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Growing crops, raising livestock and racing against the clock to finish all of your chores before the sun goes down. While it may not bear the same name, Story of Seasons is the latest in the long line of life simulation games known as Harvest Moon. But does this latest offering for the 3DS live up to the series’ pedigree?
For those of you who are confused by this whole Story of Seasons versus Harvest Moon business, here’s a super quick rundown: Licensing issues got in the way, so the latest localization to be carried out by Marvelous and XSEED Games had to be called something other than Harvest Moon. Hence, Story of Seasons. Moving forward, it’s a name you should keep your eye out for, as Producer Yoshifumi Hashimoto revealed during E3 2014 that he hopes to see Story of Seasons become known as a new beginning for the popular series. In other words, if you’re looking for that classic life-on-the-farm style of gameplay you traditionally got out of Harvest Moon games in the past couple of decades, this is likely where you’ll find it.
Calling Story of Seasons a new beginning for the series is fair, as you’re presented with some new gameplay mechanics (we’ll get to those later) and even a fresh crop of characters to meet. It was kind of a bummer to say goodbye to folks I’ve been pretend working with and pretend courting for so long, but it’s also refreshing to become part of this new town.
Which brings us to Oak Tree Town, the setting for our new life as a hard-working farmer. Once you fire up the game, you’ll be able to create a character from a limited set of options. Don’t worry, because you’ll be able to get much more creative once you've moved into your new house and, as you craft more and more items, your character can become one of a kind. That emphasis on customization also carries over to your farm and the town itself.
Your farm is highly customizable in Story of Seasons, with loads of items becoming available as you play the game, gather more resources and build your own personal paradise. Benches, wells, a small pond, paving tiles, torches, multiple types of fencing…The list goes on and on. If you’ve got the money to buy the blueprints and enough lumber, bricks and the like to craft it, you can get pretty creative here.
That creativity spills over into Oak Tree Town, too. While you won’t have to build the town from scratch like in Harvest Moon: A New Beginning, you’ll eventually be granted permission to redecorate a bunch of areas peppered throughout the streets, giving your version of Oak Tree Town a personal touch and drawing in new visitors as it gains notoriety.
And speaking of new visitors, one of the larger themes of Story of Seasons is how we’re all connected, giving and receiving from one another in a constant cycle of coexistence. When the game begins, you’ll occasionally be visited by a merchant traveling from a different country. They’ll buy your goods and offer items you can’t find anywhere else. As you progress, additional merchants will start to show up, giving you even more options for the types of crops you want to grow, the type of decorations and helpful structures you want to build and more.
But while that’s all well and good, these types of games are made or broken on the back of their farming and chore systems. Make things too difficult and the player will burn out from frustration. Make things too easy and everyone will grow bored. To that end, Story of Seasons offers two difficulty settings, the main difference being how much energy it takes to carry out various activities and how much money you can buy/sell certain items for. Some in-game requirements (like “Ship X amount of goods to attract a new merchant”) are also toned down quite a bit. I would recommend players give serious consideration to using the “Seedling” difficulty setting, as I’ve been playing on normal and occasionally still have trouble with my stamina draining too early in the day.
In Story of Seasons farming has been streamlined, allowing you to manage crops in 3x3 squares rather than one square at a time. It’s a brilliant system for the most part, allowing you to spend less time grinding on your farm and more time taking part in all of the new activities added to the mix. It’s also oddly gratifying hitting the A button while standing over a ripe crop and watching all nine vegetables leap into a storage box at once. This system works for harvesting with the scythe, too, as well as watering, dropping fertilizer, etc.
But here’s the weird double-edged sword of making farming a little less demanding, even if you play on the harder difficulty settings: The first season of the game can get a bit boring. You won’t have enough seeds available to plant too many crops, so you won’t have to spend too much time or stamina farming in the early goings. Similarly, you probably won’t get your hands on much livestock until the end of that first season, so caring for your critters is minimal. Finally, all of those side activities I was talking about earlier? Well, they take a bit of time to unlock, meaning you’re left with a limited number of options in the first 31 days or so. After tending my farm, collecting bugs, scouring the river for items and chatting up all of the locals, I found I had nothing left to do by about noon in those opening weeks.
My suggestion: Just go to bed as soon as you feel like you’ve done everything you can in a given day and move on to the next one. By the time you’re midway through your second season, Story of Seasons finally starts to open up and, by the time your third season rolls around, you’ll be comfortably wrapped up in that old-school burn of managing your time and activities in the hopes of getting everything on your to-do list done before midnight. The streamlined farming is great once the game gets moving, and I’m sure they simply didn’t want to throw too many activities at you at once in the early goings, but the pacing suffers as a result. Make it through a bit of a dull beginning, though, and you’ll find the same Harvest Moon loop that’s been bringing players back for generations.
When you're not busy working on your farm, timing your visits to the market to coincide with merchants or trying to win over a spouse, you can dive into a number of additional activities geared at making you a more integral part of Oak Tree Town, as well as earning yourself some additional spending cash. You can actually swim in the river this time around, diving to find various fish and useful items. You can also fish off of docks or even set up your own hatchery where you can feed and raise higher quality fish in greater numbers. There's the usual assortment of livestock and produce challenges to work toward, as well as the usual assortment of cooking and crafting activities. Once you've got enough supplies and have built the proper facilities, you can start making your own clothes, furniture, cheese, pottery and more.
There are two major changes to Story of Seasons that really set it apart from previous games: Conquest and Safari.
Spread across town are a number of special farms that are geared at growing things like root plants, tall plants, flowers, raising bees, mushrooms and the like. These fields are leased out to farmers on a regular basis, with the new owner determined by activities like who can sell the most goods on a given day or who performs best at the next town event. These fields give you new ways to make money and spend your time, meaning that (so long as you're confident in your ability to maintain a couple of fields), you could theoretically turn your homestead into a palatial estate and work solely from these specialized fields. Much like timing your visits to market in order to trade with merchants and get the best prices on various goods, you'll want to time your activities around when your desired field will become available and what you can do to tip the odds in your favor once the field is up for lease.
Or, you could ignore it completely. That's one of the beauties of Story of Seasons; once you get rolling, you can pretty much live whatever kind of life you want. I'm one of those people who feels like they have to maximize their farming, so my days are filled racing from field to field, working my stamina to its threshold in order to produce as many crops as possible. Then again, I've heard of people investing almost entirely in flax. They then use that flax and other ingredients to make clothes, basically turning their ranch into an indie clothing factory. Want to focus on raising cows and making oodles of cheese? You can do that. Want to just catch a boatload of fish and raise honeybees? Nothing is holding you back.
Finally, there's the Safari mode, which is an entirely separate map where you can gather even more resources and enjoy more exotic forms of wildlife. As you become friends with the merchants, they'll request a certain structure be built in your Safari. Once you've done that, you'll then be able to interact with all sorts of additional animals like elephants, monkey's, etc.
In other words, Story of Seasons is the real deal. All of that explanation above and I haven't even touched on various other small systems, including a multiplayer feature that lets you look at other towns/farms, as well as chat with friends and enrich one of their crops with a magic wand. While super slow and uneven in the early goings, Story of Seasons eventually evolved into a lovely little grind that gives you lots of options to live the in-game life you choose, all while building up your town, farm and, eventually, even your own family.
It may not be called Harvest Moon, but maybe that's a good thing. Story of Seasons has everything the old series has to offer and then some, with only a handful of missteps getting in the way and several thoughtful improvements to make up for it.
Since Story of Seasons doesn't try to rewrite the book completely, though, don't go in expecting something vastly different from previous outings. If you've never been a fan of grinding out a living in these types of games, wherein entire weeks can go by where you do the same activities over and over and over again, nothing here is going to change your mind.
If, however, you're looking for that familiar recipe with a dash of new flavors thrown into the mix, then Story of Seasons is well worth a visit.
This review based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Publisher: XSEED Games