The Harvest Moon series has had a bit of a confusing production history, but the good news is that we're here to help you out with the basics. Originally created and developed by the now defunct Victor Entertainment Software until its acquisition in 2003, the Harvest Moon series has since been produced by Marvelous AQL. Though developed by Marvelous, the series has more often been associated with two primary publishers: Natsume in the NA territories and Rising Star Games in the EU and PAL regions. Due to some very confusing intellectual property ownership issues, Natsume now owns the rights to the Harvest Moon name and has taken it upon itself to develop Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley, a new game in the classic series, completely separately of the team at Marvelous. To that end, The Lost Valley is a Harvest Moon game by name and premise only, leaving the core mechanics that have defined the series up until this point aside and aiming to start from scratch.
On the surface, The Lost Valley is a Harvest Moon game through and through. It follows the usual premise of cultivating a successful farm to help lift the surrounding village and its inhabitants back on their feet, but it aims to reinvent the series by straying off in new directions. Rather than taking over a decrepit farm and rejuvenating it for monetary reasons, the plot here takes on a more magical element. Trapped in an eternal winter, it is your job to return the Harvest Goddesses' powers and bring seasons back to the land. It's a more interesting plot than we're used to seeing in Harvest Moon games, and it serves well to drive the action further, but it also feels cumbersome at times. Rather than being about living your own life on the farm and progressing at your own pace, the focus is instead shifted to fulfilling the needs of those around you. The previously released Harvest Moon: A New Beginning also set out to rejuvenate the series, but it did so effectively by not stepping too far outside of the usual realm. The Lost Valley's boldness to try new things is also what ends up dragging it down.
The inclusion of a legitimate plot means that there are certain goals you have to reach in order to advance the story. As time passes and your efforts expand, more characters from the nearby village – which, by the way, is never seen – come to visit on certain days. Rather than having a town to visit in order to purchase the necessary supplies, different characters representing specific shops will populate the area outside of your house to sell you their wares. Visiting characters stick to specific routines and most are not present every day of the week, leading to much frustration when you need a specific item.
Not only do the characters act as shops, but they will often have requests that you are tasked with fulfilling. Completing requests such as growing a certain amount of vegetables or accumulating milk will in turn grant you access to more items and advance the plot. It's a nice change of pace to have specific things to work towards, but it does diminish the free-form gameplay that this series is known for. Players used to taking in life on the virtual farm at their own pace will be disappointed to find that this is no longer the case.
A big element of the Harvest Moon games that helps contribute to their immense amount of charm is the marriage aspect. Like previous games you have the option to marry one of three partners and have a child with them. When playing as a boy character you have your choice of women, and vice versa if you selected to play as a girl. Talking to characters as well as fulfilling their requests will help grow their affections towards you, but the system feels stunted compared to previous games. Rather than showering your potential mate with gifts and niceties, you are now restricted to only participating in the requests specifically asked of them. The lack of a town or village also contributes to how inorganic this process feels; you are only allowed to pursue a romantic interest when the game dictates. The whole process feels much less fulfilling than it did in previous games, and the lack of variety in potential partners means that choosing a mate is more restricted.
The controls in Harvest Moon games have always been a little difficult to tackle because they vary so much from one release to the next, on different consoles with a variety of controller layouts. The key to well-functioning controls in this series is the ability to quickly and easily switch between your tools, not unlike Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and The Lost Valley has found the most effective way to streamline this. Rather than having to shift between tools when cultivating crops, this game automatically places the correct tool in your hand depending on your next action. Accidentally driving your hoe through a freshly planted seedling is no longer a concern as the game instinctively brings up your watering can instead, allowing you to continuously tap A in order to complete your tasks. The controls present here are highly efficient, but the simplification also means that the bulk gameplay is performed by repeatedly pressing the same button. It's refreshing to see that thought was put into making this a more efficient control scheme, but it also removes a large chunk of player interaction and does entirely too much hand-holding. Newcomers to the series might appreciate the extra help, but veterans are sure to grow bored with the repetitive motion and lack of skill required.
Easily the biggest new feature in The Lost Valley is the ability to alter the terrain on your property. Pressing Y will open Cultivating Mode, effectively changing your control options to allow you to use your shovel and hoe. In this mode you can remove snow and till the land, but you can also raise and lower the earth, forming mountain paths and flattening out spaces for crops and buildings. Using a grid based system, this almost works like a very basic version of Minecraft, allowing you to shape your territory how you see fit.
In theory, this is a mechanic that opens up customization options that have not been present in previous Harvest Moon games, but it's not implemented in the most ideal way. Rather than allowing a full range of motion to access different parts of your land, everything is instead limited to your character's movement. Flattening a portion of the earth should be a simple process, but instead it is time consuming and repetitive, resulting in easily the most tedious aspect of a game that is already based on repetition. This new mechanic had the potential to genuinely enhance the gameplay, but instead it feels like a tacked on extra that grows tiresome in almost no time at all.
As is common with the Harvest Moon series, The Lost Valley implements an adorable and colourful art style that helps to enhance the lighthearted nature of the game. There is definitely a cartoony aspect to the visuals, exaggerating the size of crops and characters' heads, but it works well in keeping things cute. Though the style may have been a good choice, however, the overall visual presentation leaves much to be desired; because the land is based on a grid, everything is very square and accompanied by jagged edges. Keeping in mind that your goal is to return seasons to The Lost Valley, the vast majority of gameplay takes place in the snow-covered winter, so your environment doesn't change at all until you've managed to progress the plot. It's also worth mentioning that, despite being a 3DS exclusive game, the console's 3D effect is not implemented except for during very specific occurrences that are few and far between. The soundtrack works well with the art style in creating the adorable imagery, but even that is lacking - the amount of tracks is limited, meaning you'll be listening to the same songs over and over again. Overall, the aesthetic decisions are spot-on, but the implementation is lackluster and doesn't do enough to really bring The Lost Valley to life.
If the intention of Harvest Moon: A New Beginning was to reboot the series and reintroduce it to aging fans, The Lost Valley aims to do the same but with its sights set on a younger generation. Changing up the premise by incorporating new elements such as fulfilling villagers' requests and the ability to alter the terrain, The Lost Valley has its aim set high but completely misses the mark. Most of the new features, while good on paper, are implemented poorly and add to the detriment of what could have been such a great game. It's a bold move for Natsume to develop a game that strays away from the series' conventions and tries new things, but the overall experience is lacking the polish and charm that the Harvest Moon name has come to represent.