Acknowledging that the last one I played was Friends of Mineral Town on the GBA and that there have been probably thirty new ones since then, this is probably the best Harvest Moon game that the Harvest Moon people never made, seeing as this is an unrelated indie title made by just some guy. It does some pretty satisfying things–I wish the SNES Harvest Moon had the inventory options, fishing mechanics, control over building placement, and other things seen here.
It’s impressive that one person made this, but not entirely unbelievable–the art’s not really to my liking and the writing is worse. The characters are flat and boring, and the romance system is awful–you are a Nice Guy; nobody likes you, but showering them in gifts and saying sycophantic things to appeal to a their existing worldviews will change that. It’s an old-fashioned video game thing, of course, but coming from a Witcher 3 playthrough, where all the characters felt so deeply real, it feels especially pathetic. Ultimately I married Abigail–a girl too manic-pixie and probably too young. (Or are they all children, making Harvey the one of a deeply unsettling age?) I still was somewhat fond of her, at least, and the part where you co-op an NES game in her house was one of the only things I did with anybody that seemed authentic.
Given how much I like games with scheduled NPC life stuff, where each character has some routine where they walk to the store every Thursday at 2PM in the Fall season unless it’s raining, Stardew isn’t the sort of game that would generally be forced to win me over from a starting point of zero hearts, so to speak. But without really sympathizing much with the cast or otherwise showing a ton of depth outside of the different methods I could choose to get extremely rich, I found myself using this game to form my own conclusions about what the Harvest Moon franchise has most critically lacked.
The setting brings an expectation of a kind of idyllic and casual, pastoral, rosy-life-riding vibe, but the emphasis on time communicates the opposite. Much of the gameplay loop is about planning things out–not necessarily because you need them done by a certain date, but so you don’t miss the recipe that’s only available on the 21st day of summer or whatever. It’s telling that I found Persona 3–a supposedly hardcore Dungeon crawler that constantly clocked your actions–far more chill and forgiving than this farm game. But I found myself with little to hurry for in Stardew Valley. Was I supposed to be trying to rush into a marriage after knowing a girl for three months for the sake of some evaluation score? Why? Instead, what held my interest longer was the sense of progression in pointlessly upgrading my watering can and having more resources to put toward the structures on my farm, nice-looking footpaths and other details of customization that didn’t really feel like they were the developer’s central focus.
I was probably starting to see the gameplay as unwanted busywork before the end of the first year. As I neared my evaluation at the end of year two, I was just sleeping through whole weeks. Postgame, as it turns out, is about making absurd amounts of money to buy things you only needed in the beginning of the game anyway, like a warp item to reach the beach once you’ve already caught all the fish, or a statue that generates gifts for villagers who have already been reconditioned to love you.
The combat is overly simple, and made worse by the weird mouse controls that influence the player’s facing direction up to a certain arbitrary distance. It certainly doesn’t bring what Recettear brought to the table, which is a shame. There’s also some unfortunate RNG. For one thing, killing hundreds of bats in the hope that a scroll will drop just isn’t fun.
Now, just having my crop quality be random is fine–although I admit I’d probably prefer it if it were solely determined by my Farming skill level and fertilizer used–but when I spend a whole year waiting for my duck to drop a stupid feather I need that I can’t simply pluck off the little fucker for some stupid reason–in other words, when RNG is the gatekeeper of progression–that’s bad. Why not just say that a feather is dropped every 4 weeks if the duck is at 2 hearts, and every 3 weeks if at 3 hearts, or whatever? All of the final three artifacts I was missing in the museum also came down to RNG. The only reason I even got out of bed in the latter parts of the second year was to look for artifact dig spots around the map each day, and this was about as satisfying as repeatedly losing at the slot machines in the casino. I have to say, though, that I do like the way the game already has these things determined at the time of the daily autosave, so you aren’t incentivized to reload your game repeatedly to get the good drops from your animals in record time.
It’s really not a bad game at all–I liked trying out some of the many alternative approaches to making money. It has one of the best fishing minigames I’ve seen, despite being a simple challenge of pushing a bar up and down to line up with an icon, and not having nearly as much charm as the one in Breath of Fire 2. And as long as I was able to plan out the collection of bundle items, bundles were a great form of progression, with some pretty interesting rewards.