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.

tlv2
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.

tlv1
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.

tlv4
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.

tlv3
Closing Comments
:

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.

  • DQ

    This review is factually incorrect on several important points:

    – There ARE cows (milkable) and horses (ridable), as well as sheep (shearable). As well as of course the chickens shown in the screenshots, which were not mentioned in the review itself. Cows are in fact introduced very early in the game, and you are made aware of the other animals at that time. As always, how you treat animals, what you feed them, etc. alters the products they make. They also can learn skills.

    – There ARE seasonal events, but you have to play through the main plot (where you unlock the seasons) to get to them. For just two examples, the egg hunt in spring and the “starry night” in winter.

    – The characters do have backstories and you learn them the more you talk to them and perform quests for them. The story of the little girl looking for her mother is a nicely poignant one, and gets resolved as part of resolving the main storyline. No, the characters are not as in depth as in some other Harvest Moons and Rune Factories, but they are still developed more than the article implies.

    The review also overlooks several features of the game that deserve a mention:
    – Crop mutation (crops may transform into different crops depending on time of year, elevation, and soil drainage–which is WHY the “Minecraft-esque” feature is important to a farming game–you need to alter the terrain so you can achieve more mutations, It isn’t just about molding terrain for the sake of it, it’s about making the most efficient farm and getting the most interesting crops).
    – Quests for the NPCs (mostly fetch quests, but they’re a big part of things).
    – Regular events like fishing and cooking contests that happen every season.
    – Other traditional Harvest Moon activities like mining (not terraforming, but going into mines and collecting ores), crafting, and cooking.

    This article reads like the author just looked at other reviews elsewhere and copied what was in them rather than play through the game himself to see what was in it. It seems clear from the factual errors he either did not play the game at all or only played it very briefly. That is not very fair to the readers trying to make up their mind. Also the screenshots look suspect–at least that I have come across, there is no item in the game called “fish bait” and fodder is called “animal feed,” not “animal food” (and in fact is also what you use for fish bait).

    This game definitely has its problems–it is not the best HM game by a long shot–but it deserves to be judged on what actual content it has by someone who has actually played the game.

    • Bradly Storm

      Quality post, DQ, and I’m glad you brought up the points you did. I should have been more specific with my qualms, as they probably needed to be framed within the context of “these features (livestock raising, seasonal events) are somewhat present, but not so when compared to what they were like in past installments.” So I agree there. That being said, the character backstories thing is subjective; I played 12-15 hours, and I never once felt like I knew the cast. They were more like cardboard cutouts, than actual people, existing in the game’s world.

      As to the features not mentioned; again, that’s part of my duty as a reviewer–I try to talk about what I believe to be the most important points. I need readers to take away what will significantly impact play. What you listed, while maybe interesting, are not vital, defining components of the formula or overall experience.

      • DQ

        Thanks for your reasoned reply, it is truly much appreciated!

        Obviously our points of view differ–but for what it’s worth, I strongly disagree that elements like animal raising are not like what they were in past gameplay nor as integral–it’s largely impossible to progress through the game without them. I would argue that in fact animal raising is more complex than in prior Harvest Moon games because of the skill system, as well as the far more complex fodder system (you don’t just feed them grass and treats, there’s different grades of feed that all affect your animals in different ways and figuring out the combinations are key to success). Same goes for things like crop mutations and quests–you can’t succeed in the game without them and they occupy much of your time, at least provided you’re trying to play through the plot, interact with villagers, etc.

        I’ve played two Harvest Moon games prior to this and one thing this one definitely has in common with the others, despite the difference in developer, is that the game is extremely slow to start and develop, and much of the games most interesting and crucial elements show up many hours into gameplay as you unlock several plot elements. Saying you played 15-20 hours doesn’t necessarily reveal that much, especially if you were spending most of that time terraforming, which can eat a lot of time. It would be more helpful to know how much of the initial story/how many in-game seasons did you get through (e.g., met the Harvest Goddess, got the spring crystal, etc.). Experienced Harvest Moon players know, for example, that if you didn’t even get through the first spring–or only just accomplished that–you haven’t really experienced the game (any Harvest Moon game) at all. Now, the fact that Harvest Moon games are so slowly paced at the start is a valid criticism, and if that’s the real issue, we can definitely agree there. At the same time, IMHO, judging any entry in this series of games accurately requires a lengthy playthrough to ensure you’ve seen all the features it has to offer. Take that for whatever it’s worth.

        I do appreciate your taking the time to respond and explain your approach. Happy gaming!