Cosy, Cute, and Life-Consuming
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Genre: Role playing, simulation
Developer: Marvelous Entertainment Inc.
Publisher: Marvelous Inc., XSEED
Release date: 14-Jul-2020
Nowadays there's a lot to be said for a game that's more cosy than stressful. That was part of why Animal Crossing: New Horizons was such a global smash hit this year, it distracted people from the dreaded C-word in an enjoyable way. That brings me to the focus of this article - another entry in this 'cosy management' genre that I think people would enjoy in 'these times'. Story of Seasons: Friends of Mineral Town (Switch).
A lot of people that owned a Gameboy Advance back in the early noughties (2003 to be exact) may remember a fun little title called 'Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town'. This was a farming and life simulator, and widely regarded as the best in the franchise at the time. So much so that it served as the inspiration for a number of other games (Stardew Valley being the most prominent) that then flooded the genre.
Something that passed by a lot of people that had played these older games was FOMT's re-release on Nintendo Switch this year. This inattention was largely due to the franchise's name change in English-speaking countries. The name 'Harvest Moon' belongs to Natsume, the company that translated and distributed the original English versions of Harvest Moon games.
Marvelous Inc., who own the franchise, switched their game localisation to the American publishing company XSEED in recent years. This clash over the right to the name ‘Harvest Moon’ has resulted in the last few entries in this franchise being published under a new name, Story of Seasons. Natsume have since begun creating games with little success under the 'Harvest Moon' title, which has been akin to a death knell for the brand in English speaking countries.
The new 'Harvest Moon' games do not have the quality to inspire widespread interest, and Story of Seasons means little to those who otherwise may have picked this up out of nostalgia. Unless you were enough of a fan to keep track of the franchise name issues, in which case this is all old news to you.
So… What's the Story?
The plot is largely the same as the original GBA game, with one notable difference of an extra protagonist of each gender being available. Don’t let the cutesy designs in-game fool you, the protagonist is twenty years old and the majority of the characters you will interact with most often are in or around the same age.
Once you choose your character, the game begins. The opening cutscene is a flashback that shows you and another child playing in the woods. You, a city kid, are just visiting your grandfather who lives in the countryside in a place called Mineral Town. You promise to come back to see your friend again some day.
Flash forward to the present day and you are reading a letter from the mayor of Mineral Town. Your grandfather has passed away, and left his farm to you in his will. Upon visiting the farm, you decide to make it your goal to restore it to its former glory.
The story is sparse enough that the game itself is rather open-ended, so you get to decide when it is 'finished'. And this game expects you to be in it for the long haul. Especially if you are playing in 'Normal mode' instead of 'Easy mode'.
Choosing 'Normal mode' reduces the amount of savings you start off with, how much you earn per crop, and makes it a bit harder to befriend the true heroes of this game… The villagers of Mineral Town.
For those of you who are used to Stardew Valley’s farming gameplay, take heart. FOMT operates in largely the same way with the notable exception of anything involving modern technology.
This is something that I have always enjoyed in this franchise, you are mostly unable to get a grasp on the exact time period in which it is set. The closest hint you have is that TVs exist, and there is a single phone in the town Inn that villagers can use. So those useful sprinklers that you get in Stardew Valley are not an option here.
This old-fashioned farming rarely felt like much of a chore though, using your tools gains experience points which you can use for upgrades at the blacksmith’s forge. This eventually allows you to water multiple crops with one swing of your mighty mithril watering can. In some franchises you use mithril to create chainmail strong enough to prevent an Uruk captain from skewering you in the Mines of Moria. In FOMT you use it to water your tomatoes.
There is some minor planning required to really make use of your time and maximise profit when farming in Normal Mode. As long as you pay attention to the season, weather, and crop layout this never becomes too large a hurdle. You can also befriend the Harvest Sprites nearby who will help you around the farm if you ask. This was a really useful feature as you start trying to plant more crops than your own stamina can handle.
The real fun begins when you can finally afford to buy some animals for your farm. There were a lot of new animals added to the Switch reboot that were not in the previous version. There are the usual cows, chicken, sheep, and a horse of course. But you can also buy colour-coded cows that give you strawberry, fruit, and coffee flavoured milk. This does not achieve very much in-game, but the designs are cute and I will fight anyone who says they have no place in the farm.
The update to include a wider variety of animals, such as alpacas and angora rabbits, was very welcome. But the huge increase in pets available was a surprise. Not only do you have three separate breeds of cats and dogs each to choose from, there are also two different kinds of capybaras and two different kinds of penguins.
You may ask: what use is a penguin or a capybara on a farm? The answer (in this game) is the same as if you choose a cat or dog companion. Very little. There is a frisbee competition once a year in-game for pets, but which animal you choose does not change its frisbee-catching ability or likelihood of winning.
What if You Get Sick of Farming?
There is a surprising number of activities to get stuck into even if the actual farming is a have-to-do instead of a want-to-do.
The two mines in town are going to be a significant… event... in any playthrough. Many people love the mines. But for me, they are both 255 levels of hell and once I get my ore to upgrade my tools I am out of there, trophies and completionism be damned.
Fishing can bring in a decent wad of cash, or at least provide ingredients for cooking and possible gifts for other villagers.
I also spent a ridiculous amount of time preparing my animals on the farm for the competitions that regularly take place every season. It takes more time and effort than you would expect to breed excellence into your animals, and it is only award-winning animals that produce award-winning products for your farm.
Small Town Life
The area in which the game truly shines has not changed since its release on Gameboy Advance all those years ago. The writing and character development is truly first class, and stood the test of time well.
Mineral Town and its inhabitants seem to have a life of their own. While there are definitely numerous cutscenes in which your character is the main focus, there are as many scenes and events which play out with you as an onlooker. These small events all build until you eventually get an in-depth view of what this village is like, how everyone relates to each other, and their backstories.
It often felt as if, even if your character disappeared for the day, most (not all) NPCs were still going about their business and having their own lives and experiencing things off screen while you were miserable in a mine somewhere. It is not a feat that has been accomplished too often in a game, and it is an interesting experience.
If you don’t focus on improving your relationship with the villagers you are missing out on the reason it was the most beloved in the franchise.
Take Me Out
Just like in real life, the reality of moving to a completely new town means you begin to put down roots. As you get to know all of the Mineral Town villagers, you will inevitably get to know the ones closer to your age a little better.
And what do you know? Every single one of them are single. There are six bachelors and bachelorettes to choose from, and each have their own quirks and histories. I personally found each worth raising the relationship level with as their cutscenes tended to be more in-depth than regular villagers (but not always).
The only flaw in the writing in this game reared its head for me in doing this though… Two of the new characters introduced for this version of the game are a bachelor and a bachelorette. And it became clear that whatever flair for scripting that Marvelous once held may be a thing of the past rather than the present. Both of the new characters came across more like caricatures than characters, and the integration of them has been poorly done. It feels as if they are completely separate from the village, and thrown in there for the sake of extra content.
But there is one really, really, really positive thing that has come out of this remake. For the first time in the history of both Harvest Moon and Story of Seasons, same-sex marriage has finally been included. Whether you play as a boy or a girl, you can pursue any of the bachelors or bachelorettes and experience the same cutscenes. This is a huge step for a franchise that still relies on Asia for the majority of their sales, and a welcome one.
I enjoyed this game more than I expected to. The graphics aren’t amazing, but the updated soundtrack and sprites still give it a far fresher feel than the best graphics the Switch has to offer could.
The quality of the new content is far overshadowed by the old, even when not viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. But the old content is so immersive (and the new content integrated so poorly with the existing) that when playing through it is easy to ignore the new, as you don’t actively gravitate towards it.
The gameplay has not changed much, but this is the game that set the standard for farming simulation games. Nobody expected it to change. It is an easily accessible system that doesn’t require prior knowledge to dive into, but has levels of breeding and crops you can perfect (akin to EV levelling in Pokemon) if that tickles your fancy.
Play this game if:
You enjoyed simulation games like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing
You don’t mind a game without strict goals and rewards
You like open-ended games
You value a well-crafted world
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