For a franchise with a notable absence of antagonism, the Bokujō Monogatari/Harvest Moon franchise has found itself in an ironic junction. Originally published in 1996 by Japanese publisher/developer Pack-In-Video (creator of Die Hard, Friday the 13th, Predator, and Rambo for the NES), Yasuhiro Wada’s game was a significant departure from the company’s usual fare. Avoiding the conventional contention, Monogatari was a remarkably tranquil journey, detailing a young boy’s determination to cultivate and collect crops, socialize with townsfolk, and eventually find a spouse.
In the ensuing years, the franchise nurtured a niche audience, with Natsume renaming the game Harvest Moon when the first game made its way stateside. In the ensuing years, the series has mirrored its own mechanics, producing a near-annual bounty for the Burlingame-based company. But when Marvelous ended up acquiring both Pack-In-Video’s properties (absorbed previously by Victor Interactive Software) as well as XSEED, a localization team with a wealth of experience- all Natsume was left with was the Harvest Moon brand name.
As such, Natsume recently put out Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley, a title which is more like Minecraft that the traditional Bokujō Monogatari game. Meanwhile, XSEED has published Story of Seasons, a game which might lack the Moon moniker, but is the true successor of the casual farming simulation genre. Expectedly, a shift in publishers has the potential to shake things up. That’s certainly the case with Seasons– which reveals a number of small, but significant departures from Harvest Moon tenet.
For better or worse, Story of Seasons wants to be certain that players are familiar with the fundamentals. After creating a boy or girl avatar in the game’s character creation component, they’ll meet Eda. She’s Oak Tree Town’s surrogate grandmother, and she’ll take players under her wing, spending seven in-game days imparting the rudiments of crop production, harvest, animal care, and trading. Franchise vets will undoubtedly want to start tilling and seeding without all the handholding, but your week with Eda has its rewards. Every day, the kind-hearted matriarch gives players a liberal allowance, and when the seven-day tutelage end- players will feel as if they really worked for their first homestead.
It’s here that Story of Seasons gameplay tweaks become perceptible, with the game hastening the pace of horticulture and husbandry. The player’s default movement speed is notably quicker, allowing the character to scamper around Oak Tree Town at an invigorating clip. Much of the tedium of agriculture has been eliminated as well, with action affecting entire three-by-three grids instead of have to tend to each individual plot of dirt. Unfortunately, a condensed stamina bar at the start of the game means that only a few tasks can be completed before players tire, making exhaustion an ever-present possibility.
In execution, that means that breaking apart a single boulder can fill the bulk of a workday, with players that push their physical limits ending up in Oak Tree’s medical center, with their maximum health level reduced. A full recovery entails making a recipe in your kitchen, a trip to the hot springs, or buying food items, which all cost money- prodding players back into the actions that fatigued them. Whether you’re working late or tending to your animals in rainy weather, there are a number of elements than can affect your health, with Seasons truly showing the tenancy and toughness required for farming. Of course, if players select the ‘seedling’ level of difficulty, as least some of the restraint on stamina is removed while pricing multiplayers are skewed in the gamer’s favor, bringing the game closer to Moon tradition.
Instead of a dependable shipping box, where Harvest Moon characters would send out their products and receive speedy compensation, Story of Seasons’ economic model revolves around the Trade Depot. Head to the town plaza and you’ll encounter a growing gathering of countries who’ll have an imminent need for certain goods, and a surplus of other items- with both situations affecting price. As such, a bit more planning is needed before generating your financial nest egg, with prudent players checking an in-game calendar before they move into production. Becoming an all-inclusive retailer is tough as first, with new players having a limited amount of access to the desired good. But stick with Seasons’ trade system and it will open up, with positive trade relations opening up new avenues of opportunity.
With the workday frequently finishing in the early afternoon hours, the title gives players plenty of things to do in the afternoons and early evenings. Players can go swimming or angling, pulling out items and well as fish that can either pad the linings of either their savings accounts or their bellies. With the ability to any kind of clothing regardless of the gender of your character, there’s a large assortment of attire to add to your closet, while collecting a plethora of different bugs remains a viable way to fill hours.
Beyond cultivating crops, and raising farm animals, players can also purchase blueprints that serve as an outlet for their carpentry capabilities. While Story of Seasons doesn’t quite bestow the omnipotence of previous Harvest Moon games, you still have a lot of control over your domain, with the ability to move fields, fences, and the occasional structure. Naturally, socialization with other townsfolk remains a large draw, with the ability to foster friendship and even relationships that will result in marriage or children. While producing progeny is amusing, it still wasn’t as gratifying as winning over (and receiving gifts from) some of Oak Tree Town’s more cantankerous characters.
Given Story of Seasons open-ended ambitions, crafting a standard, role-playing-like story arc wasn’t possible. Instead, the game’s highlights a number of absorbing themes, with the beauty of rustic life being one of the more prominent refrains. Much like the Wolf Children (Ōkami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki), Seasons stresses the splendor of nature- discussing the sweetness of country air, the tranquil slumber after a day of manual labor, or the fulfillment that stems from the humane and thoughtful treatment of animals. Look carefully, and there’s a gentle reverence of nature throughout the game, with a single instance of river littering producing the ire of the entire town. The concept of mottainai is rooted in the title with gamers goaded into not producing an iota of waste.
Largely, this beauty translates to the pictorial, with the game’s serene rivers, jutting trees, and seasonal depictions pushing the capabilities of the 3DS. With the depth slider turned up, Seasons’ delivers a layered output, with character portraits and dialog boxes appearing in front of the playfield. On the downside, the title’s visuals can succumb to the periodic instance of slowdown; fortunately, it’s light enough to not hamper gameplay. Sonically, the game’s selection of perpetually cheerful tunes are consistently melodic, but with short lengths, they songs tend to repeat a bit too often.
While Natsume may still possess the Harvest Moon name, XSEED’s Story of Seasons is the true descendant of the Bokujō Monogatari linage. With a number of design decisions meant to take the drudgery out of simulated farmwork and produce an appreciation for pastoral life, Seasons will undoubtedly please fans of the genre.
Story of Seasons was played on the New 3DS with review code provided by the publisher.
Developer: Marvelous AQL
Publisher: XSEED Games
Release date: March 31st, 2015
Price: $39.99 retail or via the Nintendo eShop