enemies, reminiscent of FOEs from Etrian Odyssey, are powerful foes far above the level of other monsters in a dungeon and require more engagement with the combat mechanics to defeat. They also drop accessories you can equip. You can demolish walls and repair bridges with bombs and repair kits you craft in your home, respectively. Everything you do also costs stamina — pick up an item? That costs a little bit of stamina. Sprint or attack? More stamina. In many ways, the dungeon gameplay of Harvestella is not far from a dungeon crawler like the aforementioned Etrian Odyssey or Shin Megami Tensei, which is an unexpected treat.
Of course, you don’t just waltz through empty dungeons without care. Diverse monsters try their best to stop, kill, or eat you along the way. It is easy to mistake Harvestella for an action game from trailers. In practice, it is much closer to something like Final Fantasy XIV or Xenoblade Chronicles without auto-attacks. You can’t dodge the monsters’ basic attacks, so you take damage no matter what. This adds another layer to resource management — you need enough healing items to survive the slow drain of your health from battling monsters. Player skill comes into play for the more dangerous abilities monsters can throw your way. These place ground markers almost identical to those in Final Fantasy XIV, letting you know where a monster’s ability will hit a few moments before it goes off. These telegraphed attacks are easily dodged if coming from individual monsters, but large groups or bosses can make things get a lot more hectic (and fun)!
As for your arsenal, you have to mash the attack button to unleash your basic attacks, but it serves a similar function to auto-attacks in Xenoblade Chronicles: something to do while you wait for your combat skills to come off cooldown. Combat skills are granted to you by jobs, of which your character can have three equipped at a time. You can only actively use one job, and upon swapping to another, the prior goes on cooldown. This layering of cooldowns lends to creating a combat rotation like an MMORPG might have. For example, if you go into combat as a Woglinde, you can grant yourself and your allies several buffs, then switch to Mage and blast your enemies with ice and lightning before closing the gap as a Shadow Walker to slice foes up with your dual blades. If combat isn’t over, perhaps a few basic attacks lead into Woglinde coming off cooldown, so you swap again, starting the process over. It may not be the most complex combat system, but it is surprisingly fun to change up job combinations and try different skill rotations.
Outside of dungeons, in-game mornings and nights are often spent farming and crafting. Farming is pretty straightforward. You plow the land with a hoe, sow seeds in the soil, water them daily, and harvest them once they have grown. Different crops have different properties — some grow during specific seasons, some grow only in certain biomes (such as inside a cave), and the time they take to ripen varies. Some crops last multiple harvests or are even permanent in the case of trees. As you progress the main scenario, your farm becomes home to faeries, who give you achievement-like tasks to complete. Doing so can unlock new farming abilities, such as the ability to sow multiple squares at once. Your farm can also be upgraded in Lethe Village to add pens for livestock or increase your field size. Unfortunately for some, farming quickly becomes ancillary to the story and RPG elements of Harvestella. It makes you money and gives you materials, but it isn’t an end unto itself and does not have the depth to create an endless post-game like other farming games might.
Inside your home, you can use the crops you harvest and items you find in dungeons to cook and craft. You can buy recipes from stores or receive them as rewards from quests. The dishes you cook are your source of healing and increasing stamina in dungeons, so much of your crops go towards making them. Each dish you eat fills up your hunger gauge. It takes time for the gauge to decrease, so there becomes a balancing act of which foods to eat at which time to maximize healing. You can also craft gadgets to refine items, like a fermenter that allows you to make juices out of fruits and vegetables. Juices are useful as they heal you without adding to your hunger gauge, but they do not restore your stamina. Of course, all the items you come across can be sold — just toss them in your delivery box and you will get money in return come the next morning.
I have no complaints when it comes to Harvestella’s presentation. For a fully 3D game from a nearly unknown developer, the style is surprisingly cohesive and nearly universally appealing. The world map is gorgeously painted, the dungeons are unique and varied, the font never felt too small for the screens of the Steam Deck and the Switch, the character designs are charming, and the corresponding character portraits are stunning. Go Shiina (of Tales and God Eater fame) also did a superb job with the soundtrack, which is relaxing and hopeful until it needs to be otherwise. The way everything comes together makes me certain this team needs to work together again.
Harvestella is ambitious as hell and punches way above what I suspect was a limited budget. Yes, I wish Quietus would feel like more of a threat during the game or that time management offered more of a sense of urgency than it does, but this game is going to linger in my mind. It is undoubtedly one of my favourite games of the year and gets bonus points for running perfectly on Steam Deck!