If Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley was a Harvest Moon game only in title, then Story of Seasons is Harvest Moon in everything but. Though released in Japan as part of the Bokujo Monogatari series (read: Harvest Moon), publisher XSEED couldn’t keep the farming sim’s famed moniker when bringing it to the West, due to Natsume’s ownership of the intellectual property of the name itself. Knowing this, XSEED opted to drop the marquee banner and just simply keep the game’s subtitle, giving us Story of Seasons. We won’t make any hints about the quality of this game; this is the Japanese farming RPG you’ve been waiting for since Friends of Mineral Town and Magical Melody. But that doesn’t mean this is the same game you’ve always known. There are new additions to the formula just as there are subtractions. The good far outweigh the bad, though, so ultimately this will come down to a player’s personal preferences as to whether it resonates or resonates extremely well. Those are the only two options here, because it will resonate. The degree to which it does is the only question.
Story of Seasons starts out by introducing folks to Oak Tree Village, a rural town that is comprised of mom-and-pop shops, lush lands, plenty of farming opportunities and suitors ready to be courted. The main character, which is one the player creates — from a series of options that aren’t all that robust, mind you, but do harken back to A New Beginning — has come to visit the unassuming town and is being indoctrinated into the ways of farming via a spunky old gal named Eda. Eda acts as the game’s walking tutorial, setting the stage narratively- and mechanically-speaking, explaining everything from how to plow fields to sowing seeds and watering crops to using the river as a swimming pool, to gathering outdoor goods and getting to know the town’s varied denizens.
There’s a lot to cover, so Eda lays out all of the game’s systems through this “here’s how to play” session that unfortunately drags on for a bit too long, clocking in at about 40 minutes. If there’s an upside to this, though, it’s that by the end of it all, the game is opened up to the player without further training wheels. It does this in classic Harvest Moon tradition: players are quickly saddled with a farm and house that is in need of a little TLC, and are asked to make it as a agriculturalist. But once that happens, it’s time to get one’s farm on.
The gameplay in Story of Seasons is a combination of old systems that have been streamlined (not simplified), those that have not been touched at all and are just as they were, and outright new ones. This is a fine balance, too, and one that empowers the player to make the farm their own, more so than in most entries. For instance, folks can completely customize the layout of their home and farm via a handy-dandy crafting table, and consequently are no longer forced to adapt to a less-than-ideal setup. What’s even more fun is employing the help of the town’s resident carpenter, Gunther, whom will fancy up the interior of a player’s house. The best part is this is given to the player right out of the gates — the game even provides us with our first batch of seeds and an animal, all free of charge! It’s clear, Seasons just wants to get players feeling like their journey is their very own. Normally these feats are anxiety-producing ones for a new, fledgling farmer trying to tackle the sometimes overwhelmingly direction-less ways of Harvest Moon; hence, having them basically taken care of helps in getting things off to a smooth, stress-free manner.
The game even streamlines the most basic of farming tasks to hammer home this philosophy. For instance, there’s now the ability to till and plant seeds in 3×3 blocks, then in turn water that block all with one button press. No more awkward positioning and lining up characters perfectly to ho a certain piece of soil, then do the same thing two more times to actually plant and water it. This takes a menial, mundane and maddening ordeal and mitigates those feelings entirely. It also cuts down the time spent doing these boring tasks to mere seconds. This subsequently gives folks more time to care for other business endeavors around the farm and town. This is a great inclusion in that it lets gamers take care of more fields in less time. Some will scoff at this because it may appear to “dumb down” the formula on paper, but it actually makes the farming easier to get into and opens up one’s calendar for other activities. What’s also interesting about crops here is the fact that they do not carry over to the next season like they did in A New Beginning. Once the start of a new season kicks off, all crops from the previous one that are still growing wilt and die. This requires a new style of play to get the most out of the crops one grows and harvests, even putting a little pressure on the player to plan their “cropping” effectively.
All of this hard work requires, well, lots of work of course, and there’s only so much stamina to expend in a single day. In fact, stamina, which accounts for pretty much any and every chore/action the player performs, diminishes quickly — perhaps too quickly, even. Though we usually had enough to complete our daily duties in the early-goings, things got a bit dicier as the game went on and we had more tasks to complete. Speaking of things to do, in the introductory portion of the title we were often done with our responsibilities pretty fast, and were left wandering the town until we literally had nothing else to do but go to bed… in the late afternoon. Suffice to say, the beginning of Story of Seasons struggles to find its rhythm. Thankfully, this evaporates after the initial hours. So long as players can push through the original awkward cadence, there’s an excellent pacing as the hours go on.
On the farm, there are all the typical undertakings outside of home-renovation and crop-tending, such as raising livestock animals and courting lovelies. The former is interesting in that there aren’t the usual suspects of only horses, cows, chickens and the like. Now, there are exotic animals thrown into the mix thanks to the ability to set up a wildlife safari. This works similarly to A New Beginning‘s “garden tour” in that the other villagers can check out the safari, seeing the player’s herd of wildlife such as parrots and monkeys. The list of new creatures is impressive as well, a few including: an Angora Rabbit that roams the farm, deer that can transport goods to the Trade Station, a Brahman cow, a camel which produces hair, goats, and the new brown Araucana chicken that lays high quality eggs. And speaking of furry critters, dogs, cats, and horses can now be pets, too. Folks can ride their horse, have their dog herd livestock and even send their cat to find items. This is one of, if not the most extensive livestock feature list included in any Harvest Moon title and really helps flesh out the farming sim experience.
Since producer Yoshifumi Hashimoto has expressed “connectivity” as the theme for Seasons, it’s only appropriate that this would factor into play in some regard. To that end, players sell their crops and dairy products to other “countries” in the game via the aforementioned Trade Station. This meta-game has depth to it as well, in that some countries prefer one type of item over another, ergo requiring players to travel to these other countries to make deliveries. It’s yet another way of spending time in the long days of Story of Seasons, further promoting that notion of connectedness. It’s also fitting then that personal farm data can be swapped with players using Street Pass; and what’s even better is the chance to visit others’ farms, a la Animal Crossing, to trade items with them and even tend to their crops and animals while they’re absent.
As previously mentioned, courting is a big part of Seasons. There are bachelors and bachelorettes, with six candidates per gender. Weddings are also now more complex with three different wedding options: a simple wedding, super wedding, and gorgeous wedding. Each tier costs more than the other, but determines how long one, or one’s spouse, is pregnant for. The fancier the wedding, the shorter the pregnancy. So things don’t just stop with the ceremony; after marriage, the player and their spouse can have up to two children, with the possibility to get twins. I mean, the list of features just goes on and on here. What’s superb is how diverse the love-potentials are. They each have such unique personalities and truly offer something different from the other. A lot of their personalities, and just the dialogue in general, can be attributed to XSEED’s downright impeccably translated and edited script. Lines can make one laugh out loud just as they can warm hearts.
But the features don’t stop there, believe it or not. Now, there’s the chance to open one’s own shop and make a little extra cash on the side. Later in the game, folks can get their own shop to own, which puts them in charge of setting different shop themes and selling items. This setup isn’t its own mini-game as much as we would have liked — something like Hometown Story would have really been icing on the cake — instead, it’s all taken care of through an automated process that only requires physically going and collecting money from items sold. There are all sorts of themes included here, helping folks open up a restaurant shop, sweets shop, clothing shop or flower shop (just to name a few).
Needless to say, there’s very little bad to talk of regarding Story of Seasons‘ gameplay and content. The gameplay is more fluid and accessible, but doesn’t sacrifice the satisfaction of running a farm, just as its content is ocean’s deep. In addition, there’s much to praise about the game’s presentation. Menus are slick, easy to navigate and lay out the essentials in an aesthetically-pleasing but also practical way. The soundtrack is also serene. There’s a certain style of music that needs to be in the background of harvesting crops and courting hopefuls, and Story of Seasons nails that tone with precision. Tunes are often light-hearted, melodic and even bouncy at times, never feeling intrusive but instead there, almost just out of awareness, but absolutely integral to get the whole experience.
The visuals are a bit more of a mixed bag. They are cute, vibrant and feel like a more polished version of A New Beginning‘s. Our hang up, however, is in the framerate. When crossing large expanses that are showcasing various visual effects, such as leaves blowing or wind whipping across the land the game chugs momentarily. It catches back up with itself — and it never slows down offensively so — but there’s an undeniable dip in the FPS. It happens somewhat frequently too, which is the real frustration (especially because the player will often be traversing various screens and segments of the large town). There’s also a complaint that could be leveled at the running animation, which occasionally looks less like a run and more like someone flailing while on fire.
Story of Seasons is probably the best Harvest Moon game to come along in ten to twelve years, depending on if you believe Magical Melody or Friends of Mineral Town was the last great installment in the series. It feels like a true return to form and will capture the hearts of longtime franchise-supporters, just as it will a brand new generation who may have heard of Harvest Moon’s greatness, but were never provided a new game to show them what all the hype was about. All in all, Story of Seasons is practically bursting at the seams with content, and the gameplay, while streamlined, has not been “simplified” like many feared. Instead, its new mechanics make the game accessible and current, delivering a wholly satisfying farming sim experience while still finding a way to respect players’ time. Ultimately, if you’re wanting to wash the taste out of your mouth left by The Lost Valley, buy this game. If you’re wanting a new farming simulation with excellent RPG sensibilities, buy this game. If you’re wanting to unknowingly sink hours of your life into something, buy this game. If you’re just wanting a great game to play on your 3DS, buy this game.