Since its initial début on the Super Nintendo in 1997, Harvest Moon has blossomed into something of an institution; a non-traditional RPG that swapped swords for shovels, replaced fighting with farming, and let players find true love among the turnips, it captivated with a unique charm, and has been hooking would-be farmers on platforms from the PlayStation to the 3DS ever since.

This year is shaping up to provide an especially bountiful — and potentially very confusing — harvest for longtime fans of gaming’s foremost farming sims. First, we have the localization of the latest Japanese game in the series to look forward to. This title — Bokujō Monogatari: Tsunagaru Shin Tenchi — is due to be brought over by XSEED as Story of Seasons, due to longtime Western publisher Nastume’s ownership of the Harvest Moon name. Not content to sit on the pastoral picket fence, however, Natsume has been hard at work developing its own, unrelated Harvest Moon game for Western release: Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley. We were able to spend some time with an early version of the Lost Valley at E3, with Natsume’s Community Manager CeeCee showing us around the farm. From what we’ve seen so far, we think fans will be in for a real treat; Lost Valley breaks new ground for the series while keeping its roots firmly planted in the tradition that made it such a hit.

In some ways, as the first Natsume-developed Harvest Moon game, The Lost Valley is a fresh start for the series, and that begins with the premise behind the planting. Instead of having to restore the reputation of your grandfather’s farm, you’re charged with bringing back the four seasons; when you arrive, the Lost Valley is trapped in an unending winter, and you’ll need to work hard - and perhaps enlist the help of some Harvest Sprites and a certain Goddess - to bring back the other seasons as you progress. The E3 demo actually took place in sunny Spring and Summer, but we do like the idea of starting your farm in what is traditionally the bleakest Harvest Moon season and having to earn the sunshine from there. In another twist on tradition, there’s no neat division between farm and town this time around - the Lost Valley is a rural area without the stringent zoning laws of past Harvest Moon games, and houses, shops, and crops can coexist in the same areas.

Natsume is billing The Lost Valley as the “first truly three-dimensional” Harvest Moon, though not for the reasons you might expect; the camera is fully 3D, as it happens, and we enjoyed panning it around while surveying our land - but it’s what you can do with that land that really earns the game its claim to the third-dimension. The Lost Valley’s landscape is made up of chunky cubes of gridded earth, and by facing a tile and pulling up what was affectionately referred to on the show floor as the ‘Minecraft menu’, you can instantly raise or lower that section. Pile up plots for a hilltop harvest, dig down deep to find a fishing hole, or cordon off crops with canals - it’s all possible, and extremely easy to do. The interface was simple and intuitive, with the up-top ‘X’ button sensibly used for raising the land, the bottom ‘B’ button used for digging down, and a nine-square grid surrounding your character to help you see exactly where you’re aiming your shovel.

We spent a good portion of our playtime just experimenting with creating different land layouts, and it was easy to get excited about the possibilities. Terraced farming, riverside rice paddies, and enormous crop circle portraits of our chosen bachelor/ette all sounded like fun, and we would’ve been happy to stay planted at the Nastume booth all afternoon to make it happen. The hands-on landscaping also felt like a great fit for the Harvest Moon ethos; at its core, the series has always been about taking care of the land, and helping it take shape felt like a natural extension.

We were impressed with how much creative expression could be accomplished by simply raising and lowering dirt, but that’s not the only way you’ll be able to customize your farmland in The Lost Valley. We also got a chance to check out the Instant Build feature, which lets you build more complex structures by placing them tile by tile directly on the land. It works similarly to the earthmoving, and it’s just as fast - we built a raised bridge between the Giant’s Causeway-like mountain on one side of our farm and the crops on the other, and it barely took longer to build the bridge than to walk straight there.

One of the biggest practical changes to the minute-by-minute Harvest Moon experience in Lost Valley is the addition of contextual button actions. Depending on what you’re standing in front of, the ‘A’ button can take care of a variety of tasks: planting, watering, and harvesting crops, feeding or petting animals, picking up or tossing objects, fishing in a pond, hammering rocks or chopping down trees — even cleaning up after the cows. It’s certainly a time-saver, and we enjoyed being able to focus on the side of Harvest Moon’s manual labour that’s most fun - the farming - without having to spend any time at all on the meta-manual labour of sifting through menus and sorting out equipment.

A subtler change is that animals now pay attention to the day/night cycle — we were surprised to see the dog sound asleep when we got home after an in-game day of exploring, and a quick trip to the barn revealed that the entire menagerie was tucked in for the night. You can wake them up if you want - as we discovered when we were unable to resist picking up the napping pup - so post-farming fuzz therapy is thankfully still an option.

There are plenty of new features in The Lost Valley, but Nastume hasn’t forgotten the series’ roots; in fact, Lost Valley harkens back to Harvest Moon’s earlier days in several different ways. The visual style especially reminded us of Harvest Moon 64 and the SNES original more than recent instalments; character models are cheery and chibi, with big heads and bright eyes, and the game is rendered in a simple, grid-based, low-poly style with clean lines and vibrant colours. It felt a bit like a 16-bit game re-imagined in 3D, and it was lovely.

The player characters’ designs are also based off of previous protagonists: the female character is based on Claire, who fans will recognize from the gender-swapped release of Back to Nature (Harvest Moon: Boy & Girl in North America), More Friends of Mineral Town, and Harvest Moon DS: Cute, while the male character marks the welcome return of Pete, the series’ main man from the Super Nintendo all the way up until Harvest Moon DS. Even the animals take their cues from an older Harvest Moon style; the cows are cast in the Magical Melody mould — cute and impossibly chubby — the sheep resemble comically puffy clouds of wool with faces, and the chickens are spherical and nearly half your size.

The cows and chickens won’t be joined by the exotic animals from recent games either; we were told that the development team is taking a “quality over quantity” approach for both animals and villagers in The Lost Valley, and focusing on allowing players to forge deeper connections with a smaller number of species and residents. For animals, that means sticking to the barnyard basics, like cows, sheep, chickens, and your ever-helpful horse. And while we didn’t get to learn much about your prospective neighbors in the E3 demo — there were only a few villagers in this early build, with very limited dialogue - we were told there will be lots of characters worth getting to know, including — of course — bachelors and bachelorettes to woo, wed, and raise families with. In our play test, we met a shy girl named April, the impressively peppy Emily, and Gilbert, a bard who spoke exclusively in rhyme, all of whom had appealingly cartoony character designs and plenty of potential for personality.

As the first Harvest Moon to be sprouted in Natsume’s in-house garden, Lost Valley looks to hold a lot of promise, and we certainly enjoyed everything we’ve seen so far. It pairs fun new features with an old-school aesthetic that took us back to the series’ roots, simplifies inventory and tool management without stripping away the meaningful manual labour that makes each in-game day so satisfying, and adds in an addictive new layer of farmland freedom by letting players shape the landscape as they see fit — a task we could have happily lost hours to even in this early version. There’s still plenty left to learn before the game’s ready for harvest this fall — we’re especially eager to hear more about potential marriage partners, and any options for sharing or showing off your personalized farmscape — but based on our brief time in the Lost Valley, we’re definitely looking forward to the result.

Be sure to check out our other hands on features from E3: