published Saturday, Oct 24th
It’s hard to believe that the Harvest Moon series has managed to notch up ten years in the UK but this year marks that special decade milestone. Since it was first released on the Gameboy in 1999 (the SNES version, out in Japan and the US a few years earlier never made it to our shores) many other franchises have crashed and burnt but gaming’s premier farming series has managed to carve out its own special niche. In contrast to the majority of games that like to throw a steady stream of action, enemies and dialogue at the player, Harvest Moon is content to gently hold your hand and let you wander through it’s unique worlds at your own pace. Few other games can boast such a relaxing experience as these, and few make you work so hard for those rewards.
If you’ve never played a Harvest Moon game before then the latest game, Tree of Tranquillity is a great place to start (alternatively you can download the classic SNES title on the virtual console for a taste of what to expect). Essentially, every game takes the same template: you start as a young farmer entrusted with turning around the fortunes of a run-down farm. You work hard day-by-day, planting seeds, harvesting crops and raising animals, selling any produce to bring in the money needed to upgrade the farm. Time and resource management are important as you only have a limited amount of time and stamina each day so you’ll need to plan ahead if you want to make your farm run as efficiently as possible.
Alongside the farming you also have the chance to build relationships with the locals which is an important and rewarding element as you get to know each character and find out what makes them tick. In turn they can help by pitching in with farming duties, upgrade your equipment or giving you rare items. You can even woo and marry one of several eligible bachelors/bachelorettes and eventually have a little sprog of your own to carry on the family farm. If you have any spare time you can also raise some extra cash fishing, foraging for wild herbs and berries or cook up any of the food items to create various dishes which you can sell or give as a gift to a potential spouse or villager.
Tree of Tranquility is probably the best home console version of the game since the excellent N64 game (still considered by most fans to be the pinnacle of the series), and is certainly the deepest and largest of the recent crop. The Island you find yourself sailing to at the beginning of the game is the largest world featured in a Harvest Moon game and exploring every nook and cranny will take quite a bit of time; there are a lot of locations that are opened up during the course of the story. There are also a lot more things to see and do in this game too – you can buy extra furniture for your house and new clothing for your farmer; wild animals can be befriended and brought back to your farm and you now have the option of working part-time for a bit of cash at the various stores around the Island. This last feature is completely new and is pretty handy, especially at the start of the game as you can make a bit of extra cash and won’t use up any valuable stamina, which is often used up by your daily farming duties.
There are a few areas that take the shine off the whole experience though. While this has one of the largest set of characters they lack the personality and charm of some of the earlier games and you probably won’t care to get to know half the cast. The previous two titles had a handy icon showing where you were aiming when using tools but this has mysteriously disappeared. Finally, the graphics are a bit of a mixed bag, lacking either the cohesive design of the previous Wii title, Magical Melody, or the rich textures and camera control of A Wonderful Life on GameCube.
If you have played and enjoyed a previous Harvest Moon game then you should definitely pick this up, there is so much in this game it will be a long time before you see everything it has to offer and the core gameplay is as addictive as ever. For everyone else it really depends on what sort of game floats your boat; action-hungry gamers may not have the patience for this, but fans of Animal Crossing or The Sims will get a lot of pleasure from Harvest Moon’s quaint offerings.