Back in the ‘90s, a small company named Natsume took a chance on a farming simulator game called Bokujō Monogatari (Farm Story), seeing potential in this budding series even though such games were consider risky choices for localization at the time. Company President and CEO Yasuhiro “Hiro” Maekawa renamed the game Harvest Moon for English audiences, believing that hard work—or harvest—was a vital aspect of the original game, and as such wanted harvest to be a part of the title. The rest, he said, “just fell into place.”
Throughout the years that followed, Natsume and Marvelous, the current Japanese publishers of Farm Story, maintained a strong relationship, with Natsume handling the series’ localization. Recently, though, Marvelous have handed the series over to their localization subsidiary, Xseed Games, who will localize the newest Farm Story game under a new name: Story of Seasons.
The story takes a little turn for the confusing here, as Natsume has now developed their own independent Farm Story game, and named it Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley, since they still own the rights to that name in the West. When the game was announced, opinions were mixed on whether or not Natsume could pull off developing their own title, but quite possibly the most common critical sentiment was that The Lost Valley was not a ‘real’ Harvest Moon. This argument has since been something that turns up in every discussion about the game, and no doubt will turn up here as well, for as prevalent a sentiment as it is, I feel that no one has really given a sufficient enough answer as to what a ‘real’ Harvest Moon is suppose to be.
This got me thinking—just what makes a Harvest Moon game, a Harvest Moon game? I wanted to arrive at some sort of conclusion for myself, and that was one of my goals when I recently dove into Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley. What made the previous games tick; what was their soul? And did The Lost Valley recapture that essence?
The soul-searching began with me replaying the previous Harvest Moon (i.e. Farm Story) games I had already owned before I started my play-through of The Lost Valley. In my search, I felt that I had found two principles that were the pillars of the previous games. The first was the human element. The relationships you made in each game were unique and drove the player to discover more within the games themselves. There was always a sense of a small town community and belonging. You felt that you were making real connections to the characters portrayed in the game. Social aspects of life simulators are a key component and often are rather tricky to pull off, but many of the older entries have stood as a major example of how to do it right. The second principle was the appreciation of hard work. Mr. Maekawa was right on the money when he chose this aspect for the English title. I felt humbled by the farmer’s life in the games, and found a new appreciation for work. There was always a sense of satisfaction in the games, as you watched your hard work pay off, and that’s the major take-away here—at the very core, there was always a philosophy that your hard work would pay off in the future.
Moving on to my play-through of The Lost Valley, I kept these two principles in mind. When examining the game under the context of the first principle, I was met with less than stellar results. Right from the start of the game something is obviously missing—namely, the town. Gone is any sense of community, and in its place is a system where the villagers will come and visit you in the Valley. Now, each individual still has his or her own unique schedule you have to learn, but the whole process feels so automated and robotic. Ultimately, people just sort of randomly pop up and barge into your life, like an unfunny internet meme. Even worse, though, is the loss of discovery. Previously, there was an aspect of getting to know someone, and learning about him or her. You had to discover the characters on your own. Unfortunately, The Lost Valley takes that all away and just does it for you instead. You are directly told almost everything you need to know about these characters through either stale dialogue or dream sequences. None of what you do in this regard feels driven by what you want, and it is just a frustratingly restrictive feeling, especially in the game’s opening hours.
The most frustrating aspect, however, is actually that the main hook of the game actively competes against creating connections to the characters. The player is charged with restoring the seasons to the Valley, and until you do so, you are stuck in a permanent winter. Starting out in winter is not fun. Winter is cold, winter is lonely, winter is slow, winter is harsh. It is the exact opposite of the warm sense of belonging and rich interesting atmosphere you feel in the past games. The hook of the game essentially creates a very lonely experience at the start, and while rewarding as it is to finally be free of winter, and get back other seasons, it came at the price of making the opening hours all the more grueling.
This is only amplified by the fact that building up the few relationships you do get is a slow process, and finally getting past four or five-word sentences takes time. It’s the kind of experience that leaves you wishing for more, only to regret it when you do finally get more, as when you finally do get to talk more, you will find most denizens of the Valley are like a soda-pop left open for too long: stale. Conversations are mundane, most characters are just flat and too family friendly. Nothing feels alive, and any attempt I made for meaningful connections to this game’s cast ended in failure. An overall sense of dullness existed throughout the entire process.
Let’s move on to the other feature that makes Harvest Moon what it is—the “hard work” aspect. The Lost Valley fares better in regard to this idea, although there are certainly issues to address. Let’s start with the positive, though—which is that the terraforming aspect of the game is amazing. Terraforming has been touted as one of the major selling points for The Lost Valley, and I can see why now. It is mesmerizing to transform the land any which way you want, and the level of freedom is impressive. Mountains, rivers, waterfalls, big red barns, you name it, and chances are, you can manipulate it. The Valley really is like a giant sandbox to play God in, and creating your own little slice of heaven kept me playing for hours on end. Your imagination (and if you’re like me: your OCD) can just run wild here. It is extremely fulfilling work, and at the end of long play sessions, I found myself looking back, and seeing what I did to make the Valley uniquely my own, and feeling happy—empowered, even. The work you can do with the terraforming is a great base for any potential future game, and I hope Natsume can build upon it.
As great as the terraforming is, though, the farming could use a little more work. The biggest issue is the time management. The day ends so quickly, and tasks take so long to do, you’re left feeling far too restricted at times. The slow animations mixed with only being able to work on one tile at a time make for a bad combination. Had there been a way to speed up this process—skip past the slow animations, or make the day last longer—I feel I would have enjoyed The Lost Valley more. The sad truth is, the longer you play, the more this problem persist and grows, and the more it takes away from other fun things you could be doing, like terraforming.
I also found myself not a big fan of the button layout Natsume chose. I can understand the logic of making each tool its own unique button, since this does simplify things and Natsume seems to be attempting to streamline the whole process, but years of gaming have trained me to always press B to cancel/put away, so I found myself constantly digging holes in the ground with my shovel when all I wanted to do was put away my tools. It’s a nitpick, yes, but it is a frustration nonetheless, and leads into a greater design flaw I found with this game. The whole attempt at simplifying the game feels unnecessary and somewhat amateurish. I rather just have a straightforward menu-based system—something akin to Animal Crossing, perhaps—than having to remember what arbitrary task was assigned to what random button. The game is built in such a way, that there are genuine moments where it feels like the game plays itself for you, and you are just an observer, or an outside manager, but not an active participant. This is just a style of design I cannot get behind, and hopefully it’s something Natsume addresses in future releases.
Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley falls short of the original series in my experience, providing a pretty dry sense of community, and an interesting but somewhat flawed workspace. Does this make The Lost Valley a bad game, though? No, The Lost Valley is not a terrible game, by any stretch of the imagination. It is a mostly average game when judged on its own merits and can prove to be fun for those who appreciate its many customization options. If not for how absolutely dull the game really is, I would be more willing to forgive some of my misgivings with it, even. As an attempt to build their own Harvest Moon series, Natsume has found a solid foundation, and there’s so much they could do with future instalments, just with the terraforming aspect alone. There’s definitely a great deal of potential here, and it should be interesting to see if any of it is tapped in the future. Until then, you may want to sit this one out if the character interaction really means a lot to you.
Food for thought:
2. The graphics are a bit on the simple side, but they are actually rather charming in motion. While many people may prefer anime drawn portraits, I liked that the conversations featured 3D models that moved their bodies and had animations to express their emotions.
3. The music in the game is pretty minimalistic and simple, but somehow I really enjoyed it. The soundtrack won’t be earning any awards, and it is far from truly memorable, but it really does set this calm mood perfectly for the game.