Proving that a name isn’t as important as some people think.
So the long-awaited answer to the Marvelous vs. Natsume question has finally arrived. Story of Seasons, for those unaware, is the next in Japan’s Bokujō Monogatari series, known in the in other parts of the world as Harvest Moon. One complicated split and licensing issue later, we are seeing this as a “new” series of a separate title. But true to form, Marvelous rises to the challenge to create a game simultaneously familiar and new. Story of Seasons is an ambitious undertaking into undiscovered, complex territory whose ideas seem to be taking a turn down the right path.
Several features that first made an appearance in Harvest Moon: A New Beginning are rehashed for this title, partially as a result of popularity with fans. Carpentry returns as a personal skill, while the Carpentry Shop in town exists only to provide players with some materials and blueprints for their projects (others have to be purchased from visiting traders). Players can also still customize the layout on their farm, moving fences, fields, and even buildings to suit your individual tastes. This used to be a feature that extended to towns, but although your god-like powers over people’s lives have been scaled back, the game does not suffer for it.
Character customization is back with the extended family in tow. It is everything a player could want and then some. Options for your character’s basic appearance are extensive to say the least and only grow as your closet becomes available shortly after the game’s week of tutorial ends. Any time you grow bored of your look, the option to change is readily at hand, and most importantly, completely free. At least until you get into clothing and accessories. Additionally, options for clothing and appearance are not limited to male and female options, so everything is always available regardless of your avatar’s gender, which does remain unchangeable after the game starts. The choices are virtually never ending in this respect, and gathering all the clothes and accessories you want will likely take far more game time than building a successful farm and family.
Where is there ever a rural town with only one resident farmer? Nowhere. And for once, we have a farming game that more accurately captures this. Your home in Story of Seasons is actually surrounded by farmers who are far more successful than you by the time you arrive, and your job is to play catch up and eventually blow them out of the water. Seriously. In a new twist, players are actually required to compete with four rival farmers for the use of rental fields, which expand the diversity of one’s crops immensely. Each field has a specialty that it is best for and it’s your job to nab what you want, though you can admittedly rig this competition in your favor. Once the rental period for land has expired, farmers must visit the guild in town to apply to compete for the next round of plot rentals. However, it is the player who decides the parameters of the competition, from things such as quality of items shipped to yearly results, and as time goes on, more parameters open up and it becomes much easier to tip the scales using your own personal strengths.
Growth on your farm is kept slow to begin with due to a combination of all these factors and it keeps this competition from losing its edge very quickly. Being gifted a barn and a cow right off always seems to start players on a “very easy” difficulty straight from the get-go, but in this game, there is too much else going on for it to take this route. Buying blueprints to expand your livestock holdings are a necessity and they are expensive. Then, once the blueprints are yours, materials are not always readily available and impatience means they must be purchased. And then finally there is the fee for the animal itself. When you finally have a grip, that’s when your farmers’ rivalry begins. The game admittedly does have plenty of resources at hand for a farmer to make the most of, opportunities for gathering and swimming in rivers for valuables to supplement your farm’s fledgling income, and it makes this initial struggle more bearable. It’s an uphill battle to begin with but as always, it still feels like the challenge balances out all too soon. Marvelous admittedly tries to counter this with increasing an already fairly extensive amount of obtainable content as the game progresses, but collecting animals in your safari and clothes in your closet does eventually lose its shine.
Streamlining controls in some aspects of this game makes for a smoother experience in the tedium of your daily chores. Old Harvest Moon titles had us running from plant to plant watering each and harvesting individually. Often, this kept players from expanding their agriculture later in the game simply because no one wanted to sit and water 40 plants a day, every day. Trenches appearing on the DS started to take steps toward eliminating this boredom, but while useful, they were cumbersome to create at best. Now, fortunately, we have a magical square that automatically tills, plants and waters a 3x3 plot of land for each action. Even harvesting is a simple two-click process: one boxes the entire 3x3 plot, and one places the box of crops in your bag. Simple, efficient, and it allows you to spend your time on way more interesting things.
Story of Season’s introduction of a simple economic system is one of the new highlights to this game. Traders from foreign countries come on specific calendar days, several days a month, and this is your only way of selling your products. This can be a little cumbersome, but it’s easy to track when traders arrive, so overall it didn’t feel like it weighed negatively on the experience. Each trader also has commodities higher in demand and things they will sell to you for a reduced cost and this changes each visit. Fortunately the information is easily attainable, but virtually useless to you in the beginning of the game. Since you can produce tools and objects alongside your crops and animal products, there’s a wide array of things for you in sell in the long run. However, that means that almost every visit in the beginning will be conducted regardless of supply and demand. It’s an engaging aspect, but it does little to hook you in the beginning.
Another thing that hurts rather than helps in Story of Seasons’ initial moments is the slow momentum of the game’s beginning. Not only is the tutorial a grueling week-long ordeal, but the story itself takes a whole season to even kick into gear. New players might enjoy the month to get their bearings, but vets will find themselves slogging through their first spring, entering festivals with no hope of winning and spending all of their days gathering to throw as much product at Silk Country as they can for money toward their farm’s development. If players aren’t hooked by cute art and the hope of something better, there’s a high risk they will set this down in favor of something with a bit more get-up-and-go.
While the split with Natsume might have been confusing and a bit rattling to begin with, Story of Seasons comes out with a noticeably valiant effort from the Marvelous team. Extensive in-game content and its new ideas attached to series’ staples give us an accomplished beginning to a new name. The game does turn out to be a somewhat light on top, commanding little attention at all in its first month, but with eventually engaging gameplay and overall appeal, it will undoubtedly hook players with its charm in due time. Marvelous hasn’t lost their spark for creating a farming game worth picking up, and for that, we’re grateful.