How does Story of Seasons continue to innovate when Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing have done so much to develop the 25-year-old formula? Well, with Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town, the answer is twofold: one - borrow the ideas of Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing, and two - change things for the sake of changing them, and see if it works. Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town tries both, but whether or not it succeeds is a question we can't quite answer yet.
Beginning much like any other Harvest Moon game, your character - who can be customised with a pretty detailed character creator, which lets players choose a masculine or feminine voice and stance no matter what their gender - inherits a rundown farm on the outskirts of Olive Town. You need to fix up the farm, and they need to attract more tourists, and thus, a symbiotic relationship is forged. You provide the mayor with the materials he needs to upgrade the place, and in return, more shops and features are unlocked.
Progress is both slow and fast in the game's first season. Visiting the mine will net you iron and silver ore, which can be used to upgrade your tools for better, quicker coverage. It's extremely satisfying to chop down an entire forest in one fell swoop, and scooping out puddles and ponds with the new bucket is time-consuming, but rewarding. Gone are the days of milkers and shears, though, with the two jobs being done with a simple A-press next to the animal instead. Neat!
Much like many of the past games, the layout of the farm is customisable, and you can place barns, coops, crop fields and decorations (almost) anywhere you want. The farm does have a river and a coast, making quite a bit of its terrain unavailable for building, which can be a bit frustrating when you discover that there's a generous fringe around the edges of everything that's deemed out-of-bounds. Still, there's plenty of space once you've cleared out the trees - a job that needs repeating regularly because the damn things grow like weeds - and paid the requisite materials to unlock new areas.
Getting the materials is a pain, though. Pioneers of Olive Town evidently didn't like the way that previous games handled Makers, the machines that turn raw materials into usable (and profitable) items, like wood into lumber, and ore into refined metal. Makers have, as a result, been turned into these large, inefficient machines that only produce one material at a time, many of which are monotaskers that can only be used for specific processes.
It's irritating to have to have a Seasoning Maker, a Powder Maker, a Seed Maker, a Mushroom Seed Maker, a Condiment Maker, a Cloth Maker, a Yarn Maker, a Textile Maker, a Dye Maker, and so on, especially because they take up so much room on the farm. In just two seasons, we've already unlocked seventeen different makers, and they're all extremely specific. Surely, it wouldn't be that hard to combine the Jewel Maker with the Ore Maker, or the Cloth Maker with the Textile Maker? And how on earth are we supposed to remember that grinding coffee beans into coffee requires the Powder Maker, but grinding rock salt into salt requires the Seasoning Maker? Also, why?
Some research would indicate that these Makers will eventually be upgraded into more efficient versions of themselves, but for now, they're unsightly, space-hogging, boring eyesores on our lovely farm, and the overly-generous space allocation for items results in huge gaps between each one. This issue also means that fences don't go all the way up to coops and buildings, and chests take up an unreasonable amount of room, too. There's no overlapping here - everything has so much space around it that we can't help but wonder if there's social distancing going on in Olive Town, too.
But, speaking of socialising - you might be wondering if we have our eye on anyone in town just yet. Pioneers of Olive Town wants you to get married, after all, and with the various proposal objects available in the shops from the beginning, it's hard to avoid the implication. Unfortunately, two seasons in, the characters are all as flat and lifeless as zombies, with little more to say than remarking on the latest thing that's happening.
The Egg Hunt that happens in Spring causes every single person in town to say "I hear there's an Egg Hunt happening soon" like they've been starved of anything remotely resembling gossip for two hundred years. After the Egg Hunt, it's still all they can talk about for a day or two. The same goes with any other event - if you upgraded the roads, they'll go on about that. If you won the Pet Derby, they'll all congratulate you. It's not just boring - it's creepy. The characters, at least this early in the game, act like their souls dripped out of their ears centuries ago, and they've been locked in this podunk purgatory ever since, doomed to wander the town until someone gives them enough fish gifts to wake them up again.
The town has many shops and quite a few people from the start, but the town is pretty much all there is, besides the farm and the secret Sprite areas that offer minigames and another shop. There are, so far, no other areas to explore, although past games have had secret ponds, houses away from the town, and extra farm areas. The Expansion Pass will add new areas, but players shouldn't have to pay for the content that used to be in the game.
The elements that Pioneers of Olive Town borrows from other games are its best features, which is a bit worrying. The Museum that it borrows from Blathers is a little boring, but donating fish, treasures, and photos livens it up a bit. Photo Mode is fun, even if there's not that much to photograph, and the loading screens - of which there are many - feature other people's photos, so prepare to see a lot of fox bumholes and unflattering close-ups of faces. Fishing has been remodelled after Stardew's system, and it's pretty fun to get the timing right to reel in a big one, or to catch a rare and expensive fish.
The mine is often one of the best parts of Story of Seasons games, and this one doesn't disappoint so far, with stamina-draining moles that you have to bonk on the head with a hammer. It seems like there are different mines with rarer ores and minerals, and so far we've only unlocked the one with iron and opal, and the one with silver and rubies. We've even found a couple of diamonds! We know that gold exists, because the next tool upgrade requires it, but that mine is locked away behind a bunch of debris that we have to remove with either money or materials - an option that's quite nice to have.
We would be lying if we said we hadn't experienced a few laggy moments and framerate drops in our time with the game, though - as many other previewers and Japanese reviewers have mentioned. The game seems to struggle both in docked and handheld mode if there are too many things going on on-screen, and loading times between large areas can get pretty long - some reports claim around 20 seconds of loading screens in between the farm and the town, although ours hasn't got that bad.
So far, Pioneers of Olive Town has been a little disappointing, especially for long-time fans of the series hopeful for some exciting new innovation. The game largely keeps things the same as always, or changes things for the worse, and although Photo Mode and the slightly better gender options are welcome new additions, they don't change the gameplay in a meaningful way. We're really hoping that either in-game upgrades or game patches can increase the wonky pacing and the tedious Maker issue, and maybe add new areas, but we're happy to keep playing for now, and discovering new things for ourselves.