Review: Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness (Nintendo DS)

Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness
Genre: RPG/Dating Sim/Farming Sim
Developer: Marvelous
Publisher: Natsume
Release Date: 08/26/08


Harvest Moon is one of those franchises that continues to attract and retain fans despite, and perhaps because of, the fact that the games are largely the same from one iteration to the next. Like Pokemon, it’s adorable and full of personality; like Fire Emblem, it’s simple in concept, but complex in actual implementation; like King of Fighters, it’s a game that manages to be entertaining each and every single time it comes around; and like all three, fans embrace consistency and in most cases loathe change (largely because in most cases the changes are bad).“ – Me, from my Harvest Moon DS Cute review.

Sometimes, change is a good thing. We become tired of the same old franchises, the same old mechanics, the same old stories and gameplay elements, and we want something new. A developer, perhaps having monitored message boards or having read e-mails or, in a less optimistic view, having looked at their bottom line, will realize a change is in order if money is to be made. This happens, frequently, and can, in many cases, be for the better. Resident Evil 4, Tomb Raider Legend and other games have shown that, indeed, change can be the best thing for a franchise, if only to provide a different experience from game to game, so as to continue attracting fans to the franchise as well as to continue bringing in new users. Other times, change is a bad thing; we liked what the old games were doing, we liked the experience perfectly fine, and we do NOT want to play this new game because it’s surprisingly poor in comparison to prior efforts. We, as a fanbase, want no part of this change, because it is absolutely terrible in comparison to the prior games in the series. Tekken 4, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within and others have also shown that sometimes, all we really DO want is more of the same with a nice new coat of paint on it, and whether or not we BUY these new games, we certainly don’t LIKE these new games.

Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness is an example of change, both good and bad. It is simultaneously an example of how to change things in your franchise without completely reinventing the franchise (as Rune Factory did) and still keep the core experience intact… and an example of why some things should forever stay the same, no matter how good of an idea changing them may seem.

So, Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness is the story of a young boy or girl (the game allows you to choose your gender, name, and birthday at the beginning of the game) who was involved in a shipwreck while they were sailing off to start a brand new life. Upon waking up, you find yourself on a deserted island with a family of… well, they don’t really seem to do anything, so one has to presume they are the governing body of the island… who appoint you the head of the farm on the island, and tell you to get to work. From here, you are tasked with making the farm a financially viable entity, as well as repairing the town (since you’re apparently the only person pulling in any money), so that other people can be convinced to move in. Now, in theory, the story of Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness is pretty much similar to most Harvest Moon titles, in that you can woo members of the opposite sex, make friends, help the town, and so on, but in practice it’s actually very different in one notable way. In almost every game in the franchise prior to this, most everyone in the town lives there at the beginning of the game, and anyone who shows up later is basically there for some minor purpose (IE to sell certain seeds year-round, to sell things during the summer and then leave, and so on). Not so in Island of Happiness; in the beginning weeks of the game, a few necessary island residents will show up for various reasons, but anyone beyond that will only show up once you’ve fulfilled some sort of obligation to the game, be it repairing a bridge, convincing a certain amount of other people to move to town, or what have you. This actually makes the residents of the town more notable, as their entrance to the town is often noted by the game… as is their departure, should you neglect them. This is a surprisingly interesting idea (especially considering the fact that one of the people who will show up in town is the opposite gender version of your character) that works well and makes the game feel a lot more fresh than prior entries in the series.

Visually, Island of Happiness looks similar to the N64 and PS1 entries in the series, with bobble-headed super-deformed sprites running around in a 3D world, and for the most part the game looks pleasant all in all. The characters and environments aren’t stupendous, but for a DS game they look good, though I’m somewhat confused by the fact that grasses in the game look like hearts (in prior games they looked like little vines), unless it’s to make their function more obvious. By and large, though, the visuals maintain the adorable charm the series is known for, and as such, are pretty solid. Aurally, the game is the same as it’s ever been; you’re given some cute, upbeat music that changes depending on your location, and the normal effects of hitting/watering/picking things as you do your chores, all of which work well. There are also odd ambient noises that pop up depending on the time of day, season, location and such that are interesting, like odd nighttime noises when the sun sets and cicada songs while you’re on your farm (IE that noise they always play in Evangelion), which actually helps to make the experience more believable and immersive, so thumbs up for that as well.

The gameplay concept of Island of Happiness is functionally identical to that of other Harvest Moon titles; you are given a run down plot of land, a house, some tools and some cash, and you are told to build said land into a bustling, profitable farm, whilst also trying to make friends and find a mate. As noted in the Harvest Moon DS Cute review, “The game elapses in a series of days, in this case thirty per season, and in those thirty days, you’re essentially tasked to run your farm to the best of your ability and make a profit however you can. On the farm itself, you can plant, water and harvest crops as well as care for and reap the profits from various types of animals (cattle, sheep, chickens, etc). By properly maintaining your farm, you turn a profit from whatever you ship out from it, which in turn allows you to upgrade your facilities and work tools, as well as build or buy all sorts of neat tools and upgrades for use on the farm. If farming all day doesn’t sound like your cup of coffee, you can go fishing, chop wood and break rocks for materials to sell or use for building, claim various and sundry consumables from around town to sell, chat up the locals (and try to woo the person of your choice), or go into the mine on the outside of town and poke around looking for valuable ores, tools, items and such. In short, it’s a pretty in-depth experience.“ This description pretty much sums up the basics of Island of Happiness, so let’s move onto what has changed.

First and foremost, as noted previously, you no longer have access to all of the facilities in the town, as you normally would in other franchise games; instead, as you repair broken parts of the town and accomplish tasks, new residents of the town move in and new areas of the island become accessible, meaning that there is a distinct benefit to repairing as much of the island as you can (as you can’t access the mines, for example, until one of the bridges is repaired, thus leaving you incapable of mining for ore until this is rectified). Second, you are more or less on your own in this game, as you do not have the assistance of the Harvest Sprites to make life easier (as you did in several games), which is further problematic because your character is not particularly hardy. You are shown both your Hunger and Stamina meters on the top DS screen, which deplete throughout the course of the day, with the former depleting regularly as you play simply because you need to eat, and the latter depleting as you perform tasks around the island because you’re tiring out. At first, you’ll basically be unable to accomplish more than a few rudimentary tasks (you might be able to plant a few sets of crops and water them, for instance) but thanks to your depleted constitution, trying to accomplish a lot of work in a day is difficult at first. Further, you need to eat pretty consistently; as your Hunger meter depletes, you will find your character gets out of bed later and later each day until you feed them or until they pass out from hunger entirely. The various grasses you can find lying around the island alleviate this somewhat, as can eating food (either at home or at the Café that will eventually appear on the island), but the best way of going about solving this issue is by enhancing your tools.

Unlike prior games, where you could simply upgrade your tools to perform better across the board, in Island of Happiness you can instead attach what are called Wonderful Stones to your tools to improve their performance, in surprisingly more advanced ways. Aside from the normal “expand range/power” abilities you were able to enhance your tools with in prior games, in Island of Happiness you can also enhance your tools to, say, require less stamina to use, pay you for using them, improve their storage/distribution, and so on, as well as attach stones that allow for EVEN MORE slots. Thus, you can essentially build uber-tools that are totally awesome and forever useful. Wonderfuls, however, don’t come easy; you can buy them during winter from the local shop, dig them out of the bottom of the mine, or win them in contests, meaning you’ll have to spend a while without them, and spend a significant amount of time earning them in the variety you desire, which makes acquiring them so much more exciting when you finally do. You can buy tools with more slots on them from Gannon (no, not that Gannon), the town carpenter, which allow for more Wonderfuls to be attached to your tools as well, which, yes, allows you to make tools that almost do the work for you… if you’re willing to put in the effort of building them up.

Another thing that really changes the dynamic of the game is the significantly changed control scheme. In prior DS titles, the controls were largely handled by the control pad and the buttons on the DS, with the touch screen being used for inventory management and such. This was an incredibly user-friendly, easy to operate control setup, so it was completely scrapped and replaced with an entirely touch-screen oriented control scheme that, well, isn’t. This time around, you tap away from your character to move them around (with close taps making them walk, and further taps making them run), and tap on items and people to interact with them. Your tools are mapped to the d-pad and the face buttons (one per direction/button), and by pressing the corresponding direction/button, you bring up that item/tool. If you want to give an item to a character, for instance, you can add this item to the action palette, press the button to bring up the item over your head, then tap the character to give them the item. If you want to water a plant, you can move the character next to the plant and press the button on the action palette to water the plant. This control scheme works, mostly, though it’s not without its flaws, which we will discuss shortly.

Other game mechanics have also been modified to make the game somewhat more involved and challenging, and these also change the experience in surprisingly fun and interesting ways. For one, plants now have specific water and sunlight limits, meaning that they can receive certain volumes of water and sunlight before dying off, which is somewhat more realistic than the systems in prior games. This is then coupled with the fact that various weather patterns also provide different volumes of water and sun to your plants, so a totally sunny day will provide more sunlight than a clear day, a rainy day will provide more water than a drizzly day, and so on. Now, while this does mean that if it rains for four days in a row your crops are probably going to die, it ALSO means that if it rains for two days in a row, then becomes sunny for two days in a row, your crops will grow appropriately without you having to do any work. Further, you can expose your plants to more sunlight and water, if you’re confident these will come as you need them, to make better plants that are more valuable, and in turn sell for more money or use them for better effects in recipes. Other changes to the gameplay mechanics are less noticeable at first, though they make their presence known as time goes on. Instead of turning on the TV and seeing the weather report, you now go and talk to the old man in town for weather predictions. In fact, your TV has been removed entirely, meaning there is no home shopping network; instead, your telephone is used for DS Wifi support that allows you to talk to other players and compare town rankings. Further, weather is now dictated several days in advance, meaning you can no longer save before bed, check the weather the next day, and reload until you get the weather you want. Your stamina depletes differently in different weather conditions, as well, meaning that bright sunny days or dreary rainy days can cause your stamina to deplete faster while working than it would during less extreme weather, which, again, is more realistic overall.

In short, so much has changed, it would probably be best for you to find yourself a strategy guide of some sort to figure it all out. This is generally pretty good… but not entirely.

Now, as noted, most of the changes to the experience are absolutely fantastic; being able to customize tool upgrades is awesome, having people move onto the island over time is interesting, you get the point. It bears noting that, as with most Harvest Moon games, this is somewhat similar to the older games in the series, and while the various changes made to the experience are fantastic, if you’re burned out on the series, this doesn’t do so much new that it will bring you back. Still, even so, were the game flawless in all other respects, it would be easy to recommend to casual or dedicated fans, as it’s mostly fantastic all in all. However, the control system in Island of Happiness, while it can be worked with and used to a point, is largely flat-out terrible. For one, having to go into the menu EVERY SINGLE TIME you want to do something is tedious and annoying; in both versions of Harvest Moon DS, you had your inventory accessible at any time from the bottom screen, which made item management a snap, while here you have to go to the inventory, assign an item to the action palette, back out, then do whatever it is you wanted to do, which takes more time and is more annoying. The system in Harvest Moon DS was far superior to this; it was user-friendly, easy to work with, well implemented and designed, and generally functional across the board for both new and experienced players, and there was absolutely no reason to change the controls so dramatically.

Further, the actual controls leave something to be desired, largely because they are cumbersome and awkward at the best of times and flat-out broken at the worst. Dragging items from your hands into the storage shed or shipping bin requires highlighting said location until a red arrow pops up, then releasing (which notifies you of your success with a big “OK”), which would be fine if learning the sensitivity of this wasn’t so horrendous. One third of the time, this works perfectly, and one third of the time, this results in your character putting said item away, which means digging back into your inventory, assigning the item to the action palette again, and repeating the process. The OTHER one-third of the time, however, you THROW AWAY whatever you were using. This means, in simple terms, that you might throw away a valuable gift for a potential mate, or your entire shipment of crops, or what have you, which is ALWAYS infuriating. The option to throw items away from the menu does, in fact, exist, so removing the option of throwing away items while playing would have at least partially rectified this problem, if not fixed it entirely, but for some reason, this is not so. Further, moving around in general takes FOREVER thanks to how difficult it becomes to line yourself up with things. On the farm itself, it’s easy enough to highlight the correct item (though not always) because a little blue box pops up on the area you’re targeting, but if you’re trying to chop wood in town, you’ll spend half of your time missing your target because you can’t properly line up with it. The bottom line is that the controls are just not very user-friendly, and in a series that THRIVES on being easily accessible, that’s the kiss of death.

The bottom line is that Island of Happiness is a generally better, more interesting product than its predecessors on the DS console, and save for the control scheme, it’s easily worth looking into. The presentation is solid across the board, the mechanics of the experience have been completely re-designed and are better for it, and the game feels fresh, new, and exciting across the board, making it ALMOST worth owning. However, even if you can look past the fact that the game is still largely more of the same, it will be a lot harder to look past the awkward control scheme. Can you learn how to deal with it? Certainly; with a little time and effort, you will eventually be able to learn how to manage with the wonky controls and have a lot of fun with the game. But that doesn’t change the fact that the controls are, in all honesty, terrible, and the fact that they end up causing more than a few headaches the longer you play may put off all but the most dedicated of players. If you’re willing to overlook the control problems, Island of Happiness is one of the best entries in the franchise, bar none, and let’s all hope that the next game in the series retains a similar design and concept, but comes with controls that actually work.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: ABOVE AVERAGE
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: DREADFUL
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: GOOD
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE

Final Score: DECENT.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness is a game that features a bunch of great concepts and designs that are ultimately hampered by a control scheme so awkward that it will put off all but the most dedicated of fans. The presentation of the product is generally solid, and thanks to a number of exciting and interesting design changes, the overall experience becomes something more than the sum of its parts, so much so that even experienced fans of the series will find themselves actively re-learning the mechanics of the game and loving every minute of it. Even with the changes to the experience, however, the game is still somewhat similar to its predecessors, and even if this does not bother you, the clunky, cumbersome touch screen controls certainly will, especially when you accidentally throw away a valuable item for the second or third time. If the controls were more functional, Island of Happiness would come easily recommended, but as it is, this will most likely only appeal to the same fanbase of gamers who like the other games in the series, and anyone not in that group would do best to rent the game first before making any serious decisions about investing their money in a potentially frustrating experience.

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