By Katie . May 8, 2007 . 5:08pm
In ten years, we’ve seen at least as many Harvest Moons rise over the world’s most popular (and yeah, it could be, only) farming simulation game. And while each one has offered more of the same gaming tastiness we rabidly consumed before, it’s as with a good food eaten too often that some people have begun to unwittingly steer clear of Harvest Moon. Don’t get me wrong – whether it’s its every year or every five, there’s something that keeps me coming back to the quaint, translation-challenged countryside, to its stories of childhood on a grandfather’s farm and the inherited responsibility that comes later, or else of rejuvenating a ghost town through the might of agriculture, or else… you get the idea. Plus, from partners Natsume and Marvelous’ standpoint, who must reap a bumper crop year after year, it would have made sense to keep the series locked in the same lunar phase indefinitely.
Thematically, though, gardening is something that can happen anywhere, anytime, and without the rivalries, wife-wooing or social ladder-climbing prerequisite to the sim in question. To resolve the creative impasse of their own accord, Harvest Moon’s developers had the good sense to snatch up talented planners ArtePiazza, to set the game in the not-so-distant-but-ever-popular-future, and to have the story stake the fate of a whole city-state on a mere child’s productivity (a robot, but that’s beside the point). The resulting, bold new direction they take in Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon presents many firsts that succeed in revitalizing the old formula and the theme of life on the farm.
The game opens with a tantalizing, demo-like trailer of the new, alternate-universe face of Harvest Moon, showing off some leafy locales that sing shades of Phantasy Star Online. From the opening scenes, which allude heavily to a world-gone-digital, anyone with a passing familiarity of Harvest Moon should recognize the distinct lack of rustic, silo-spotted pastures and the presence instead of a MegaMan-like doctor-son combination, a huge flat-screen computer and an even bigger ‘Shine Pod’. It shouldn’t be terribly surprising, in the year 2022 A.D, that farming, livestock-rearing and so much more have become automated, and that an insightful, more mature Harvest Moon might deal with the ever-growing conflict between nature and man’s machinery. The story goes that long ago, a holistic civilization of the East fought against the rest of FlameHeart Island (including the site of your creation, Volcano Town) and lost. Since then, a bunch of Spirits haven’t been too happy that the victors, who rely so much on automation, haven’t cared for their new land as had its previous occupants, and they’ve decided that FlameHeart Island’s volcano ought to erupt and teach them some respect. The more vigilant villagers are hoping that your character, Life, an android of noble heart, might still regain the gods’ favor, plant the roots of hard labor back into the ancients’ soil, and prevent the eruption, but the disbelieving skeptics of Banks Corporation have set their sights on defeating him and claiming the property as their own. Under the production of Marvelous, ArtePiazza has designed an artful world perfectly suited for such a dilemma, one that incorporates its message in resident eccentric Moonlight’s random works of art, and in stark dichotomies of wooden houses and life’s old ways versus new, sterile corporate venues, a future of simultaneous convenience and peril.
Life’s caretakers Franco and Moonlight are also his neighbors in the Easter Ruins so he’s never a total recluse, but always remember that nature is where the action is. If you spend your time wisely, you’ll be rewarded with increased Human Status, money, respect, and access to new areas of your mysterious ruins unlocked by your skilled hand. The outdoors is perfectly populated with all kinds of gatherable goods, fishable lakes, and mines and strange shrines for your perusal, so go nuts and enjoy.
…Just get past the initial slow start. Although its release isn’t scheduled until mid-May, I doubt whether any writer will have played far enough by then to declare a be-all, end-all verdict on Innocent Life. You see, game time moves scarce little faster than the real deal, at least in the first two weeks – as far as I’ve managed to make it after a solid five days’ playtime. Even if the critical ratio of the two chronologies seems fair – a minute of Island time for every second of ours – don’t be fooled, as the better part of Life’s beginning isn’t much of a life at all. You’ll have all the time in the world to focus on the basics of farming as old man Franco holds you prisoner in your own house, forbidding you to go to town until you’ve shipped a crop – namely, a turnip, which takes five days to grow. And even before that, a brief stint on a virtual farm will have prepped you for the real deal, so the practice is really unnecessary. This is a major reversal for a series that normally throws you into the untamed wilds with minimal instruction, presuming years of knowledge and giving you but a few books and townspeople to tutor you. The scenario ought to be beneficial for newcomers, but it drags seriously for series veterans (and for the hardcore in general), even if it gives you time to learn the (easy) menu and control operations and the (simplified) new patterns for tilling and sowing. You can cook simple dishes infinite times daily, but the dishes are semi-random in every category and so you might not get any points towards Cooking, one of the elements of your Human Status. At least your farm attracts the locals, who will speak volumes in an utterly elegant tongue as compared to games past, and who work to flesh out the world that much more. But then again, old hands will likely feel limited by the fact you can’t give a gift to any of them, or even use your tools at will if there’s not a suitable target for them (so that means you can’t abuse the experience system on rainy days, or, for a good laugh, abuse anyone with a douse of the watering can. Sorry folks; maybe when he’s older.)
Once you do step outside the bounds of Easter Ruins, the world you’ll find is gorgeous. Farming out the planning happens to have been another excellent move by team Natsume/Marvelous – you can’t help but notice the day-night difference from the likes of Harvest Moon DS in the models, architecture, sprites… everything. The multi-layered backdrops of the island shore glittering behind trees of cherry blossom and persimmon and birch and pine; the transparent pane-glass overpass of the town and the high-resolution textures of its storefront signs; weather effects that blow petals in the breeze; milling strays, caged birds and fish that move in their aquariums: every facet of Innocent Life is attended to by ArtePiazza’s stylish hand. And although automation is bad cause of the whole lava-mountain-go-boom thing, it sure is neat that shopping carts come to life when you enter a store, and that a cool-looking Battlebot can be made to assist you, and that you can build a track on your property to convey baskets full of your crops to the shipping bin. They all look great, and behave exactly as they should.
As for the musical score, set your ears to stunned. Spring won’t bring its ordinary, jovial auditory hues, but whimsical, desolate strums of the acoustic guitar and swelling Celtic themes. The audio adds immensely to the atmosphere of unease and doubt, capturing the simultaneous hope and despair of a promising but precarious future. Sound effects are plentiful and seem to have been sampled from the actual sources of a door opening, wind blowing, etc. – hooray for UMD!
Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon departs from nigh all expectations. So throw out what you thought you knew about the zodiac: with Innocent Life, and the coming DS and Wii versions, it’s the Year of the Moon.