Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town review
Almost Cream of the Crop
Variety of tasks
Requires some thought
Special events scattered throughout
Poorly developed characters
Video games open up a myriad of possible virtual experiences to people. Taking command of armies against alien invaders, seeking to unleash the power of alchemy on the world, race for the finish in high speed challenges or even partake in a round of golf. But farming? Natsume has taken a concept that sounds incredibly boring and made a video game out of it. Surprisingly, it's not anywhere near as boring as it sounds.
Yes, Natsume decided that simply dropping you onto an undeveloped farm would not do, so they crafted a reason for you being there.
The story goes that you visited an old farmer sometime in the past and became friends. Over time letters were exchanged, but one day you stopped receiving responses. Concerned you decide to visit the old man, only to find out that he passed away recently. Though what is more shocking than that is that you find out the farm has been left to you.
So this story is meant to give a reason on why you're there, but to say it is lacking substance would be a drastic understatement. Further story development also seems out of the question. It's not terrible but it seems as if it barely got 5 minutes consideration.
Character development doesn't get abandoned in the same way, but at the same time it doesn't really go anywhere. There's no hidden depth to people. No dark secrets or quirky traits they don't like showing. What you see is what you get, and what you see is so incredibly boring and shallow that it's hard to care about any of them. Even the prospective brides, who anyone would expect to demonstrate a little personality at least, are as shallow as the rest of the villagers.
Character sprites are done very well. There is a good use of shading and numerous (often bright) colours. The animation when they're walking around is fluid too. They also manage to get a decent level of detail in with them, giving the various characters a visually appealing charm. The bigger half-body sprites (the ones that appear when you talk to people) are similarly well detailed. The anime-style graphics come across well and certainly match the theme presented by the art outside the game.
This attention to detail extends to the item icons too. As with the characters we get a sort of semi-3D appearance within a 2D setting. There are a lot of items around as well, but I have yet to see one that looks rushed or dull.
Environments have had their own fair share of work too. The level of detail is high, like seeing the rings within a tree stump or the cracks on rocks. For a 2D setting everything looks pretty natural and fitting to the theme. The tiles used even change based on the weather conditions. When rain comes expect a duller appearance and snow brings a notably whiter appearance. Everything looks very nice.
Looks nice but sounds awful.
No, the game, not the girl.
Well, you know how much I admire the visuals, but if only the audio was deserving of such praise too. Unfortunately it falls well short of expectations.
The worst trait of the game's audio are the music tracks that play out. Everything sounds rather low quality and even muffled slightly, like they recorded it through a covered microphone. The tunes themselves also repeat themselves excessively, giving the impression that the actual tunes themselves are extremely short on an infinite cycle loop.
But even worse than those faults is that this game's idea of music just seems like a series of beeps and dings with only a little thought to rhythm linking them together. There isn't even much variety in there. The number of music tracks seems low and there's too much of a "me too" syndrome where tracks sound scarily similar to one another.
Sound effects used in the game also do not do the game any favours. You have the standard variety you'd expect from a farming sim. Hear the water spill out of the can, your animals greet you in the morning and plodding footsteps of human everyday life. But all of them suffer from the same problem the music did – low quality. It's hard to compliment a game when it sounds so badly done.
The primary goal of Harvest Moon is to manage the farm you're given. To do this you get seeds and animals to turn into cold hard cash.
Crop farming is a pretty simple concept. First you need to buy the seeds you're going to use. Back at the farm you prepare the ground using your hoe and then scatter the seeds in the ground. From then on you need to water them daily to get the resulting produce that you can sell on for money, which in turn is where you can buy new seeds.
It's actually surprisingly fun at first. You have to plan your goal effectively with this since time and energy is limited. Plant too many crops and you won't be able to maintain them all. Then when the end of the season is approaching you have to make sure all crops have fully grown, as crops only grow in certain seasons and will just die off in others, resulting in wasted money.
Maybe I went a little overboard...
When you're not crop farming you can be raising animals too. You get the expected selection of chickens, sheep and cows. Your animals must be fed daily or else they'll become unhappy and even ill. Carelessness will result in animals dying, which obviously doesn't help your goal at all. Animals that do fall ill can be treated with medicine, but it's not always accessible.
Of course, you don't raise animals for nothing. Eggs, milk and wool are the returns a player can expect, although milk and wool require purchasing of new tools. Because of the costs involved it's likely a player wouldn't invest in a cow or sheep until later in the game. The actual animals can also be sold for a nice sum of money too.
Sounds fairly basic, but it's possible to increase the value of the animals' products. All animals, if treated kindly, will grow in affection. Those with higher affection will produce higher quality goods than those with low affection. There are even certain events that can affect this too. Further on you can have machines built that turn the basic items into more valuable items, though by this time a substantial investment is needed.
But allowing you to work whenever you want would be a bit too easy, right? That's what the stamina and fatigue system is for. Using tools drains these invisible gauges, and when low your farmer will wear down, resulting in repeated interruptions as your farmer keeps stopping to rest. Work too much and you'll collapse. Food items can restore some strength, and going to bed refreshes you too, making it important to know how to balance work and rest. The system works pretty well too.
Selling stuff couldn't be any easier. Your farm has a bunch of shipping boxes dotted around. All you do is throw items in there, and Zach comes along everyday except holidays to sell them for you. With no need to haggle yourself you can focus on other things (though that might actually have been rather fun).
All this farm work sapping your free time? Then why not call in the harvest sprites to help? Living on the edge of town these sprites certainly know a thing or two about farming. Unfortunately, such acts of charity aren't for strangers, so at first you must befriend the sprites. Seems hard at first, until you find out they all have some weird obsession with flour.
Once a sprite is at three hearts or more you can ask for assistance. Sprites can do 3 types of work: watering, harvesting and animal care. Animal care is something you shouldn't do though, as animal affection won't increase. However, these guys are very useful for dealing with your crops. They can only be assigned for a maximum of 7 days before returning home. If they still have3 hearts then you can ask them again, but their heart gauge drops when they are working on the farm, so it's important to maintain friendships with them.
This is how you abuse friendships.
Get to work!
The sprites aren't that great at working at first though. Fortunately you can play minigames with them centred around the duties you can assign them. Boosting animal care involved dashing around feed trays for chickens. When a chicken has eaten the feed they walk off, and you must put more feed down before they disappear off screen. Fast, frantic and rather difficult. The harvesting game involves rhythmic button presses to pull crops out. Easy really. The last game shows a crop field where tiles get watered in a certain order and then you have to mimic it. A real test of memory, especially later on where more tiles get added to the watered list. These games can be quite fun and a nice way to pass time (in the real world – time doesn't' flow in the game when doing this).
Unfortunately, all this farmwork can get a little repetitive. You are, after all, carrying out the same kind of actions and planning becomes so second nature that the challenge doesn't really exist. Fun at first but you may wish for more. Things become a little worse in two areas as well with farmwork. In winter you can't grow crops, which removes something to do to fill time. Then the harvest sprites, while indeed helpful, also remove a time killer.
Well, Harvest Moon doesn't just have a farm. Go north out of the farm and you're in the town. Community activities are an important aspect too. If only the community wasn't so weak.
With all due credit the villagers here do at least have more life to them than those of A Wonderful Life. They have a brisk pace and actually seem to have places to be. Unfortunately we're back to the lack of character development, and coupled with the limited dialogue already simply hammers home the fact that this is just a program executing a series of preset instructions. It's hard to enjoy chatting with the villagers when there is so little variety to it.
Some of these villagers are different from the rest. Several cute girls populate the village and, unlike the others, can become wed to your character. Of course, suddenly going up to one of them and saying "hey, marry me, k?" wouldn't work out too well. Therefore we have the system of wooing your bride-to-be. Each girl has a heart displayed when talking to her that indicates her level of affection to you. Doing things like partaking in events with her and giving her things she likes increases her affection. In addition there are special heart events that are needed to get her affection level to move to the next level. Once she has fallen totally in love with you then you can propose by giving her a blue feather.
While gifts can be determined by a trial and error method these heart events are a lot more difficult to figure out. Often there's no real clue on how to trigger them, so you could spend ages stuck in a certain heart level because there's an event somewhere that you don't know how to manage to activate. It doesn't help that sometimes these events are in the most obscure of places.
Those still looking for a little more to do may want to visit the mines. One is only open in the winter prior to obtaining a suitably powerful hammer while the other is open year round. The idea here is pretty simple. Smash rocks with the hammer and dig with the hoe. You can get lots if items like precious gems, grass and money. A fine way to pass the time (again, from a real world perspective) and make some extra income.
Digging around may even reveal a staircase that leads further into the mine. Each mine has about 255 floors in all, and some items can only be found on certain floors. Unfortunately, all the floors look so similar and there isn't really anything to do other than smash rocks and dig in the ground. There's really no joy trying to get through every floor as it gets so repetitive. The fatigue system, while a wonder in other areas, becomes a massive pain here as you'll run low after just a few floors outside of pure luck. Even worse is that if you leave the mine you can only enter back into the first floor initially, making you go through the whole staircase finding process again.
One down, 254 to go...
So far most of these tasks require extensive use of the tools, but the basic tools are well, basic. They're pretty limited in what they can do. Fortunately the game offers an upgrade system. All tools have a usage bar that builds up every time a tool is used. Once a tool has hit the max the tool can be upgraded to a new level and the bar resets. Yes, you can build up multiple levels before upgrading. In addition to gaining this tool experience you also need to raid the nearby mine for the appropriate material (referenced by the upgraded tool's name – silver for the Silver Hammer, gold for the Gold Hammer etc) and stump up the cash to pay the blacksmith. Tools are kept by the blacksmith while they are upgraded and the number of days you're without them depends on their current level and the level they are being upgraded to. This requires some thought; otherwise you might find yourself without a hoe and needing to prepare the fields.
Game progress is also broken up by a variety of events held by the village. These range from horse racing to stargazing. Some of quite involved but some are really boring or nothing really happens, making them seem like filler to pad out the event calendar. Most of good though, and put a little more pressure on the farmer to complete all the tasks before they miss the event.
There are still other activities to partake in. Grab a fishing rod and start grabbing sea life. As well as making money your reactions are tested. I can't help but feel the game is a little too happy to dish out garbage at the pier though. You can also take your axe and chop up stumps and branches (which spookily reappear the next day). Doing this earns you wood which can be used to build new things on your farm, like a house extension or a bigger barn. But again, the actions involved are so simplified that it's hard not to tire of them after so long.
For those who like cooking may be pleased to find that this game includes such an aspect. It doesn't become available until later when the cooking items start appearing. While a trial and error method can work you'll generally want to get hold of the various recipes in the game. One problem is that they can be hard to find but it certainly adds something else to do. There isn't really anything of notable value in return for cooking, outside maybe as gifts, so it would be done mostly for the sake of doing it rather than expecting a reward.
All these activities make one of the game's initial shortcomings all too apparent though – a complete lack of item space! When you start the game you're only capable of carrying 3 tools and 3 items. Sound like a lot? Not when you're planting seeds and you realise you need the hoe, watering can and the seed packets (yes, seed packets count as tools in this game). You'll find yourself running back to your house to access the storage chest. However, only tools can be stored there. This means that you can only ever have a maximum of 3 items on you at any given time. Both of these issues can be resolved later through the purchase of certain items but it doesn't help to create a strong first impression.
All this gameplay is complimented by a strong control setup. A acts as the primary action button. Throw an item you're holding, talk to someone, examine something. B uses the currently active tool or puts the item you're holding in the rucksack. R let's you run. There are also some pretty logical shortcuts, like L + B to cycle between tools without going to the pause menu.
Speaking of which, the game is good at keeping you up to date on all the statistics. You have a variety of screens that give you a lot of information, ranging from animals and their affection to items sold and even your incoming and outgoing expenses. This is an excellent way to keep track of things, although it may be a little bit daunting for some.
But the status screen isn't your only source of information. Villagers themselves tend to offer advice and hints. Even better is the television in your house. That's right, Harvest Moon encourages watching television by offering advice and information. Two stations are always the same – a weather forecast telling you what's coming tomorrow and a news station that gives information on upcoming events. The other stations vary depending on what day it is but include a cooking programme giving a recipe, a fishing programme with angling tips and a shopping channel from which you can order stuff for your house. Delivering it through the TV was a nice touch by Natsume.
Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town has solid gameplay aspects and charming visuals, but is hurt by the terrible audio, shallow characters and the repetitive nature of the game. It's certainly worth playing, especially if you've never experienced the series before, but it just doesn't have the lifespan gamers have come to expect.
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