Review: Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley

It’s equal parts exciting and terrifying when a developer takes a timeless series and attempts to reboot its concept. In such a risk, there can either be profound reward, or catastrophic failure. Although this is a Harvest Moon game on paper, it will be abundantly obvious within minutes of starting up that it’s anything but. Being radically different from past franchise installment, however, does not always equate to a poor final product. Does this entry harvest a new generation of Moon, or does The Lost Valley get lost in its new ideas?

The Lost Valley’s premise is about as barebones as its actual content; the Harvest Goddess has lost her power to protect the land, leaving it locked in an unending season of winter. One fateful day, though, the player’s character is approached by a Harvest Sprite and informed that only s/he can return the calendar to its natural cadence and ultimately save the world from its eternal tundra status. While these games are hardly played for their narrative profundity, Lost Valley is particularly thin in the way of anything resembling a story. Nevertheless, it at least provides some kind of narrative framework in which the gameplay takes place, and it’s not long after firing up the game that players are thrust into the gameplay.

While most Harvest Moon installments focus on farming, relationship-building and making an earning off selling of crops, Lost Valley forgoes convention for a more Minecraft, build-your-own-world experience. That’s right, there will be no horses to feed or cows to milk this time around; in those activities’ place is that of carving out the land with shovels, pick-axes, hoes and the like to literally shape the land. In fact, this terraforming component is the mechanic on which Lost Valley hangs its hat; it’s the core of the gameplay and what Natsume is pushing as the differentiating selling factor for this entry.

How this element is implemented is actually quite intuitive. It’s easy just to grab a tool and start tearing up the land. Folks can raise and lower land with a single button press and a quick shoveling animation. With so little work needed to make this happen, it’s then easy to just stroll around Valley’s world and create till one’s content. It’s all made so easy, too, due to the new context-sensitive input commands.

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Gone are the days of having to cumbersomely cycle through screens to equip a watering can. Instead, Harvest Moon now recognizes when fresh tilled dirt needs a little watering, and lets players do so with the press of a single button–no menus necessary. Changes like these are ones we hope to see implemented across the board in future Harvest Moons, as they just make the actual farming elements that much more streamlined, and by proxy, enjoyable. The ability to create whatever land structures in an intuitive way was pinnacle to Lost Valley being a playable game; it’s fortunate, then, that Natsume was able to nail this aspect of the gameplay.

That being said, because the game doesn’t go all the way with the terraforming mechanics, we often found ourselves wondering what our incentive was to continue Minecraft’ing away. Sure, it’s neat to toy around in a Harvest Moon game in this capacity, but it felt more like a gimmick than a necessary convention. Once the novelty has worn off, often times we just wanted to go back to traditional farming, or the gameplay found in every single other HM title ever produced. But alas, we were not that lucky. At least it all controls well. We took particular note of how tight and responsive the controls are. This could have really broken the experience, seeing as much emphasis is placed on lining up the character so that they can address the crop or ground directly in front of them. Thankfully, Natsume got this part right.

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In fact, the farming tasks themselves are significantly less fulfilling this time around. We are cautious to call it farming here, though, as it’s done in such a different way than before. And it’s not just because it’s different that it’s bad, it’s the fact of how hands-off it all is that makes this essential facet less than impressive. While terraforming happens so effortlessly, having to harvest anything feels like a chore. This can be attributed to the unnecessarily long harvest animations, however. For whatever reason, the player’s character feels the need to hold harvest crops above their head and display them for the entire world to see each time they actually pick the crop. We would have preferred faster animations to speed up this process instead, as it would have kept pace with the rest of the game, which feels very deliberate in its accelerated cadence.

What’s also disappointing about the game is the lack of a town. In past titles, the town was a hub of activity; a place where players could feel part of the community by meeting various folks and even forging relationships with potential suitors. This time around, however, there is town to explore; villagers just stroll up to the player’s house and chat with them on the stoop. This would not be such a deterrent if the same sense of attachment was established like in past installments when visiting the town. But again, the NPCs rarely have anything interesting to say and never make any kind of substantive impact on the player. They’re just sort of there, feeling like filler, or a way to mask the fact that there’s not much to do in Lost Valley other than terraform the land.

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In fact, this is the game’s biggest issue: there’s just nothing to really do. There are no seasonal events or activities like in previous entries, no backstories to learn about villagers; just endless hacking away at the land. Even the series hallmark of relationship-building is woefully limited. If there was a component to other Harvest Moon games that was just as big as the farming, it was the ability to bond with potential marriage partners. The suitors from which to choose are all rather uninteresting, fitting the mold of generic archetypes, and because there aren’t any real places to visit in the game, courting mates just feels lackluster.

Lost Valley also isn’t much of a looker. While the 3DS is indeed restricted by its technology in terms of being able to output beautiful vistas, there are plenty of games that use what is under the hood to the fullest, making for some visually striking games. Valley, however, is bland. This is a trade-off, though, as the game runs smooth as silk. It’s just a shame that something has to be devoid of personality to run well. It doesn’t help that the game is also underwhelming from an aural perspective as well. The arrangements are well done and have a relaxing feel to them, but there just aren’t that many. In other words, get ready to hear the same tracks over and over while you shovel away for hours on end.

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Closing Comments
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Make no mistake, this is a Harvest Moon title only in name; everything else will feel foreign to the longtime fan. In this transition to a terraforming, Minecraft-like experience, a number of series benchmarks have been abandoned; there is no actual town to wander around and get lost in, the number of potential suitors has been drastically confined to but a mere handful, seasonal events are a thing of the past and the relationship-building mechanic feels significantly less robust than it has in past entries. It’s also ploddingly-paced, lacks personality and never seems like much fun to play. Natsume should be praised for the bravery it took to so drastically alter a classic series like Harvest Moon, especially considering this is their first time at bat as an actual developer, but the risk didn’t pay off this time around.  Regardless of some of the good ideas sprinkled throughout, fans are better off going back to A New Beginning or waiting on XSEED’s Story of Seasons.