Natsume’s booth at this year’s E3 was a farmland oasis from the wider chaos of the showfloor, decked out in pastoral charm and filled with flowers and plenty of plush cows, chickens, and sheep. It’s a familiar scene, but it seemed particularly pleasant this year, and the cause of the celebration was clear: it’s Harvest Moon’s 20th anniversary, and Natsume’s planted the seeds of a brand new entry in Harvest Moon: Light of Hope

The latest in the lineage of Natsume’s in-house Harvest Moons — as distinct from the Story of Seasons games localized under the same name prior to 2014 —  Light of Hope is also the first of these farming sims to come to the Switch. We were able to take a tour around the ranch, playing a development build in handheld mode, and we’re happy to say the future looks bright — Light of Hope looks set to marry a thoughtful new visual style and streamlined controls with the back-to-basics farming and flirting that made the series such a hit from the start.

Light of Hope puts players in the role of a young girl or boy who sets sail to start a new life, and promptly ends up shipwrecked by a wayward monsoon. All’s not lost, however, and once you wake up you’ll find you’ve been saved by the local islanders — or the few of them that haven’t left the isle for better pastures, anyway. From that rocky start, your goal for the game will be to revitalize the town and its legendary lighthouse through the powers of farming, hard work, and true love.

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Though the build we played was still early in development, we were able to see a bit of how this will play out. By completing basic Harvest Moon tasks like clearing the land, growing crops, shipping produce, and raising animals, you’ll be able to entice more villagers to return to the island; once you bring back villagers, you’ll be able to help them out with requests and take advantage of more goods, services, and features that will open up further possibilities for farming. It’s a classic cycle, and reflects the type of satisfyingly circular progression that Harvest Moon is famous for.

That’s not the only area in which this new entry heads back to the series’ roots, either. Breaking with the 3D engines of Natsume’s previous home-grown Harvest Moons like The Lost Valley and Skytree Village on 3DS, Light of Hope is a top-down affair, and that’s a design decision motivated by a specific goal: returning to the feel of the Super Nintendo original. It’s a style that Natsume has referred to as ‘retro plus’ — not pixel art, but also not the super-slick lines of AAA 2D; rather, somewhere in-between. 

It uses a combination of drawn backgrounds and soft-edged 3D character and animal models, and the result is quite charming. We couldn’t tell at first whether the characters were composed of polygons or hyper-smooth sprites — definitely a good sign — and the juxtaposition worked beautifully in the talking-heads cutscenes, where lively, animated models stood behind their dialogue boxes acting out associated emotions. It looked surprisingly natural, and allowed for a lot more interaction than the typical portrait art setup. The overhead view works very well for farming, meanwhile, and the ability to zoom way in or way out (using the ‘ZL’ and ‘ZR’ buttons) is a welcome addition.

Breaking with the 3D engines of Natsume’s previous home-grown Harvest Moons like The Lost Valley and Skytree Village on 3DS, Light of Hope is a top-down affair, and that’s a design decision motivated by a specific goal: returning to the feel of the Super Nintendo original.

While our Natsume rep used ‘retro plus’ to refer to the art style, that designation felt accurate for the actual farming gameplay we got to try out as well. The daily grind is very similar to what it was in the original Harvest Moon, but the controls have been streamlined significantly through smart, contextual tools all mapped onto a single ‘action’ button. The idea is that while your farmer should have full access to their tools, there are sensible defaults that should work most of the time; walking up to a weed and pressing ‘B’ will pluck it, for instance, but pressing the same button in front of a planted seed will water it instead. We were able to clear land, till land, plant crops, pick crops, break up stones, cut down trees, and store found objects all by facing the relevant square of land and quickly tapping a button, and it felt great.

And while those contextual tools go a long way towards simplifying the control scheme, Light of Hope also takes advantage of its portable home on the Switch to offer an alternative, with full touch controls available alongside the traditional button-based scheme. You can move by tapping and then holding a swipe outward in any direction — that’s relative to your finger, rather than your character, which we found intuitive — and interact with anything nearby with another tap. 

We can see this being a very comfortable way to play while lying down in bed or kicking back on the couch, but our favourite part was how well the two options seemed to work in concert; it felt effortless and obvious to use the Switch’s analogue sticks and buttons to control the game and the touchscreen to access menus and item storage, both within easy reach of a thumb. Even better, we were blown away by the ability to till, plant, or water a whole section of land by dragging a finger across it — an almost instinctive action that fit in perfectly as a ‘bonus’ to button control. 

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Most of our demo time was focused on farming, and while we didn’t get to experience any dating events or festivals, we were told there will be plenty of each in the final version, with a total of five bachelors and five bachelorettes planned. Farmers who have kept up with the Natsume-developed Harvest Moon series will recognize plenty of familiar faces in the love market, and our rep told us that the recurring appearance of characters — as with the cast running through the original game, Harvest Moon 64, Back to Nature, and Friends of Mineral town — has come up as a common theme when fans say what they love about the classic titles. It might be a new island and a new premise, but you’ll still have a chance to woo instantiations of buff florist Dean, shy and flustered Jeanne, or total babe Melanie, through the age-old tradition of targeted gift giving, sparkling conversation, and careful event triggering.

Along with your lucky chosen love candidate, you’ll also be able to pour your affections into animals you raise on the farm, and Light of Hope is set to get the greatest hits: cows, chickens, sheep, horses, dogs, and the popular Poitou donkey all make appearances here. Intriguingly, we also saw a few decidedly different animals in the barn: a cow that gave chocolate milk, a ‘chocolate chicken’ that laid candied eggs, and a pink sheep that produced cotton candy wool. These ‘candy’ products are apparently treated differently from their workaday variants in terms of recipes, shipping, and villager likes and dislikes, and while we didn’t get to unravel the mystery in our time with the demo, we’re determined to find out which villager loves cotton candy wool — and marry them.

As the first Harvest Moon to hit a home console (albeit we were playing in portable mode) since 2008’s Animal Parade on the Wii, Light of Hope certainly has us excited. The early build we played showed a lot of promise, and felt especially at home on the Switch, with optional touch controls and portability both ticking some important boxes for aspiring agriculturalists. Natsume is shooting for a late 2017 or early 2018 release for Light of Hope, with a simultaneous worldwide launch as the goal, and we can’t wait to roll up our sleeves and see how it shapes up when it finally sprouts.

Natsume didn't have any screenshots to offer prior to publication, but we will add some as and when they are available.