Have you ever wanted to leave it all? Just pack your bags, move to a completely new place and start a brand new life? If you've ever wanted to see what it's like to start fresh, now is your chance with the release of Marvelous' latest farming simulation title, Story of Seasons.
As was outlined in our recent review of Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley, long-time publisher Natsume owns the rights to the Harvest Moon name, so Marvelous was put in the position of having to rebrand its long-running series with this new release. Not only does Story of Seasons provide a strong showing for what may be a standalone oddity, but it also paves the way for a potential series of its own. Whatever this new game may end up being, it is at the very least an excellent place to start for players new to the genre.
Arriving to Oak Tree Town as a greenhorn, your character has decided to answer a flier requesting individuals interested in running a farm. The townsfolk are well aware that you have no prior background in crop or livestock maintenance, but they decide that you're the right man or woman – your choice – for the job. Shortly after moving to your new home, it's revealed to you that the real reason the town is seeking new residents is to stimulate the area's economy and develop trade routes with surrounding countries. Community is a big focus in Story of Seasons, and part of this is opening your region to those around you.
The plot's focus may be on community, but the gameplay here is still all about growing crops and earning your keep. Farming in this game has been condensed by having you work on 3x3 plots of land rather than tending to each crop individually. You are still responsible for selecting the correct tools from your bag and making sure that you don't accidentally destroy your precious greenery with a sickle rather than sprinkling them with your watering can, but the time consuming and repetitive nature of the gameplay has been reduced. To make up for this simplified farming, your character's stamina has been adjust to deplete more rapidly, meaning that while there may be less work to do this time around, there is also significantly less energy to do it with. This new system works well and greatly reduces the tedium that was a major complaint in Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley. On top of that, newcomers to the series or veterans who simply want a more relaxed experience can select to play on Seedling Mode, a version of the game that retains all of the major elements but allows players more stamina and reduced prices in the shops around town.
Coupled with the streamlined gameplay is the intuitive control scheme. Character movement is controlled with the Circle Pad while all actions are performed with the lettered buttons or icons on the touchscreen. Tools and items can be switched out by opening the main menu with the X button, or by pulling up a quick access menu with a tap of the R shoulder trigger. Swapping tools isn't as easy as it is in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, where the left and right buttons on the D-Pad are put to good use, but the quick access menu does well to make up for the lost time.
A major element of the Harvest Moon series that makes an appearance here is the inclusion of a romance system, allowing the game to work as more than just a farming simulator. There are several eligible bachelors or bachelorettes – depending on your character's gender – all of which can be romanced through gift giving and eventually married. The focus in this is obviously to find a marriage partner, but you can also become close with other members of the community through similar means as well. Growing relationships around town means that more items will be available in shops and the community will generally be friendlier towards you. It's surprisingly satisfying to earn the respect of particularly prickly characters, and learning more about the residents is one of the more interesting aspects of the game. The characters all feel unique from one another and stand out as individuals who have their own stories to tell.
Going back to the idea of growing community, a major new aspect to Story of Seasons is the Trade Depot. Rather than having a shipping bin or a regular place to sell your crops and products, all trading is done with different countries at this plaza in town. The more you purchase, trade, and fulfil requests, other countries with different products will take notice and eventually come to trade in your town as well. There is a bit of frustration that comes along with not having a shipping bin always available when you need the money, but this new arrangement places an emphasis on the importance of paying attention to the trading system and developing your trading partnerships.
The art style present is similar to that which has been found in many recent Harvest Moon titles. The gameplay boasts a cute and cartoony element while the dialogue features detailed motionless illustrations of each character as they speak. The two styles work well together to create the impression that, despite being a lighthearted and charming game, it is still rooted in the reality of everyday life. Though the style chosen may work well, that's not to say that the visual presentation is without its flaws, some of which are more irksome than can be ignored. The console's 3D effect is put to use, but it doesn't provide any significant improvements to the game and can sometimes be disorienting. When turned on, the biggest use of the 3D is to provide depth between the background and character illustrations, but it mostly just accentuates some of the environment's more jagged lines. There are also certain areas of the map that incite a noticeable drop in frame rate.
Thankfully these areas mostly just act as corridors to get from one major part of town to another rather than being centres of activity, but the issue remains. It feels as though a lot of care was put into achieving the desired aesthetic in Story of Seasons, but a final polish was not performed over the completed package.
For as good a job as these games do in providing life simulations that promote the importance of community, the one thing that the Harvest Moon series has never perfected is multiplayer, and that rings true in Story of Seasons. After spending a certain amount of time on your own farm, the options to activate both StreetPass and multiplayer elements become available. Multiplayer allows you to visit other players' farms either locally or over WiFi and exchange gifts, while StreetPass "collects" players who you have passed by so you can check out their farms' stats. We'd love to say that there's more to it than that, but the reality is that these features are very limited and, quite frankly, underwhelming.
Story of Seasons may rightfully belong in the Harvest Moon family, but it's a strong enough entry to stand on its own. Taking familiar gameplay elements such as farming and the romance system, this title uses the framework that came before it and expands on that in many positive directions. It may not be the most polished game, with its finicky frame rate and an underwhelming 3D display, but the charming characters and satisfying gameplay make this a game worth any Harvest Moon fan's time. If you're looking to start a relaxing new virtual life full of charm and charisma, look no further than Story of Seasons.