In recent times the legal environment of the Harvest Moon series has become a bit muddled. Starting in 2014, XSeed Games began localizing the latest games in the series under the name Story of Seasons, due to the fact that Natsume owns the IP rights to the Harvest Moon franchise. So, although the Harvest Moon series continues to see new entries, the "true" series is only just now getting its next instalment with Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns. This new entry is just about everything one could want out of a sequel to its predecessor; there's plenty of new content which builds upon the foundation that came before, and it does a good job of fixing what didn't quite work.
The story opens up with you having an epiphany and realizing that you, a grown adult still living under Mom and Dad's constantly moving roof, absolutely must pursue your lifelong dream of being a farmer. Though your Dad is quick to toss cold water on the idea — saying that you don't have what it takes to be self-sufficient in that way — a lengthy argument eventually resolves in you leaving your family behind and moving to the rural Westown where your uncle, Frank, will teach you in the ways of farming.
It's this early part of the game that stands as the biggest issue, and while it certainly isn't enough to devalue the excellence that follows, it is still quite an exercise in patience. There's about twenty minutes of raw exposition and dialogue before you're even allowed to control your character, and it's not until you've gone close to forty minutes in that you pick up a hoe for the first time. From that point on the game keeps you on an extremely tight leash that it ever so slowly begins to let off.
New elements, such as fishing or additional towns, are introduced at a glacial pace, and each new mechanic means another exhaustive tutorial that will explain it in excruciating detail. The problem being, most of the stuff in this game is pretty self-explanatory, yet the tutorials treat it like rocket science. This problem is largely assuaged if you opt to create your save using the slightly more difficult "Veteran Mode", but even then it still pops up unnecessarily every now and then. Either way, as the game opens up the hand holding fortunately lessens considerably, to the point that the opening slog becomes a distant memory.
Gameplay is centered around two essential, intertwined mechanics that largely impact the development and progression of each other: Farming and Socializing. In case you didn't gather it from the game's title, there are three towns in which you will regularly be conducting business, and these all have important distinctions which make them unique. Stores have different hours and carry different products, the etiquette and general culture are unique to each town, and there are different festivals and events to attend.
The overarching goal is ultimately to raise your Town Link Rank for each town, which acts as a metric of your relationship with each one. Each rank is raised over a period of in-game weeks in which you regularly must buy and sell products with the towns, complete jobs for various townspeople, and just generally socialize with everyone that you can. Once you finally manage to kick your town link up a notch the people grow more friendly, more stores open, and more products are made available to buy. Though at times it can get a bit tedious, there's a very rewarding feedback loop at play here; your relationship with the towns must be cultivated and grown much like the crops that you plant, but the long-term payoff is almost always several times greater than that which you initially invested.
Day to day activity is mostly concerned with completing various chores around the farm, with occasional trips into town to pick up jobs, more supplies, or to talk with the locals. None of the tasks require very much skill on behalf of the player — most chores are just a simple matter of holding down the "A" button and watching your character do the work — and so resource management takes the forefront of one's mindspace. For example, when performing laborious activities you have to keep an eye on your stamina meter, which gradually declines as you tire yourself out. If you don't cook yourself a meal (or buy one in a town restaurant), your character will pass out in the field and you'll wake up the next day, regardless of what time you fell asleep.
Additionally, a minute of in-game time equals one second in real time, which doesn't leave a whole lot of leeway to flounder about. All the locals operate on set schedules, so general success is dependent upon properly managing and prioritizing one's day according to what needs to be done. Mistakes tend to compound, too, which adds some interesting stakes to gameplay. For example, if you spend too long cutting down trees for lumber, you might miss the general store's hours, which means you can't pick up the potato seeds that you meant to plant that day, which means the profits you could've made off the crop have been delayed by another day. There's a lot to manage, and only through efficiently prioritizing and setting things in motion can you maximize the work that you get done each day.
On top of that, there are various other activities that you can complete which don't strictly relate to either the farm or the towns. After you obtain a fishing rod, you can cast out anywhere there's running water and catch fish, which vary wildly depending on which town and season you're in. Additionally, there are several mining points that you can return to each day that pay out in ores like copper and iron, which can then be utilized to expand aspects of your farm or upgrade tools to be more efficient. Also, there are several part-time jobs to pick up each day that help boost your relationships and net you a bit of extra cash. These are generally simple fetch quests that range from delivering packages between towns to chopping wood for a neighbor, but they act as a nice break from the routine of daily chores.
And for those of you that are feeling a bit lonely, there are options to adopt pets and/or romance a partner to live with you on the farm. Each town has a short list of eligible bachelors and bachelorettes, the likes of which can be wooed by daily conversation and by giving them gifts. Lisette, for example, likes flowers from the neighboring coastal town of Lulukoko. Pets are a similar addition and, once unlocked, are a must have. You can choose from a variety of dogs and cats (or even a capybara), and have your furry friend follow you everywhere you go. Each breed is good at finding certain items, too; your shorthair cat may occasionally grab you a fish, or your dog may be good at finding certain plants. Later on, you can register your favorite pet as your "Furmiliar" which unlocks certain hidden cutscenes and dialogue.
Your registered pets also play into the game's multiplayer functionality a bit, in that they fulfill the game's StreetPass feature. Here, your pet will visit the towns of other players you happen to pass by, and bring back certain items upon returning. Additionally, there's support for up to four players to play locally or online on an isolated island. Here, you can chat with each other, trade items, fish, and — if you're feeling lucky — sacrifice an item to a stone plinth which will give you a random item in return. While it certainly would've been nice to have had a chance to actually visit other players' towns, this is still a nice break from the pace and provides for a fairly hassle-free means of interacting with others.
From a graphical standpoint, Trio of Towns manages to impress with its cheery, chibi style, which perfectly matches the tone of the game. Colours are bright and environments are bursting with character; it's quite clear that the developers took time to meticulously craft each town according to a specific theme and focused on little details, such as bits of hay constantly falling in the foreground in the spaghetti western themed Westown. You might not necessarily be blown away by the looks of things — there are no 'wow' moments here — but models are well designed, textures are clean, and we didn't encounter any noticeable slowdown, even with several moving characters onscreen at once. And while the 3D effect isn't by any means necessary, it adds a pleasing amount of depth to environments and makes details pop in little ways that 2D can't quite replicate.
Musically speaking, there's some pretty catchy tunes here which help create a warm, and friendly atmosphere. Though it can get a bit repetitive hearing the same theme play when you reenter a town for the umpteenth time, none of the music becomes grating. Tracks are upbeat and rather creatively made; such as how Westown's main theme incorporates animal sounds like eagle cries into the various instruments at play. Though it may not be a game that has to be played with headphones, the music tends to stick in your head and is rather pleasant company as you go about your daily tasks on the farm.
All told, Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns is a relaxing yet surprisingly deep farm game. Though it takes some time to pick up speed right out of the gate, once the game establishes a rhythm it can be relatively hard to put down. An in-game day passes by so quick in real time, you'll find yourself going for just one more day, and this naturally makes the game a good fit for quick bursts of play on the go. When you take a look at all the content on offer — three distinct towns, dozens of unique NPCs, multiplayer options, and more than enough farming chores than can be handled in one day — you have a game that offers an incredible amount of bang for your buck.
We would strongly recommend that you pick this up even if it only mildly interests you; the mechanics here are quite easy for newcomers to pick up, and the game does a great job of deepening things and leaving much of the path forward open to player choice. For the 20th anniversary of Harvest Moon, fans couldn't have asked for a better game, even if legal matters mean that it's not - officially - part of the celebrations.