After sinking (and continuing to sink) too many hours into the highly addictive Fantasy Life, I had my doubts about the latest Harvest Moon. The developer promised big changes this time around, but, in recent years, other series have borrowed the core ideas behind Natsume's farm sim and taken them in more interesting—and entertaining—directions. (Like last year's recent Rune Factory IV, which I apparently can't stop talking about.)
Oh, and there's also the fact that not a single outlet seems to have received a copy of the game for review—not always the best sign for a new release. As of this writing, the game's Metacritic page is completely empty outside of one lonely user review. Poor lil' guy.
After playing nine hours of The Lost Valley's first season—that's 30 in-game days—I can at least say this: it's not bad! But if you're used to the dense, checklist-y nature of something like Fantasy Life, Harvest Moon's newest form may put you off a bit. Where Level-5's creation essentially acts as a pinata that drops a handful of tasty rewards with every session, The Lost Valley experience feels a lot more solitary and meditative, sort of like trimming a bonsai tree. It's essentially a "make your own fun" kind of game, similar to older installments, like 1999's Back to Nature, which focused more on running a successful farm than the sequels to follow.
The first week-or-so in the titular Lost Valley doesn't offer much in the way of things to do. The game opens with your character finding their way to this desolate landscape, which just happens to conveniently offer a rent-free cozy cabin with the basic amenities. After some mercifully brief tutorials, The Lost Valley drops the leash entirely and tasks you with some basic objectives meant to exploit its Minecraft-ish terraforming system. Though it doesn't offer the sheer mileage of its inspiration, The Lost Valley still provides a sizable tract of land, and the tools to shape it as you see fit. And if you played Minecraft, the digging and building works nearly the same, though in a much more limited capacity: You can only terraform the land—the game's structures (which can be placed on any suitably flat area) come completely preformed.
Even if the beginning of The Lost Valley feels remarkably sparse, there's still something undeniably appealing about sculpting an area to suit my tastes. I spent a few days making the land around my farm look neat and orderly, then proceeded to make certain locations more accessible by carving handy staircases and pathways through the dirt. And, outside of growing a basic set of crops and fishing, The Lost Valley doesn't ask much more of you in its first season. After you find the Harvest Goddess—a mainstay of the Harvest Moon series—you're asked to perform simple tasks, like growing X amount of a specific crop. As you meet these goals, new Harvest Sprites find their way into The Lost Valley, and willingly enter into serfdom, as is Harvest Moon tradition.
As the first season unfolds, going to sleep in your cabin reveals dreams that let you know if someone new has entered The Lost Valley, or if someone you've already met needs help. The characters who show up in the first 30 days aren't exactly memorable, and utter some of the most perfunctory dialogue I've ever read, but this time around, you won't have to visit them to take advantage of their services. As part of The Lost Valley's attempt to streamline the Harvest Moon experience, characters now visit your house and sell their goods on a set schedule, which lets you focus more on growing crops, tending to animals, and sculpting the land. Doing almost any task in the game proves much easier than in previous Harvest Moons, too: All the actions you perform are now contextual, so you don't have to dig around in a menu if you want to switch from chopping trees to watering broccoli.
Even though these first 30 days didn't bring me many surprises, I'd be lying if I said The Lost Valley hasn't been strangely compelling. Still, I really wish it would have given me a little more to actually do on my farm in this first season: Terraforming is fun and all, but, outside of that, my options have been extremely limited. And while the menus and UI are much more efficient this time around—a long-overdue improvement for the series—The Lost Valley should have taken a cue from Rune Factory IV by making your most familiar and repetitive actions a little more efficient. I'm sure I'll be able to upgrade my tools eventually, but having to water 30 crops square-by-square feels like an actual chore rather than a simulated one. The same goes for planting crops—even the very first Harvest Moon let you throw down seeds in a 3-by-3 grid with a single button press.
Overall, The Lost Valley feels like a step in the right direction for Harvest Moon, but not a big enough step. The series has always required patience from its players, and The Lost Valley's big, bleak landscape only accentuates this demand: Without a townful of colorful characters adjacent to your farm, you're going to be spending a lot of time staring at a blocky, mostly featureless environment. But I'm still going to stick with the game for at least another full season, because I'm honestly curious as to whether or not I can make The Lost Valley's malleable setting more lively. Check back in a few weeks for another installment of The Farm Report, and if you have questions about anything I didn't address, please leave them in the comments section below.