This is the perfect game to help you train for your date with Paris Hilton.
Harvest Moon isn’t like other games. It’s about farming. That seems like a rudimentary point, but it really seeps into every pore of the gameplay. You can’t approach Harvest Moon expecting anything remotely similar to Final Fantasy, Zelda, or even one of the Sim-(City/World/Ant/s) games. Harvest Moon makes you a farmer, and it makes you like being one. Your days are filled with watering crops, milking cows, and trying to eke out a living in an economic model not exactly rife with profit.
The actual gameplay is extremely simple and repetitive. Depending on how you build your farm, you may be spending a large part of each game day carrying chickens in and out of their coop, or tending to every single plant growing in your fields. For a change of pace, you might try digging in the ruins or going fishing, but these activities are similarly mundane exercises in patience and persistence. The only other significant thing to do in the game is interact with the local townsfolk, which can prove to be a very slow and frustrating process. Most people tell you the same two or three things over and over, so you have to make friends not through conversation, but by handing out gifts until you find something each person is fond of. Then you keep giving that thing until the person finally reciprocates with a little cut-scene or an item which may or may not be worth as much as all the stuff you contributed to the “relationship”.
As with many simulation games, the rewards of playing Harvest Moon are not readily apparent in a brief, isolated game session. It’s the loftier goals, like upgrading your farm or building a family, which make all the intermediate labor seem worth your time. The game is based heavily on the psychology of objectives and self-improvement. Some players are going to respond enthusiastically, others not at all. Although Harvest Moon is quite unique for its subject matter and a few other reasons, it’s safe to say that if you are easily addicted to other simulation games, you will probably have no problem settling into the farm routine.
Much of Harvest Moon’s charm comes from how it presents all the best aspects of farming life. Despite work-filled days and busy walking paths through the village, there is an overriding blanket of serenity to the proceedings. While fishing, you can literally close your eyes, listen to the sound of the rushing water, and drift into a semi-conscious state while casually listening for the “blop!” of a fish on the line. While not technically impressive, the game’s world is painted in soft colors and shadows worthy of any Bob Ross painting. When riding your horse out to the seaside as the sun fades away, it’s hard not to be touched. There are no thrills or explosions in Harvest Moon; this is a game for people who want a break from calamity and wouldn’t mind a peaceful, relaxing experience for once.
There are some downsides to this approach. On many days, especially early in the farm’s life when there is little farmwork and little money to spend on more crops and animals, the game days can stretch on too long. Let’s say you finish watering your single row of watermelons and milk the cow by 10:00 AM on the game clock. That leaves twelve more game hours to amuse yourself or try to make a bit of extra money, and there just aren’t many options for either. The game gets busier as you build up resources and new chores on the farm, but things can be dreadfully slow in the first couple of months, which amount to several real hours of playing.
There are also some unfortunate control problems. The grid-based system used in crop-tending and digging should be simple to use, but the overly sensitive joystick response makes it needlessly difficult to target a particular square. This problem can lead to general frustration when watering plants, as well as some inexcusable accidents, like using the hoe on a nearly-ripe tomato instead of the adjacent plot of untilled soil. Other control problems lie in how certain menus are laid out; selling items to the traveling salesman is ridiculously cumbersome. There are also several unused buttons on the controller that could have made various tasks easier to perform, such as quickly switching from one tool to another. It’s quite mystifying how such a simple game could be riddled with such obvious control faults, though thankfully the game isn’t unplayable from their presence, just annoying at times.
The game also has trouble balancing some of its gameplay elements. For instance, raising crops doesn’t become profitable until you have acquired several new pieces of equipment and a lot of high-quality seeds, which isn’t going to happen in the first ten hours of gameplay. I jumped into planting and harvesting right away, assuming it to be the main part of any good farm, but it didn’t take too long to realize that I was wasting my time raising low-quality seeds and selling the fruit for barely any profit. Then there’s the cooking “mini-game”, which is heavily encouraged by the game but has little practical use, since you can subsist entirely on the free herbs found growing all over the place. Likewise, selling items from your own produce stand in town proves to be slow and ineffective, since most people who come along will want to buy random flowers instead of the crops and dairy that you worked so hard to produce.
Despite these nuisances, Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life is a pleasant experience that can become frighteningly addictive. There’s nothing quite like the joy of seeing your hen lay a golden egg after months of pampering, and a hundred other little events are similarly fulfilling. This game is so different and surprisingly fun, even to gamers with zero interest in farming, that I feel compelled to recommend at least a rental. If you do get a chance to try Harvest Moon, and you like what you’ve seen, the game is easily long and rich enough to be worth purchasing.