With its giant inflatable tree, pastoral picket fences and fully-stocked stables of farm-animal plushies, Natsume's booth at this year's E3 represented a rustic respite from the show floor madness, and we happily headed down to the farm to check out its newest title: Harvest Moon: Skytree Village. This latest is Natsume's third in-house developed farming sim since the Bokujō Monogatari series — which used to be localized as Harvest Moon — became Story of Seasons, and marks a return to the 3DS after last year's mobile Seeds of Memories. It's also a return to the Minecraft-inspired terra-farming gameplay of The Lost Valley, but with some significant improvements, and after spending some quality time digging around in the E3 build we're definitely excited for what this harvest has in store.
Harvest Moon: Skytree Village takes place in its titular town, which has been in a bit of a downward spiral lately; where once it was green and thriving, it's now taken on a sombre tone thanks to an extended drought and the ever-waning presence of the Harvest Goddess. Playing as a plucky local farmer, either female or male, it's your job to restore the town's seven Skytrees and bring back the Harvest Goddess through a combination of diligent farming, attentive animal husbandry, and item-based courtship.
Though Skytree Village shares an engine and general style with 2014's The Lost Valley — along with the central mechanic of terraforming your farm — Natsume has had its ears to the ground since that game's release, and our hosts emphasised that listening to fan feedback was the first order of business for Skytree's developers. The first criticism they set out to address was with the chibi character models, and the move away from big-headed denizens of The Lost Valley was one of the first things we noticed when we picked up Skytree Village. The character models here are conventionally proportioned "beautiful anime people" — as our Natsume rep put it — and it really does give the game a different feel. Since, like The Lost Valley, Skytree Village uses 3D character models instead of character portraits in dialogue scenes, this change goes a long way in terms of characterisation, and the models we saw were definitely charming.
The second, and perhaps most widely voiced criticism with The Lost Valley, was with the terraforming itself. While we loved the idea of rolling up our sleeves and forming our farmland Minecraft-style, the implementation was a bit clunky at times, and having to work one block at a time put a damper on speedy improvement projects. Happily, instead of throwing the idea out entirely, Natsume's tweaked it to be significantly faster and easier, and we very much enjoyed working the land in Skytree Village. The biggest change is that you can now work with more than one cube of earth at a time; by holding down the 'A' button, the selection cursor will grow from one square, to three, to six, to nine, depending on how long you keep it held. Once you've selected a size, you can move that selection as you like, and act on all selected tiles at once, either raising the earth or digging them down as a group. Even in our quick hands-on, we were able to make some fun fixtures with ease thanks to the new cursor control, and we expect it will make maintaining a decent-sized farm both much faster, and much less daunting of a task.
A happy effect of the new and improved terraforming is that the adjustable selection is also used for all your other tools in Skytree Village, so tilling, planting, watering, and harvesting all benefit from the efficiency boost. You'll also be able to expand the selection range as you upgrade your tools, and it's smartly contextual depending on what you're using it for. When we tilled out an 'X' pattern in a 3x3 grid and then targeted the whole area for planting, for instance, our farmer placed seeds only in the five tilled tiles and saved the other four for later; fans who remember the anguish of losing a sacrificial seed in making 'C' plots in the SNES Harvest Moon will be very happy here.
Another improvement to Skytree Village's farming comes in the form of two new views; in addition to the standard 3rd-person free-camera perspective from The Lost Valley, there's now a faux-2D overhead view and a locked-in 'Farming mode', a variant of the overhead angle where your farmer will hold her stance and let you strafe along to water, till, or plant in tidy rows. Pressing 'Start' cycles through the three views, and we found it felt great to have access to all three; the 3D view is made for walking around the town, exploring your farm, enjoying the views, and planning out terraforming projects, the overhead 2D view is perfect for planting, general farm work, and a nice nostalgia trip, and the locked-in view proves very helpful for precision farm chores.
Of course, as with any Harvest Moon game, the most important question isn't how you're going to farm, but who you're going to beset with flowers on a daily basis, and Skytree Village has at least six very eligible bachelors and bachelorettes for players to woo. The designs of those we saw were all appealing and varied, and in terms of personality they sound like a who's-who of anime-inspired love-interest archetypes, so there's certainly someone for everyone.
On the bachelorette side, we met Melanie, the red-headed, hot-headed tsundere tailor, who will turn your fur into fabric — but not because she likes you or anything!; Jeanne (rhymes with beanie), a green-haired, bespectacled herbal doctor who's brilliant and talented in her trade, but not very confident interacting with farmers of the opposite sex; finally Elise, an outgoing blonde chef from out of town who's written with a French accent for that je ne sais quoi and joie de vivre.
For female farmers, you'll be able to direct your gaze and affections towards Dean, an improbably buff florist who's breaking gender stereotypes with his confident combo of tulip apron and boundless horticultural enthusiasm; Gabriel, a gentle, kindly livestock salesman who's more at ease with animals than people; and Cyril, a ponytailed aristocrat from far off lands who's visiting Skytree Village as part of his grand tour — he's not haughty, but he's naïve in the ways of the working world, and is written as a British dandy for extra charm.
There are still plenty of details left to dig up on Harvest Moon: Skytree Village, from animals and storyline to crops and quests, but based on what we've played this week it seems to be growing quite nicely. We loved the new terraforming improvements, overhauled character models and varied dating pool, and were especially happy to see so much fan feedback incorporated into this series, which means so much to so many people. We're certainly looking forward to breaking ground in the full game when it releases in Fall 2016 for North America, and between Skytree Village and Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns, 3DS owners look to be in for an especially exciting harvest this year.