Review: Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life (Nintendo Gamecube)

Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life
Genre: Role Playing Farm Simulation
Platform: Gamecube
ESRB Rating: Everyone (Alcohol Reference, Suggestive Themes)
Publisher: Natsume
Release Date: 03/16/04

Every now and then, a series will come along that is so niche that few people hear of it, but those that are fond of the series LOVE it. Harvest Moon is such a series. Not everyone has heard about it, and typically when they do, they think it sounds either boring or stupid. Seriously, when you first heard about a game where you plant and grow crops and milk cows and sheer sheep and maintain a farm, did you think it sounded fun? I know I didn’t.

But once I played the original Harvest Moon on the SNES, I was hooked. Your character inherits a farm and you have to take care of it for 3 years. In that time, you get married and make friends with a bunch of people. It was great!

Over the years, there have been various incarnations of the game on many different platforms. It started on the SNES, and has since seen incarnations on all the Gameboys, N64, Playstation and PS2. The best in the series for me was always the PS1 version, Back to Nature, which was a remake of the N64 version, which was later remade as Friends of Mineral Town on the GBA.

The most recent original title, Save the Homeland on the PS2, was a departure for the series in that it was less about farming and more about making friends. It was unique in that it had multiple endings that you could attain, and even kept track of which ones you got so you could play it again to get a different ending, but it also limited the amount of time because you only played for 1 year. In addition, they decided to join in on the cel shading bandwagon and didn’t do all that great of a job with it. In my experience, that was the worst Harvest Moon game.

And now we get to the latest in the series. Will it make the same mistakes as Save the Homeland? Or will it takes us back to the roots of the series? Read on to find out.

Story
One thing that you can always expect with Harvest Moon titles is that the premise is usually the same. And this title is no different. In this case, your father has died and you inherit the farm, which is a pretty standard story for these games. Takakura, the caretaker of your father’s farm, has been enlisted to teach you the ropes of farming and to help you out with advice, because he certainly doesn’t help out much on the farm. He will take care of picking up items you want to sell and buying cows and sheep and such.

Most Harvest Moon titles are pretty open ended and don’t have many goals to attain, so this one is a little different. See, the game is played over the span of 30 years, and while you don’t play every year, you do play many of them. And each chapter takes up a certain amount of years. Chapter 1, for example, takes a year and your ultimate goal is to get married. When chapter 2 begins, you are not only married, but you also have a son. And from then on, you have a job as not only a farmer, but a parent, and you can raise the child to have one of several careers.

This title is unique because it happens over the course of many years. Though each year is shorter (four seasons, each season containing 10 days), you don’t actually experience each year. Sometimes there are gaps (like chapter 2 starts 2 years after chapter 1 ended), which is a good idea, because I don’t know if I could play for 30+ years. Though it’s also odd because EVERYTHING is the same at the beginning of a new chapter as it was at the end of the last chapter. Your crops don’t grow, your chickens don’t mature. It’s as if time froze at the end of the chapter, except for you and your new wife to get it on and pop out a kid. Not a big deal, but rather odd.

The only real complaint I have with the story (or rather, the dialogue) is that it seems as if Natsume put their B-team of translators and proofreaders on this title. There were more than a few really bad grammatical and/or spelling errors that it’s hard to tell where the blame lies, but it’s very disappointing. I’m not going to say that MOST of the dialogue is messed up, but I will say that I picked out SOMETHING wrong just about every time I talked to someone. Despite that, the story is pretty much what is to be expected from a Harvest Moon title. Not too great or special, but not substandard either.
Rating: 6.0

Graphics
Harvest Moon titles have never really been known for being spectacular in the graphics department, but it always has been one of their benefits. They have always gone with a more cartoonish approach graphically, and nothing has changed with this one. One thing I will say is that I hated the graphics in Save the Homeland for the PS2. They used the cel shading technique in an attempt to hype up the cartoony appearance, and it just looked poor.

But with A Wonderful Life, they went with a traditional 3D graphical system that to be quite frank, looks 100x better, and fits more with what we’ve come to expect from Natsume as far as graphics go. It may have something to do with the capabilities of the Gamecube over the PS2, but I have to give props where I believe they are deserved, and I think they did a great job here. The colors are very vibrant, the models are clean and the character design is all well done.
Rating: 8.0

Sound
If there is one area where Harvest Moon is known to be lacking, this would be it. They have never really been all that heavy on sound, and this title is no different. There is little music in the game, and when there is, it’s good, but not great. And there are few sound effects of note, except for the standard farm animal stuff like cows, sheep and chickens. But to be fair, in this type of game, they probably did as best as they could have.
Rating: 5.0

Control
I really can’t put it any other way than simplicity at its finest. Everything is pretty much spelled out for you on screen. Of course, your analog stick moves your character. A is the primary button, with different contexts that show up on screen, like opening a door or greeting someone. B is the standard cancel button, or if you’re holding something, will stow it in your pack. The X button serves as a quick item select, or you can do it the hard way by hitting start. And Y is a secondary context button, which usually serves as loving on whatever animal you’re near. Not love in THAT way you sicko! I mean like nuzzle them or something. The R trigger whistles for your trusty dog and L centers the camera behind you.

As far as gameplay goes, it’s pretty much your classic Harvest Moon formula. For farming, there are several tools you can get, each lighter than the previous. Unfortunately, they don’t work the same as they do in Back to Nature. In that game, the best tool would not only be lighter and tire you out less, but it would also do more work for you, by say watering more squares at once. The tools in A Wonderful Life simply tire you out less. In addition, they can (for the most part) only be bought. There is no mining of ore to be done, which may please some people, but disappoints me a little. There are other tools that can only be gotten by making friends with the right people.

Buying and selling animals (and tools) has been made easier on you, since you simply have to go into your storage room and write down what you want in a ledger, and Takakura will take care of it for you. Same with upgrading parts of your farm. Pretty much the only stuff you need to buy off your farm is non-farming items (like a fishing pole) from a peddler and seeds from another farm.

One thing it seems like they were going for is realism. For example, a cow will only give milk for a certain amount of time after it has had a calf. And right after it is born, it will only give milk that can be fed to the calf. And speaking of having babies, there is actual conception in this game! Rather than the Miracle Potion or whatever they called the artificial insemination in the game, you actually have to have a male and a female to have a calf, or to raise chickens for that matter. This could be looked at as a good thing or a bad thing, since it adds some complexity to the game, but personally, I think it’s a good change overall.

For the most part, the concept stays the same, and there IS more of an emphasis on farming than in Save the Homeland, which is a good thing. And I need to stop comparing this to Back to Nature, because they aren’t meant to be the same game, but I just wish that more went into upgrading your tools and house, because it was an added element to have to go and find the materials to do the upgrade. Despite that minor thing, they did splendidly overall.
Rating: 9.0

Replayability
There are, conceivably, multiple endings, since your son can attain multiple careers (a la Princess Maker) but I can’t be sure. Despite that, it’s hard to stick with it that long because you reach a point where you have no real goals. You’ve got the best tools, upgraded your farm as much as possible, and you’re just waiting for the story to progress. That was the beauty of the earlier Harvest Moon games. There was RARELY a lack of something else to do. You could get power berries (which apparently aren’t in this game that I’ve found), fish, mine for ore, etc. But here, you simply run out of things to do after a point, and it’s hard to stay interested.
Rating: 6.0

Balance
I can’t grade this because there is no difficulty involved. It is all monotony. Really, anybody in the world can complete this game as long as they have basic reading skills and the patience for it, so I can’t fairly put a grade here.
Rating: N/A

Originality
It’s a Harvest Moon game, so that being said, it follows a host of other Harvest Moon games. Despite that, it is very original FOR a Harvest Moon game. The added realism, the longer game time, and watching a child grow up are all unique for the series. And we can’t forget that the series itself is extremely unique, and nothing came close in uniqueness until Animal Crossing came out, and that was never meant to be anything like Harvest Moon.
Rating: 7.0

Addictiveness
The game is fun, but not near as addictive as past Harvest Moons have been for me. Once you reach that point where you have basically everything, it’s really just a waiting game, and the fun starts to wane. Sure, after the chapter ends, there may be more to do story wise, but what else can you do to your farm? That’s where it slows down drastically.
Rating: 5.0

Appeal Factor
If we’re talking about appealing to the average Joe, then this game doesn’t have a chance. I mean, it’s a game about farming. That didn’t appeal to me until I played the original, and I’m a huge fan of quirky games like this. So I don’t see an average person walking to the shelf and picking up this title. It’s so niche that really only fans will pick it up to begin with. The only thing it has going for it is the ESRB rating and the fact that the animals on the front look cute.
Rating: 3.0

Miscellaneous
As I’ve said before, I didn’t like Save the Homeland at all. It was an attempt to be different with more focus on the graphics and BEING DIFFERENT than to being unique (see Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, and what do you know, it was cel shaded too!). I’m not going to say that Save the Homeland was an abysmal failure, but I will say that it was a huge disappointment for me and every Harvest Moon fan I talked to about it. So this score is for overcoming the odds and helping me to forget Save the Homeland.
Rating: 7.0

Ratings Summary

Story: 6.0
Graphics: 8.0
Sound: 5.0
Control: 9.0
Replayability: 6.0
Balance: N/A
Originality: 7.0
Addictiveness: 5.0
Appeal Factor: 3.0
Miscellaneous: 7.0

Average: 6.2

Short Attention Span Summary
After tallying up the scores, I feel appalled that this game is being rated so low. But it really and truly does sum up my feelings for this game. Maybe the problem is that I’ve gotten jaded in my old age. More than likely, I’m spending too much time comparing it to what I considered (and still consider to be) the greatest Harvest Moon, which is Back to Nature. It is a definite improvement over Save the Homeland, but it should have been an improvement over Back to Nature. Is such a thing possible? I’m beginning to have my doubts considering that this title was not able to accomplish it. If I were to rate Back to Nature today, it would receive a pretty close to perfect score, simply because everything felt RIGHT. And I couldn’t put the game down. A Wonderful Life didn’t have that same magic for me. So keep trying Natsume. Make me forget Back to Nature by beating it.