We were brought up (as were the majority of you lovely people, we’re sure) to keep schtum when you’ve got nothing nice to say. Unfortunately, this review would be over almost as soon as it had begun, so we’re going to dig deep to find some drops of positivity in farm sim Harvest Life. It’s not egregiously terrible – it’s just not very good in any way at all. You know Harvest Moon? It’s like an early 3D prototype of that. Very early.
First impressions aren’t good. The horse-and-cart that delivers you across the sleepy town of Lohwold jerks awkwardly and the camera hitches. Arriving late at the farmhouse, grandpa sends you immediately to bed. Tiredness is an ever-depleting meter which must be charged through sleep; ignoring it means collapsing from exhaustion where you stand while it replenishes. Time speeds up as you slumber, but it’s a frustrating mechanic to have to keep in mind.
Waking up with ‘Y’ immediately ‘teleports’ you to the centre of the cabin, showcasing the game’s rudimentary animation. Later, you’ll be able to customise the landscape, add buildings and employ helpers from the desks in your farmhouse, but that requires coin – for now, it’s off to work with you. A progress report flashes up at the start of every new day and working your ugly square plots will result in a large stock of veg to be sold or eaten. Hunger is another meter to monitor, unless you want to be warped home and informed you splurged on a takeaway.
Controls are simple: ‘A’ and ‘B’ are used for context-sensitive actions with your limited inventory items assigned to the D-buttons. Holding ‘R’ activates a slightly faster run – you may as well tape it down. As the clock ticks, a checklist of tasks introduces various mechanics, including feeding your livestock, fishing and chopping wood. The latter is a Fruit Ninja-style minigame where you slice logs, while fishing involves keeping a green bar under a fish that moves along a larger blue bar until another green bar fills. It’s better than it sounds, but not much.
The mismatching textures of the town, woodland and river tiles are home to animals waiting to be mischievously renamed. A minigame-operated generator powers the ‘Fodder-Production-Machine’ which churns out vegetable chum for your livestock (which they promptly turn into ‘turds’, as gramps calls them), but a lack of animation or satisfying feedback seriously hampers your motivation to toil in the fields. It’s all so nakedly mechanical – make the electricity meter go up, pump vegetable units into the system, transform those values into food units which top up your fodder meter. Yes, we know games are all just numbers but developer bumblebee does a poor job obscuring that fact and you feel like an accountant managing bars and stats, flushing away any pastoral charm.
But positives – positives! Well, there’s a host of language options. Menus include touchscreen support and function adequately provided you’ve got exceptionally small hands. Your knock-off Animal Crossing avatar’s movement animation is smooth-ish, so long as you don’t snag on the superglue-coated scenery. Fortunately, NPCs don’t have collision and you simply jog right through them.
Items can be upgraded in town and you’ll find a few different shops and amenities, although working out which houses you can enter involves trial-and-error. Confusion reigns in other areas, too – twice our screen froze and cut to an eerie area with marauding wolves. Catching us off-guard, we thought we’d entered some sort of Lynchian dreamscape brought on by ignoring our sleep gauge; weird, but our interest was piqued. Only the third time did we realise we’d pressed ‘A’ next to an innocuous tile (looking much like the surrounding tiles of recently-felled trees) and stumbled into a spooky woodland area.
Poor signalling isn’t the worst of it; performance is patchy. The framerate chugs from the very start and our Switch’s fan was going gangbusters. We could go on about the tiny text or the frozen screens or the awkward UI or how it’s easy to get lost or how the day/night cycle feels too fast, but on a positive note, the music is pleasant. It’s banjo-filled bumpkin fare – easily the best thing about the game – although it soon palls through repetition. A trip to the catacombs to find a lost dog offers respite and a different tune, but the skeletons you encounter inflict damage without any visible contact and your health gauge plummets.
The result of all these constantly depleting meters? Harvest Life feels like a pestering mobile clicker and not relaxing in the slightest. Firing up another pair of Joy-Con enables a friend to set up home in the northern forest and you can work together via split screen. Tedium shared is tedium halved, and simple interaction has you imagining you’re on the cusp of ‘fun’ until your guy falls asleep because you’ve forgotten about the stupid ZZZ meter and a shared world can’t be sped up. Cue snoozing on the cobbles as the sleep bar fills. Slowly.
Harvest Life is not irredeemably awful, but it’s rough and easily outclassed by the games it evokes. It feels dehydrated, with all the soul and polish sucked out, and a few pleasant tunes aren’t enough revive it. Games of this ilk thrive on charm; this is subsisting on numbers and fodder. Harvest Moon fans don’t have much on Switch at the moment beyond Stardew Valley, but life’s too short to waste in Lohwold.