It must be tough to be a hopeful dev working on a farm sim project. Stardew Valley—a simple looking project made by one guy—has so effectively raised the bar for what a pure farm sim can be that matching it seems almost impossible by this point. The only way that a new game could feasibly beat it would be by introducing innovative new ideas or mechanics that transform the genre in ways nobody else could’ve imagined. Monster Harvest, the latest release from Stage Clear Studios, aimed to do just that and the results are… well, they aren’t great. There are some redeeming qualities to Monster Harvest, but this is far form the Stardew Valley-killer you may have hoped it could be.
Monster Harvest begins with a familiar tale where you—a disillusioned city-dweller—receive a letter from an uncle you haven’t spoken to in years asking you to come take care of his unkempt farm. As it turns out, your uncle is actually an eccentric scientist and his farm got sidelined because of a major breakthrough he made in his research. You see, your uncle found a way to create a new species of plant/animal hybrids which are called… Planimals… and now an evil corporation called SlimeCo. just moved into town and may or may not have nefarious plans for these new entities.
It’s not much of a story, and we can all agree that “Planimals” is an absolutely terrible name, but farm sims like this are hardly known for their in-depth narratives. What they are known for, however, is having a relatively in-depth community of fellow townspeople who you can befriend and build relationships with over time. That element is still present and accounted for here, but the townspeople are unfortunately not given very much depth. There’s only the vaguest sense of this being an interconnected community with a shared history, and the forgettable characters are mostly relegated to being shopkeepers and loiterers. Those of you who appreciate that social element to farm sims will be sorely disappointed, then, although the gameplay isn’t half bad.
Take one look at Monster Harvest and it’s abundantly clear how much this one is copping from Stardew Valley, but this is a good example of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy. You begin with just a few bucks and a ratty, overgrown farm, but things slowly start to come together day after day as you diligently tend to your farm chores. There’s a small variety of crops you can plant for each season, and you have to be careful to water them each day and keep scavengers from picking away at them before they’re ready to harvest. Once you’ve got a harvest, you can then sell those crops off for a nice profit and either reinvest in more crops, or spend out for better tools or more facilities.
If Monster Harvest simply focused more on this element of the gameplay loop, we could be looking at a pretty good, if uninspired take on the farm sim genre. It needed something to set itself apart from the pack, however, so the developers opted to fuse this gameplay style with *checks notes* a monster-catching RPG. Not long after starting your farm, you’re given access to a special kind of slime that can turn a budding crop into a Planimal that instantly befriends you, while you can get different Planimals by putting the slime on different crops. Once you feel comfortable with your team, you can then make a run into a nearby randomly-generated dungeon to fight enemies and win more goodies to build up your farm with.
The fights in these dungeons are where the wheels really begin to fall off, enough so that they almost completely undermine the idea of having monster teams to begin with. Making contact with an enemy in a dungeon will have you jump to a separate battle screen wherein you’re forced to endure one of the driest and most uninteresting battle systems we’ve ever seen in an RPG. Regardless of how many Planimals you have in your team, only the lead one that was following you will be allowed to participate in battle, and you only have three moves at best at your disposal.
The problem is, moves #2 and #3 are locked behind level gates for each Planimal, meaning that most of them will only have one possible move they can use to start out. Even with all three moves unlocked, there’s next to no strategy in fights, and it usually devolves to a matter of mashing ‘A’ and watching things play out. Worse yet, there are barely any animations when a move is used, so you just sort of watch each Planimal awkwardly warp over to its foe, unmoving, as a cheesy effect flashes and their HP goes down a bit more. Suffice to say, the combat here is so bafflingly basic it almost comes across as satirical; it is truly mind-blowing to think that a game which pitched monster-battling as a big selling point has such a simplistic implementation of the actual monster-battling part. We’re not exaggerating when we say that it adds nothing to the game, and only serves to make an otherwise inoffensive farm sim that much worse.
Luckily, Monster Harvest is redeemed somewhat by its presentation, which utilizes a visual style not unlike the 'HD-2D' look of Octopath Traveler to great effect. Trees, buildings, and ponds are all drawn with an impressive level of detail, and things like a swinging hook hanging off a rooftop or the rustle of leaves in the wind help to sell the immersion in this world. Unfortunately, the cost of these lovely visuals is an often unstable frame rate, which seems like it can be anywhere from 20-40 FPS at the drop of a hat.
We feel special attention must be paid to the UI as well, which is painfully bad to navigate via controller. Item descriptions are often written in a tiny font that doesn’t look good on the TV or the Switch screens, while menus themselves are often laid out in a confusing fashion that’s difficult to navigate. It takes a minute just to figure out where the darned cursor is when you open the menu, and moving it around can often be an exercise in futility as it often chooses to select the thing next to the thing you were trying to grab. This may seem like a minor issue, but a farm sim like this has you opening and using menus quite a bit, and it’s always a hassle every time you have to do it.
Monster Harvest is a good example of why great ideas also need to be followed up with great execution. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of a farm sim with monster-catching elements, but Monster Harvest does a rough job of convincing you of that. The monster RPG content is so poorly done that it might as well have not been implemented at all, as it clearly took focus away from the decent farm sim portion of the gameplay. Amazingly, the farm sim gameplay still redeems this enough that it’s not a complete dumpster fire, but we’d only give this the barest of recommendations to anybody looking for another entry in the genre. Take our word for it, you’re much better off just starting over with a new farm in Stardew Valley, or picking up Rune Factory 4.