Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life GameCube Review

The Harvest Moon franchise built its popularity on a concept that probably never occurred to anyone else before – build a farm, and, erm, harvest. Under a moon. Yet, surprisingly, the idea was a massive success – and now, with the arrival of “A Wonderful Life”, Gamecube owners can now partake of this bizarre phenomenon, and see exactly what makes this bizarre franchise so damn appealing.

Graphics

Cutesy sprites and detail are the staple here, as in the other Harvest Moon games; there’s a nice amine-esque tinge to everything that suits the game to the ground. While technically the sprites and environments aren’t the most outstanding to grace the GC, one aspect in which the game comes into its own is the draw-distance it boasts. This is one game where you can stand pretty much at one end of the town and identify someone all the way over at the other end. There is very little fogging, although occasionally free 3D objects like flowers will “pop” into place as you get closer. Perhaps the reason this is achieved is due to the relatively small gaming area; this isn’t one game that will have you adventuring off to distant lands. While this in itself may disappoint some, the attention paid to the game environment itself is surely worthy of praise.

There is some glitchiness to the graphics of the game; occasionally you will be able to push an animal through part of a wall, or have sections of plant just disappear into your characters body. These are minor niggles however in what is essentially a very competent game.

Gameplay

Play any Harvest Moon game and you’ll have a good idea of the story; you have been left a farm by your deceased father/grandfather/pet goldfish, and are encouraged to make it something “he would be proud of”. Then, you’re on your own. Well, not quite on your own – in this particular instalment, your fathers trusty friend Takakura lives in a small cottage on your land (sadly, he cannot be evicted) and will offer you advice on how to manage your farm. Then its up to you; will you grow crops to sell to the villagers, or concentrate on filling up your field with livestock to get milk, wool and eggs? Will you befriend the local villagers by giving them gifts of your produce, or will you charge them an inflated price? Will you attend village festivals and partake of the community spirit, or will you lurk in your darkened room by day and emerge only at night to catch fish under the moon? The choice is yours.

Initially, newcomers (and possibly even veterans) may find the game tricky to get into; you start out with 3 big plots of land for crops, an old cow and a pocket full of dreams. Things can quickly get too much for you; crops are expensive, and need constant care every day to ensure they don’t wither and die, in which case you will be out a great deal of money. As well as this, the right crops for the right season need to be planted; trying to grow strawberries in the middle of Winter may be a mistake that costs poor Farmer John his life-savings. Sadly, much information on this process is hard to find; while the woman at the neighbouring farm, Vesta, may occasionally give you hints in what to plant, she doesn’t appear to do it on command so having a pen and paper handy is a good idea. Luckily, your cow will give a supply of milk to sell for one year to keep you going so disastrous first harvests aren’t necessarily the end of the world, although some people may find it hard to keep up the effort if they are knocked cruelly back by the game’s laws.

Unlike the other Harvest Moon titles, the crops you crow cant just be thrown in a shipping bin and money collected; you have to actively set up a stall and sell them off. This can become irritating, as getting the timing right so that loads of villagers notice your stall is important. Still, its not unusual for you to spend an entire day at the market and only come away with a few coins. Luckily, then, there are other ways to get around this; you can help out at the local archaeological dig to get artefacts that you can sell off for quite a bit of cash; there are flowers and fish to palm off; there are chickens and cows, whose eggs and milk CAN be directly shipped off via a Dairy bin. However, there is one other factor to include – your character is only human, and can’t manage a whole day of toil without food and rest. While your character can eat most things found on the farm – including various weeds – he is quite weak at the start of the game and keeping him in good shape is difficult. A nice addition to this game is the fact that you can have six-hour “naps” rather than going to bed acting as a cue for the next day to load. Again, some people may find the concerted effort that you have to make at the start of the game draining – but it is the people that stick with it that really discover what this game has to offer.

The game is divided into several chapters, each spanning a number of years, and each with some lesson to be learned; the first is dedicated to you finding a suitable wife amongst the villagers and getting married, the second to your life with a young child and more items at your disposal, and so on. The idea of farming and so on is constant, but really just becomes a backdrop to the wonderful RPG elements that come into play as you progress; which girl, out of the three eligible maidens, will you marry? Will you tease and insult the others? As time goes on, people will come and go in the town, making it every bit the living, breathing community. There are a number of people to interact with, all of which may give different results later in the game. Similarly, there are pets such as cats and dogs to be obtained, all of which add to the sense of home and belonging that the game exudes. RPG fans will love these elements. As well as this, your home contains a large television – watch it to see details on the news, the weather and (perhaps most importantly) your favourite soaps and sitcoms. The detail in the creation of this world is truly wonderful.

Another interesting feature is the ability to make hybrids of crops that can yield far more money than any regular seeds. This adds a new dimension to the game as you try and find the best combinations to give the most valuable fruits, not to mention the novelty of seeing a bizarre creation growing out of the soil. There are a great deal of combinations to discover, and clues are offered by a large talking plant that aids you in the hybridding process. As well as this, three sprites that live in a large tree in the wood (indeed) will help you out with new concepts like birthing animals. While all of this is quite cutesy, it really does fit in with the contained, safe world of the Valley.

Fans of the other Harvest Moon games may be disappointed at the way in which this town is relatively small, and the characters rather niche and less accommodating than in other instalments. Similarly, Natsume seem to have almost erased the concept of town festivals. However, the way in which events constantly change in the town and the way the game spans an entire generation in which you can see it (and yourself) develop is still noteworthy.

Sadly, the game can be rather repetitive at times, and once you find yourself in the daily routine of managing things it can become a little tedious. The key to this is to immerse yourself in the games’ culture; play mini games, go out and see what the people in the town are doing and so on. The RPG element here is excellent, and should be enough to keep people coming back for another bash.

Another minor quibble comes in the form of Natsume’s almost trademarked translation issues; while the game has been localised fairly well, the dialogue is riddled with misspelt words and awkward syntax. Again, this is something that does not detract from the overall gameplay, but it is sufficiently noticeable in the kind of abundance that most UK RPGer won’t be accustomed to.

Sound

Nice cheerful tunes which only kick in as you approach certain places – the bar, for instance, play some mellow music, while the gramophone in your house offers sultry melodies to accompany you while you work. This is quite effective, as it means there is no constant music in the background as you wander in the Valley; this allows for some serene, calm and atmospheric moments which are really what Harvest Moon does best. Your library of sounds can be expanded using the connectivity feature, which adds some nice variation. The games cut scenes are accompanied by similar appropriate music, none of which every has you reaching for the mute button.

There is a distinct lack of voiceovers; most characters have one or two vocal samples that can be triggered randomly while talking to them. While this is an acceptable way of managing things and again doesn’t spoil the games tranquillity, some of the samples are a little out of place; Wally, the local fitness freak, once gave a laugh that sounded very much like a middle-aged woman. However, for the most part the samples are charming – Murreys’ “Moi!” is particularly cute and expressive. Other than this, general noises are quite convincing, particularly involving the water in-game.

Lifespan

With each day lasting around 20-30 minutes, and 40 days comprising one year, this game is long. Looooong. After several weeks play I am currently only on chapter two, and with the estimated game length lying at around 160 hours I think there is still a while to go. There are also many different things that you can do on the replay; you can pick a new wife, buy new crops, raise your child differently…all of these will offer new reasons to pick up the game and give it another bash. You can also unlock a “free-farming” mode, in which you are able to simply play the game without pursuing any key events for as long as you want. As well as this, hooking the game up to a GBA copy of “Friends of Mineral Town” unlocks new scenarios in both, which allow for the opportunity to get more records for your game and reveal new secrets. All of these add up to a package that offers many months of game play. However, the relatively repetitive nature of the game may prevent some from slogging this one out.

Overall

This instalment of the series is probably the epitome of the franchise; its fun, endearing and highly addictive. The only drawback is that newbies to the series may flounder and find it hard to regain interest if they fail at the start, due to the game’s lack of assistance. Still, those that keep at it will discover the wonder of the franchise, and what is really one of the deepest role-playing/sim experiences available today.

9 out of 10
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