Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness review
I See An Island, No Sign Of Happiness
My appreciation of the Harvest Moon series can easily be summed up as enjoyment but eventually feeling repetitive. With a few ups and downs this has remained largely true - I like them even though the farm chores end up feeling like chores after a while. After the success of Rune Factory 2 that mixed Harvest Moon with classic RPG action I decided I wanted to sample a more pure Harvest Moon experience on the DS. Misfortune led me to Island of Happiness, a subtitle so woefully inaccurate as happiness is one thing that was missing. It's strange because essentially most of makes up Harvest Moon is here but it just goes horribly wrong.
The story is still the barebones element it has always been although comes in a slightly more believeable packaging. Passangers of a ship end up stranded on an island, but instead of looking to attract help or start indulging in cannibalistic rituals the people decide to start a new life there and you're volunteered for the farm work.
That's more or less it. As the island develops you'll get people visiting to live in your little village which expands to cover a lot of the archetypes the series is known for. You get the socially awkward villager who just about manages to make small talk, bright and cheery folk who happily discuss their day and the shadowy loner who would prefer to limit interactions where possible. Conversations with the villagers, much like other HM games, does tend to get rather repetitive early on though. This is largely because each person only has a limited set of dialogue and some of that is reserved for specific events, which leads onto the likes of someone commenting that you're working hard for about the 15th time that month.
Visually it's the kind of quality we expect the DS to deliver. THere's a nice mix of 2D and 3D to craft a wonderful island setting, with neat changes as the seasons pass and plenty to catch the eye. The characters look great too, doing extremely well to portray the classic HM styles we're used to. You can certainly expect the sassy farmgirl and the famous icon to be among the cast and the style of their design reflects this well.
The dual screen setup does seem to be something of a missed opportunity though. The top screen typically just displays a map of the overall island with pointers showing who is in what area. However, it's mostly pretty useless as it is too zoomed out to provide any real detail and character markers only update when you move from one area to the next.
Music manages to maintain the kind of quality the series is known for. The tracks chosen are fairly gentle tunes that play in the background while letting the gameplay take center stage. Nothing jumps out and grabs you demanding attention for awe inspiring sounds but it works to form a nice package.
The core gameplay revolves around the same kind of ideas that we've seen before. The main focus is of course the farm, which starts off in a terrible state of disrepair. Once you've cleared away some of the junk and set your mind to the task then you can visit the shop for some seeds and then start planting. Your farmer already possesses a variety of tools such as the hoe for preparing the land and the watering can that you'll need to water the crops. These things require daily work, gaining only brief periods of peace when the rain comes to do your job for you, but at the end of it you can uproot the crops and ship them off to net a nice lump sum of cash. As well as crops you also have the opportunity to take in animals and gain produce from them like milk or eggs. This task requires proper care of the animals and offers another element of farmwork.
Because farmwork could get boring by itself the game does offer a number of other activities that can be used to occupy your mind. You can get hold of a fishing rod and start snagging various sea life that can be sold. The input is a simply time based reaction system that while basic provides a fun distraction without being frustrating and out of the "chores" available probably offers the best fun and profit combination possible. You can also just explore the island to either chat to NPCs (which isn't quite that much fun given their limited dialogue) and/or go collect stuff sitting on the ground that could help gain some cash if not a whole lot. A few other activities pop up as the game progresses, giving you a few things to do should you wish to work so far in.
To avoid players simply amassing large sums of cash in the first month the game forces two systems of limitations that require some degree of skills and resource management or else you'll find yourself unable to keep up with the demands of your goals. The first is time, as the clock ticks away and you simply don't have the luxury of working non-stop all day and certain events, such as the shop being open, are dependant on the current time and day. The second comes in the form of special gauges that determine how much energy you have to spare. Actions such as using tools reduces the amount of available energy, while eating and sleeping help to restore some. Working until your character literally collapses generally puts you in a worse spot than if you were to take care of that energy. It's worked in past HM games and it works nicely here too.
Unfortunately, that is pretty much where the positive comments end. The core elements are there but some horrendous choices ruin a lot of what the game offers.
Let's start with the biggest offender of them all - the controls. Island of Happiness decides not to include a traditional D-Pad system, forcing everything through the touch screen instead. While this system works better than ones in games like SM64DS, it is still very sloppy and frustrating. There is a distinct degree of inaccuracy involved, which is a critical problem in a game that focuses heavily on tile perfect movement and time sensitive gameplay. How bad is it? How about trying to chop a branch only to accidentally pick it up instead? Or maybe you go to water one of your crops and instead water empty soil. These aren't isolated events either but rather common occurences because you simply don't have the precise control you need. Even just adjusting your character slightly to the side sometimes takes a bizarre semi-circle run. When you're fighting the controls just to move to a spot nearby then all the gameplay mechanics that should work get thrown out the window and really makes me not want to play the game.
That is not to say that the controls are the only problem. Progression in the game feels agonisingly slow, even by Harvest Moon standards. Do you want to start upgrading those basic tools? Too bad, you can only do it in winter. How about heading to the mine for an alternative money source? Sorry, you've got to pay through the nose first just to access the part of the island it's on. I'm not against the idea of working to unlock further content but here we're talking about basic things that are normally available very early in other games. This extends to the NPCs too. Of course, part of the point of the game is to develop the island to encourage more visitors, but you start with so few and likewise have very few events that the experience feels a little empty.
Of course, there's also the repetition factor, if you happen to make it in that far. There are no neat tricks like in Rune Factory to keep things varied for long periods of time, so eventually all that farmwork and running around the island loses what charm they had. Even if you're willing to battle with the controls there comes a point where these elements tire you out and usually before you're completed long term goals such as marrying the girl of your choice.
Two of these problems are bearable and alone would have made this an enjoyable if flawed entry on the DS. However, adding in atrocious controls just ruins everything the game has to offer. I really wanted to like Island of Happiness but there's simply nothing to justify picking it up. If you must play Harvest Moon on the DS then the Rune Factory subseries offers a far more enjoyable experience, or even just grab Friends of Mineral Town for a better execution of the classic Harvest Moon style.
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