The good? Still the same. The bad? Still the same.
For those who have toiled along the sun-parched fields of Harvest Moon over the years, one thing has been made evidently clear: repetition is fun. Combining the occupation of farming with the genre of simulation, Natsume has kept their hardworking fan-base busy for over a decade. Though obscure in the glory days of the SNES, the series has definitely busted onto the scene in recent years. Whether by word-of-mouth or a lack of first-party Nintendo games (which we should all be used to), Harvest Moon has sort of become the ultimate reality simulator. Whether you’re tilling that last spot of barren land or milking your cow for the hundredth time, there is an irreplaceable charm underneath all that manual labor, rarely found in games today.
Yet, there is a problem.
It is the one thing that has always been a consistent problem in this series and that is its lack of game-play diversity between releases. Yes, it is safe to say that each individual game in the series is solid. However, for those who have followed the farming simulator since the earlier days, there have been times where we have felt a disappointing sensation of deja-vu. Example being the nearly identical versions of Harvest Moon 64 and Harvest Moon: Back to Nature. Though different in name, each title shared the same characters, animals, and practically the same town. And unfortunately, the same can be said for the Game Boy Advance version of Friends of Mineral Town and Natsume’s latest offering for the dual-screen handheld, Harvest Moon DS.
That’s not to say that the title is poor, it’s just that, well, nothing has really changed. Despite all the system changes the series has gone through over the years, the core game-play hasn’t changed in the slightest. If the last Harvest Moon you played was on the SNES back in the nineties, then you could jump into any of the others with little effort. Tilling land, managing crops, upgrading buildings, and making friends are still your primary objectives and it is safe to say that Natsume caters more to gathering new fans than keeping old ones. Yet, fans keep coming back, hoping for that one change that will rekindle the passion for their delightful, little reality sim. Nevertheless, if you are new to this particular collaboration of farming-oriented games, then you are in for a good time. And where else could those good times be held, but the place where it always starts.
Ah the farm, always the location where your blue-collar adventures begin. You start as a young boy in Forget-Me-Not Valley, living a simple life in the quaint little town. However, things are not always what they seem. Through some magical mischief, brought about by the Witch Princess, the Harvest Goddess is petrified and sent to another dimension, along with most of the helpful little sprites. Realizing her wrong doing, the princess enlists your help to try and bring her back. How you may ask? Well, by farming of course, what else? Despite the unique back-story, not much has changed as far as introductions go. Within minutes you will begin clearing out your crappy, weed-filled backyard as you have done in every other Harvest Moon game, all the while trying to get used to the new control scheme brought about by the DS.
The touch screen acts as your access window in Harvest Moon DS, allowing you to reach in and pull items out of that big, orange rucksack. Within that backpack you will notice three distinct placeholders, them being: tool, item, and accessory. Though the first two should be familiar to any regular, the newly added equip option brings about an RPG approach to the series. As you continue to gain prestige and wealth, or what little you can in such a small setting, you will find it easier to unlock these unique items. Items that will let you recover lost stamina, transport from place to place, and even improve the happiness of your animals. The animal glove, for example, brings about the other use of the touch screen, allowing you to brush, wash, and pet your animals through a compilation of quick mini-games. It is undoubtedly intriguing, however, this feature remains as one of the few new game-play elements. Beyond this point you should instantly recognize practically everything, assuming you’ve been playing these games for some time.
The game is certainly more challenging this time around though. Rather than having the bird and material sheds handed to you at the beginning of the game, you will have to earn them through a little bit of ingenuity and elbow grease. Planting crops is definitely a priority in the early seasons, with the casino being a useful way to make a bit of money on the side. Speaking of crops, there are plenty to pick from, with over twenty vegetables available for harvesting. Trees also give you a break from tending to your large gardens, providing extra income without you even having to lift a finger. In due time, you will have acquired the necessary buildings, allowing you to raise livestock, poultry, and of course, a trusty steed.
Life as a farmer can definitely be lonely at times, so heading down to the village for some social activities is essential. Those who played through A Wonderful Life will have no problem remembering most of its “unique” inhabitants. Who could forget the shy giant Cody, the introverted scientist Daryll, or the lovable hobo Murrey? Well, too be honest, most tried to after the disappointing mess that was A Wonderful Life, but it’s hard not to remember when the game came out just two years ago. Agenda’s run rampant for the townsfolk of Forget-Me-Not Village and learning their schedules is key for accessing secret events, unlocking particular tools, or raising their friendship levels. Nevertheless, as always, there resides the most important individuals in each farming adventure you’ve ever undergone – the women.
Wish getting married in reality was as easy as it is to in this game? You should. In fact, everyone should . . . unless you like being single. As always, there resides five primary bachelorettes, with several unlockable ones along the way. Each has their own unique personality, likes, dislikes, and locations they enjoy visiting. After some trial and error, you will memorize your lady of choice’s favorite things and proceed to raise her friendship and heart levels. This can be done by giving some gifts, unlocking their heart scenes, and attending the festivals regularly. The core element of marriage as a whole hasn’t really changed and those familiar with the system will probably be married by the end of the first year. Just another thing Natsume could’ve expanded upon, but didn’t.
Okay, maybe there is one new addition in Harvest Moon DS that hasn’t been in its’ predecessors . . . but it isn’t very good. In fact, it is just as monotonous as the primary farming game-play can eventually become. What is being talked about here is the implementation of a dungeon-crawling mechanic. Wait, what? Dungeon elements in a farming simulator? Yeah, it befuddles me too.
It all takes place within the mine and at first, it will seem just like the traditional cave from the earlier titles. Hoeing here and there, collecting ore and random stuff along the way, nothing out of the ordinary right? Well, you will soon discover floors and below the first floor you will unearth the most bizarre of items and creatures, that you would never think would come out of a Harvest Moon title. Evil chickens, cursed tools, and even a mysterious maiden await for you within the bowels of the earth, with the floor levels ranging from fifty to over sixty-five thousand! The repetition isn’t too noticeable at first glance, but within an hour you will realize the lack of diversity between floors, with the problem compounded even more due to the HP system. Here you are, on floor "1,243" and you haven’t saved in a while. Then all of a sudden, thump! You just fell over two hundred floors through a random hole and lost all of your health.
Despite the lack of uniqueness and the negativity brought upon by the few new approaches to the series, there is one positive to Harvest Moon DS, and it has to do with the presentation. The visuals have certainly improved since the farming simulator’s outing on the Game Boy Advance, with vibrant landscapes and better drawn character models enveloping the top and bottom screens. The game features plenty of catchy new soundtracks, that would be even better if the same song didn’t play throughout all thirty days of a season. The addition of purchasable songs from previous Harvest Moon titles makes up for this, with over twenty of them available for purchase as you progress throughout. You always have the option to turn down the volume though.
At the end of the day, what else can be said but – this is Harvest Moon. If you have been a faithful fan since day one and don’t care whether or not anything ever changes in this series, then have fun. If you are a newcomer, there is no better place to start. There is plenty of work to be done and those worrying about time restriction can relax a bit in knowing that the game continues forever. Year three, six, or even forty-four are all possible, just in case you want to continue your progress from home, work, or on the road. However, if you are one of those that likes change, look elsewhere. To be honest, the game is really just a combination of A Wonderful Life and Friends of Mineral Town. So if you own one or both of these games, just save your money.