It may come as a surprise to some that a series of farming simulation games could become so popular and beloved by such a large audience, yet here we are, more than 15 years after the launch of the maiden game, with the release of Harvest Moon: A New Beginning. In celebration of this milestone anniversary, Marvelous AQL has decided to bring us back to the basics. Working as a refresh to the beloved series, A New Beginning sets out to remind gamers why they fell in love with Harvest Moon in the first place.
A New Beginning starts with you inheriting your family's abandoned farm, tasked with bringing the land to life and enriching the surrounding Echo Village. It's a plot that we've seen in almost all previous Harvest Moon games, but it's a device that effectively sets the ball rolling for the journey that lies ahead. For anyone who hasn't played any Harvest Moon games, what appears to be an innocuous farming sim is actually a convivial step into your new virtual home. Not only will you be tending to your farm work, but you will also be interacting with the business owners and residents of Echo, making friendships and potentially romancing a partner. As you harvest crops and care for your livestock the people around you start to take notice, and new life is slowly breathed into your once downtrodden neighbours.
While your ultimate goal is to revitalize your farm and Echo Village along with it, importance is placed on interacting with and befriending the locals. In a possible attempt to make a statement about the consumerist nature of humans today, relationships are built through the act of gift giving. Finding out what certain characters like to receive is important when attempting to grow a relationship, but once people start liking you, then you will begin to receive gifts in return. For example, befriend the local blacksmith and you may receive blueprints to upgrade your farming tools, or get in good with the fashion designer to receive new outfits to wear. The strength of your relationship with each particular character affects what gifts you may receive, as well as other occurrences such as a new resident's desire to move into the village.
Unlike previous games in the series, A New Beginning encourages customization of your character, farm, and even Echo Village. While these customizable elements may be limited to gender, hair color, clothing, and the placement of buildings on your farm and around town, they still contribute to the feeling that you truly are working to create an environment that is both healthy and your own. As time passes you will eventually be asked to construct very specific buildings or decorations around town to make the place more vibrant and livable. Fulfilling these requests will unlock more objectives, objects to build, and new folks who want to live in your ever-growing village. All of this is optional, however, so choosing simply to tend to your own land and stay to yourself is a perfectly viable decision, but you will miss out on so much of what this game has to offer. The social interactions and other objectives serve to break up the inevitable tedium of farming, a feature that is unfortunately missing in some previous games, as pointed out in our recent review of the Game Boy Color game.
Other life simulators, such the upcoming as Animal Crossing: New Leaf, may work on a real-time clock, but A New Beginning has an in-game clock that moves at a pace of 1 minute to every real-time second. Whether you're working hard or simply lounging in your home, time passes at a consistent rate and you progressively grow tired. Along with managing your crops and animals, it is also important to both eat nutritious foods that regenerate stamina and to figure out a routine that divides your time in such a way that you can accomplish everything you need to in any given day. This in-game clock and stamina system, while often frustrating, effectively adds an element of urgency and strategy to a game that would otherwise become dull over time.
You may not be restricted to walking in a grid pattern like previous series entries, but the controls remain simple nonetheless. Moving, interacting with people and objects, and using your tools is performed entirely with the 3DS's hard buttons. Some menu options can be tapped through on the touchscreen, but the bottom screen is used mostly for displaying a map of your farm and the surrounding village. It does seem as though more could have been done to utilize the touchscreen in ways that engage the player, such as mini-games or interactions with your animals, but having the map always on hand is also beneficial for keeping track of where you or other villagers are located.
Not only does A New Beginning play well, but it also looks and sounds great. Unlike Harvest Moon: The Tale of Two Towns that was simply a 3DS port of a DS game, A New Beginning was made for the 3DS, meaning that more care was put into designing it specifically for the newer console. Rather than shoehorning the 3D effect into a game optimized for a 2D platform, the 3D in A New Beginning feels more natural and helps to bring the environment alive. There are still occasional instances of slight frame rate slowdown with the 3D turned on, but these are few and far between, and they're not nearly enough to detract from the game's overall quality. The soundtrack consists of lighthearted melodies similar to those that accompany previous games in the series and help set the relaxing mood that the game intends to bring about. The music changes as time and seasons pass, working even harder to match the tranquil feeling.
Though there is multiplayer gameplay both locally and via Wi-Fi connection, what you can do with other players is limited to sharing items and interacting with animals on a small farm. Before entering the multiplayer area, you must choose which animals you would like to bring with you and what item you want to trade. After the trade is complete, you can then run around the farm, milking each other's cows and sheering each other's sheep. Though the gameplay is limited, multiplayer is a great way to earn some easy money and care for your livestock. This is also a very easy way to make a whole lot of money in a very short time if you're not opposed to exploiting the system.
Harvest Moon: A New Beginning is a successful attempt to breathe new life into an ageing series. Taking players back to the basics that made Harvest Moon so charming in the first place, this one serves to combine the best of the series into a game that no fan should pass up. It may not be a game or genre that will appeal to all gamers universally, but series veterans will find something to love here. As one villager so adequately and profoundly sums it up, "This is your life. Find something you want to do with it and do it."