Tree of Tranquility is the first game in the main Harvest Moon series designed exclusively for Wii, following 2007’s disastrous Gamecube port Magical Melody. It’s been available in the US for over a year, but now it’s finally available in PAL territories it’s time to see how it measures up.
You’ll either be relieved or disappointed to hear that Tree of Tranquility deviates very little from the classic Harvest Moon template. You plough fields, grow crops, raise animals and find a wife or husband, as you can now choose to play as a girl without buying a later rerelease. The overall aim of the game is to restore Waffle Island’s Mother Tree, bringing peace and prosperity back to the island’s inhabitants, which will take you a couple of years of game time with everything else going on too.
Although the majority of the gameplay hasn’t changed since the series’ first appearance back on the SNES, this Wii update does include some motion-sensitive controls, although to be honest you’re much better off using a Classic Controller. On the whole the game controls well, with some slight variations on the established template – holding down L on the Classic Controller locks you in one direction and enables you to walk around one square at a time, which comes in very useful for tilling and watering before your tools level up. The camera control is a big letdown, though – instead of the character-following camera of the Gamecube’s A Wonderful Life, Tree of Tranquility sticks rigidly to a distant view that can only be panned around, with no zoom available. This makes it difficult to navigate towns and take in the surrounding areas, and although it prevents clipping and glitching issues it does make you feel detached from the “action”.
Life on Waffle Island is slow at first, as is par for the course, but Tree of Tranquility slows things to a snail’s pace by not even giving you a farm for the first few hours, asking you to work on neighbouring Soufflé farm to learn the basics of picking weeds, watering plants and harvesting crops. Even by Harvest Moon standards it’s a boring start, and even after you gain your farm you’re still missing many of the necessary tools and the funds to pay for seeds.
Once you do get your farm you can choose its location in one of three plots, although later you can buy up the remaining plots to grow more crops. There are other few additions to the standard HM fare too: if you’re stuck for money you can work part-time at one of the local shops or farms, a simple matter of turning up and saying “I want to work part-time”, making it easier to boost your finances at first. There’s still a range of festivals, each of which comes with a minigame to beat that all vary in quality, and you’ll need to replace your Classic Controller with a Nunchuk to play them. Irritatingly, not all minigames actually use the Nunchuk – the first bug-catching game is a simple point-and-swipe affair for Remote only, for example – but at least the games are all straightforward enough to convince others to play with you in the multiplayer Party Mode. They’re not amazing but they are a welcome break from the farming slog, and as they only appear at events they’re infrequent enough not to become a pain.
There are new animals over previous entries too. The developers have come up with seemingly every standard farm animal imaginable, so now you can also keep silkworms and an ostrich, the former valuable for its silk and the latter just for transport. It’s understandable, really – farmers all over the world are famous for getting around on ostriches. The care of these animals is more traditional, following a daily routine of: feed, water, talk, cuddle, with a full complement of makers available to turn eggs into mayonnaise, wool into yarn and so on.
Out of the barn and in the fields, you now grow different qualities of crops based on how well fertilised your fields are, although each square has its own base fertility rating, meaning you’ll need to plan your fields to maximise the yield. Seeds are now thrown in the six squares in front of you, and you’re also able to walk over plants with no detrimental effect to the crops, negating the need for odd field designs just to ensure each crop is watered. As the game progresses you acquire Power Berries to increase your lasting power and make farm chores easier to accomplish, but initially you have so little stamina clearing your field is a frustratingly difficult proposition, particularly considering how tiring it is simply lifting a weed out of the ground.
Of course, it’s the series’ custom to make you work hard when starting your farm, but even the most hardened farmers will be put off by this initially glacial pace, made even longer by the loading times between each island district. Waffle Island contains most of the standard HM features – caves, forests, beaches and shops – all divided into different areas marked out by signposts. Any time you move from one area to another you’re met with a loading screen for ten seconds or so, and considering there’s only three or four features in each area you spend just as much time loading as you do hoeing. Slowing the game down even further is the lack of 60Hz support, and the combination of the two detracts so much from the title it becomes more of a challenge to overlook its technical faults than create a successful farm and resurrect the Mother Tree.
Other presentation issues hurt Tree of Tranquility too. The music is excellent – clear, varied and catchy, but the sound effects and voices are extremely tinny and sound like they were recorded with a yoghurt pot microphone. Graphically it isn’t too bad, with the characters’ spherical heads a matter of taste but certainly not offensive, although their animation leaves a lot to be desired: when two characters meet to talk, they freeze to the spot and pivot to face each other, and presents magically hop from one person to another. The game is riddled with issues like this that have admittedly existed in pretty much all the 3D games in the series, but with so many titles under their belt it’s a shame Marvelous haven’t made this a priority.
The addictive gameplay of past titles is still there, but Tree of Tranquility simply repeats too many past mistakes, with little advantage taken of the Wii’s capabilities other than a few motion controls and minigames. The series needs a complete overhaul in the presentation stakes to complement its rock solid gameplay structure, but until we see that it’s worth keeping your money in your wallet.