It's easy to forget the relevancy of Harvest Moon until Natsume's booth creeps into your vision on the E3 show floor—for a company that produces games far removed from the biggest, loudest attractions at E3, they certainly occupy a lot of floor space. Nearly 20 years after the series' launch, the day-to-day aspects of farm living still hold the same strange appeal they did in the 16-bit era.
Still, so much of Harvest Moon feels antiquated. Creator Yasuhiro Wada always intended the farming aspects of his series to be similar to random battles in an RPG; they give the player repetitive and rewarding tasks to perform between narrative bits. But where RPGs have become much more thoughtful about grinding, Harvest Moon has stuck to its nose to the grindstone mentality, which evokes the same emphasis on hard work as the older Dragon Quest games. If you're willing to put in the time, the rewards will be much more meaningful—if you have the time, that is.
Harvest Moon has grown much friendlier over the years, but in the past few generations, the series' very deliberate pacing made me wonder how it could stay relevant to players who haven't necessarily been knee-deep in the series since the mid-90s. I unexpectedly loved Rune Factory IV—my very first go at the Rune Factory series—because it sanded down the majority of Harvest Moon's rough edges, all while making its familiar tasks more intuitive than ever before.
After sinking way too much time into this spin-off, I wasn't surprised when Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley grabbed my attention at this year's E3. As someone who's been with the series from the beginning, my brief time with the game showed one of the most drastic rethinkings of Harvest Moon to date while still keeping all the elements that have given this farming sim so much longevity. The Lost Valley takes cues from Minecraft by letting players sculpt the world as they see fit, even as it cuts down on the tedium of equipment management by making its interface much more contextual. If you see a plant that needs to be watered and you have a watering can in your inventory, you only need to walk up to that dry patch of seeded land and hit a single button.
But even with these changes, the series hasn't veered too far from its focus on player diligence, as Natsume's Graham Markay explains: "What, in essence, is a Harvest Moon Game? [It's] the fact that hard work gets you rewarded in every aspect of your life. That fundamental message has to stay the same—always. It's a balancing of trying to figure out what works and what doesn't work. And in this particular case, the tool system [affected] the flow—the flow was interrupted. Bottom line is, we want that user to still have the flow of getting the hard work [done]. You still have to till the land, plant the seeds, water them, harvest the crop, and then you can use that crop however you want—that satisfaction of getting that crop, it's still there. But the flow of it [is faster]—we didn't speed how quickly the crops [grow], or anything like that."
Natsume hasn't released too many details about The Lost Valley, but what they showed me looked promising—especially for a series that could use a little disruption. Keep an eye out for my upcoming review this fall to see if Harvest Moon's overhaul avoids going to seed.
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