Harvest Moon might be dead for good.
I don’t like the newest Harvest Moon game, and it’s not just because it’s different from the older installations. Ever since Marvelous AQL and Natsume took their separate paths, the Harvest Moon titles have been pretty lackluster. Many other articles about the 2014 split might try to convince you that the different games produced by the estranged developers boil down to gamer preference. The newer games in the Harvest Moon series are frequently defended as harking back to the simple gameplay style and narratives of the series’ original entries. Honestly, having played Skytree Village, I’m convinced that it’s just a bad game.
For starters, completing the tutorial at the beginning of the game is like pulling teeth. You have to spend an inordinate amount of time just learning how to sow and water seeds, an action that is somewhat intuitive and needs only a brief introduction. For some reason, there needs to be a full blown tutorial for the easiest gameplay aspects, and yet some of the more difficult skills are never really introduced at all.
One aspect introduced early on that I had a difficult time with was the way the farmland is formatted. Everything is blocky and uneven, forcing you to either dig or fill in spaces to level your land out. I felt like I had unwittingly entered a session of Minecraft. This was also a feature in 2014’s Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley. I didn’t personally play that title, but seeing the reviews, I can’t imagine the terra-farming element favored much better in that game than it did in this one. While the utilization of terra-farming might be Natsume’s attempt at a more hands-on experience, it’s more tedious and annoying to deal with than it’s worth.
It feels like the developers were trying to add new elements of complexity to the game, but steamrolled all the existent qualities from past games in the process. Tell me why there are dozens of varieties for animal feed (utilizing different ingredients and having varying effects on your animals), but there aren’t changes in what produce you can grow each season; why your animals can develop personal qualities, but there’s so little to do each day that I regularly sent my farmer to bed at noon. The odd blend of the overly intricate and the watered-down in Skytree Village makes for an unsettling and unsatisfactory experience.
Now let’s get on to the social aspect of the game, or what little there is of it. Interacting with the villagers feels pretty pointless. There are so few of them, and there isn’t much to do except talk to them. Other Harvest Moon games allow gift-giving and integrate cut-scene moments that enrich your farmer’s relationship with the villagers. In Skytree Village, pretty much all of the important events are preceded by a dream that your farmer has either the night before or even multiple nights before. This removes all curiosity and intrigue from interacting with the villagers. You’re told when you need to go and speak with them, so it doesn’t feel all that compelling to seek them out otherwise.
On top of that, there’s very little to explore in game. You only have your own farmland, which admittedly gains additions as you unlock more sky trees, and the teeny tiny village, where only about 10-15 villagers reside. Even as the gameplay arena expands slightly later on, there’s so little to do in the early hours of Skytree Village that it’s a wonder if anyone makes it that far.
I can’t speak for all Harvest Moon fans, but having played a good portion of the series spanning my 16+ years as a gamer, I’ve come to expect certain qualities and experiences from these games. When I play Harvest Moon, I expect to spend hours making sure my farm is top notch. I expect to be able to take pride in the money that I earn and the produce that I grow. I expect to enjoy the subtle and endearing narratives of the game’s NPCs. Despite these expectations that have been duly reinforced over the years, I’d be willing to let it all go and give Natsume a chance to mark their own path if only they’d make a good game. And they haven’t.
Next time, I’ll be picking up the newest Story of Seasons game and keeping my fingers crossed that something of this once brilliant series still remains. Or better yet, I might just stick with Stardew Valley.