Ahead of its November 4th release date, Square Enix's take on the farming game genre, Harvestella, recently received a demo on Switch, so you can try before you buy. The save will transfer over to the full game, if you decide it's worth the £50 / $60.
As part of a farm sim-filled Nintendo Direct, we were keen to investigate this one in particular. For those who've played it — what do you think of the farming-JRPG hybrid? We've spent some time with it, and have some thoughts...
Harvestella is set in a Final Fantasy-like medieval countryside village, in the shadow of a gigantic, glowing red crystal which looms ominously overhead. Apparently, this is a good thing — it's the Seaslight, the crystal which (with its three counterparts) governs the seasons. We like the crystal. It is a large friend.
The village in which you wake up is called Lethe, after the underworld river which grants forgetfulness to those who drink of it — which seems a little on the nose, given that your character is, of course, an amnesiac. Your arrival is a little muted, since the citizens of Lethe are all barricaded indoors to avoid the dreaded season of Quietus, in a very Bloodborne-like moment of terror and death. Miraculously, you not only survive this night, but you get given a free house, too. Thus it goes in farming games, I guess.
The next few hours of Harvestella are cutscene-heavy, in the same way that rain is water-heavy. Get ready to listen to a bunch of people with names like Cres and Dim enshrining the opposite of "show, don't tell" as they attempt to hold your hand through everything.
But when the NPCs are not instructing you how to water crops, go to sleep, and wipe your bum, the story itself is intriguing, all to do with aliens(?) and a decaying natural order, mysterious women from the future, strange guards with names that sound like air conditioner manufacturers, and... well, admittedly, not much farming. Even when you'd quite like to be growing cabbages, you'll be scoldingly shepherded back towards the plot and the combat.
Harvest Moon, this ain't
Yeah, don't let the title fool you. Despite the name of the game being 63.6% "harvest", there really isn't a lot of farm-related stuff to do, at least in the bits in the demo.
There are animals — Cluffowl and Woolums, which I assume are cutesy names for chickens and sheep — and plants, ranging from
carrots carrops and wheat to tree fruits and nuts. Every day, you water them with this rather cool rifle-looking thing, harvest them, and either cook or sell them. That money can then be used for weapon upgrades and more seeds (which you can then grow and sell to buy more weapon upgrades). But the barebones-itude of the farming makes it feel quite secondary to the combat... and the combat doesn't quite feel strong enough to support the emphasis placed upon it.
There are three classes to switch between, a skill tree for each one, and companions to unlock along the way, too, so there's a fair bit of customisation to be done. However, there's not a whole lot of strategy in those early real-time battles, which largely default to "press A until enemy dead", and good luck trying to avoid being hit — there's not really much of a dodge, and if you're anything like me, you'll end up taking enough damage every time you enter a battle that you'll be dying fairly often.
There's a glimmer of promise in the three classes and the expansive skill trees, which look like they'll mix things up a bit, and the companions — I unlocked a soldier-alien and an unhelpful unicorn — are well-written enough to make me want to find out more.
In contrast, the player character seems a bit... dull. You can choose between male, female, and non-binary, but it doesn't really make a lot of difference; the character models are all very similar, the dialogue choices don't matter, and the NPCs will treat you as gender-neutral as possible. Oh, and there's no voice acting, which is disappointing from Square Enix, a company that usually goes all-in on voice acting — although we're willing to hope that the final game may be different.
Fish fear me
My biggest gripe, as more of a farming fan than a JRPG fan, is the fishing. I was hoping for more of a Stardew-type fishing, but it's much more passive — all you have to do is wait for the fish to bite, and press A, which can take several in-game hours to happen. In a game where time is extremely precious, waiting for a fish to turn up feels like an unaffordable luxury.
You see, unlike more traditional farming games, Harvestella's days feel really short. You'll wake up at 6, and by the time you've watered the crops, it's already 9. Head into town, and it'll be about 1:30pm before you manage to get to the shops; head further afield, and you won't get there until about 4pm. The game then has the nerve to tell you to head home at 6pm, and expects you to be in bed before 12pm, like an overbearing parent. You'll be lucky to catch more than five fish in all that time, or to make it all the way to the end of an area like Higan Canyon, where a lot of the action of the first few days happens.
It just feels a bit unbalanced, really — which is perhaps to be expected from a developer's first punt into a new genre — and again, we've got our fingers crossed that the wonky time management gets better later on in the game. Maybe you learn to make a watch.
(Farm-grown) food for thought
I came away from Harvestella's demo unconvinced, yet intrigued. I don't think farming games make for great demos, because the point is that you start off underpowered, broke, and lost — so it's hard to say that Harvestella is good or bad, because it might just be a bit pants to begin with.
From the 15-day slice that the demo includes, it's hard to know if Harvestella unfolds like Rune Factories past — with tons of customisation, loads of story, and seemingly endless things to do (way too many of them to do with soil health) — or like Stardew Valley and Harvest Moon, with plenty of livestock to raise and care for, and a cast of townsfolk to befriend. We do know that there won't be marriage, though — perhaps this is a disappointment, but it's hardly a surprise for a game that's much more JRPG than farming.
There's promise there in the writing and the combat, it looks gorgeous (albeit a bit blurry on Switch), and the screenshots of the later game show promise — new characters, new areas, new farm equipment — but I think I'll wait for the reviews to come out before I drop 50 quid on Harvestella.
Will you be picking up Harvestella on November 4th? What are your thoughts on the demo? Fill in the poll and tell us more in the comments!