Review: Story of Seasons (Nintendo 3DS)

Story of Seasons
Genre: Farming Simulator/RPG
Developer: Marvelous AQL
Publisher: XSEED Games
Release Date: 3/31/15

Games frequently come out that can be described as “Such-and-such-game in all but name,” with the implication being that they’re, well, basically ripoffs, or at least so similar that the game is indistinguishable from the game it’s compared to. That isn’t the case here though, as Story of Seasons can be described as “Harvest Moon in all but name” because it’s literally a Harvest Moon title, but since Natsume didn’t bring it stateside, XSEED legally can’t call it that. The whys and wherefores of the situation are a little complicated (XSEED is the US arm of Marvelous AQL, who owns Bokujō Monogatari), but in the end, it seems that going forward, XSEED will be publishing the Bokujō Monogatari franchise, which we commonly associate with Harvest Moon, just… not under that name. While that may seem confusing (especially since we’ll apparently be seeing in-house developed Harvest Moon games from Natsume), the end result is that fans of the franchise will be pleased to know that Story of Seasons is exactly what they’re looking for. As the first Bokujō Monogatari title released by XSEED, Story of Seasons maintains the strong lineage of its predecessors, allowing players all the farming and friendliness they’ve come to expect from the series. It also adds in some new mechanics that might make the game interesting enough for those who have lapsed in their fandom a bit, though whether or not the new systems add enough will really depend on what caused your fandom to lapse in the first place.

On the Beauty of Nature

The storyline this time around is a bit different from what you might expect; while prior games in the series have often tasked you to either take over an old family farm or a farm that’s in serious disrepair, this time around, you’re basically picked from a handful of applicants to take over a farm in Oak Tree Town, because you seemed like the best candidate. Now, your farm is in serious disrepair, but this isn’t really as much of a plot point as in prior games; you’ll fix it up pretty quickly if you follow the plot, actually, and it’s really something that doesn’t hurt much. Rather, the plot of the game is more that Oak Tree Town has been falling into something of a slump recently, production-wise, as they’ve plateaued in their shipping and production, and the hope is that you’ll bring some new life to the town through your work. Outside of that, though, the plot is more or less the same as it is in every Bokujō Monogatari game: there are magical spirits who govern nature, all sorts of people to make friends with, and of course, all kinds of things to farm and produce. It’s worth noting that the game goes out of its way to really acclimate you to the experience, as it offers up an extensive tutorial that also acts as a way of introducing you to the townsfolk so you’re not just dumped into the game, and the first year of play offers a lot of constant and unique developments to keep the plot engaging. In the end, though, it’s still a Bokujō Monogatari game, from its respectful view of nature (which is a bit more overt this time around) to its expectations that you’ll farm, make friends and get married, so if you’ve played one of the games before, you’ll know what you’re getting into here.

Story of Seasons looks good on the 3DS, due to a combination of well-designed 3D visuals and interesting artwork. The game world is entirely 3D, and it looks good; you’ll be able to identify everything on sight, as the visuals are stylized nicely, in a way that makes the less technically apt 3DS work, and work well. Characters and bigger animals have slightly enlarged heads to make their features come across well, and buildings all look unique to one another in a way that makes them interesting and dynamic. There are also plenty of nice effects and such, and the game works very well from an artistic presentation front, if nothing else. This is also helped out by the static artwork that pops up when talking to people around town; it looks a bit more refined than that of prior games in the series, featuring a less cartoon-themed, slightly more realistic bent, and each character generally has a few different images when talking so it’s not all static talking-head stuff. Aurally, the game is cute; while there’s no voice acting to speak of, everything else has a very distinct presentation to it that makes this omission barely noticeable. From the pleasant and cheery music that carries the game along to the appropriate and often adorable effects that pop up, the game is joyful to the ears, and while you’re probably not going to track down the soundtrack, you’ll definitely feel like something missing if you play the game on mute.

On Farming and Friends

If you’ve played a game from the franchise, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what’s going on when you jump in, though newcomers will be pleased to know there’s an extensive tutorial on how to play from jump. The basic concept is as such: you’re a farmer, and your goal is to turn your tiny run-down farm into a thriving wonderland of crops and fauna, all while befriending the townsfolk, finding a significant other, marrying, having a kid and everything else you can think of. How you do this is up to you, but the basics of the game are all pretty understandable: in the tutorial, you’ll learn how to plant, water and harvest crops, how to care for and milk cows, how to buy and sell stuff in town, and how to talk to and befriend people through general conversation and absurd gifts, among other things. Of course, you can’t just do everything you want all at once, because intense actions (farming, breaking stones, cutting down trees and so on) drain stamina, and because the game has a dedicated clock and calendar, so seasons change and people follow a set schedule. Monitoring your stamina and schedule is a big part of the experience, and planning against these things makes up a fair amount of the experience, as not doing so will often end with crops dying due to a season change or being unable to perform a task because the person you need is doing something at that time. These elements have carried over from game to game for nearly a decade and a half at this point, dating back at least to Harvest Moon: Back to Nature, if not earlier, so if you’ve played any games in the series you’ve probably seen this before in some form or fashion, though this game lets you choose to be a boy or a girl up-front, unlike that release. Otherwise, though, the basics are essentially the same from game to game, so fans will be able to jump in with no issues, while newcomers will probably find this game the friendliest in the series simply because of the extensive tutorial that covers basically everything you could ever wonder about.

So let’s say you’re brand new to the franchise. Here’s the gist: each morning you’ll wake up, and you’ll have a set of chores you’ll want to do in order to progress (you don’t need to do anything, though failing to do anything will probably end up poorly). Most of these will revolve around your farm, be they chopping down trees, tending to your animals, planting and harvesting crops, and other things you’d probably expect. Well, each action you perform drains stamina from the heart meter in the upper left, and when it bottoms out, you black out from exhaustion, so you’ll need to manage that stamina if you want to accomplish things. In the beginning, everything is a massive stamina drain, though as the game moves forward, you’ll find that you can improve your tools, allowing you to do more for less stamina cost as you play, so you can get much more done in a day, and in turn do more around your farm. It’s a pretty basic progress system (the more you do, the more upgrades you can get, which improves how much you can do, and so on), but it works well, and allows you to make clear progression. You’ll also have to monitor your health (indicated as a colored face in the upper left) this time around in addition, as performing tasks that can make you sick (working in the rain, overworking yourself constantly) depletes your health, which also hurts your ability to work, so managing both is essential to success.

As you perform tasks at the farm, you get crops of various sorts which you can sell for money (among other things), which also helps you expand the farm, though you’ll also need to forage for other materials to do so, like lumber, stone and metals, depending on what you’re doing, which also consume stamina. You’ll also want to spend time talking to the townsfolk, which thankfully consumes nothing, but does improve their opinion of you. Simply talking to them every day improves their opinion a little bit, but giving them gifts improves their opinion of you a lot (assuming they like the gift of course). Some townsfolk can also be married if you get their opinions high enough, which involve little romantic events as you progress, commitment rings, an actual wedding and all sorts of fun extras beyond that. The game is very much balanced on its social aspects and farming aspects, and properly committing time to both is key to success here.

If you have played a game in the franchise before, the above will be old hat to you, so let’s talk about what Story of Seasons does for itself. For one thing, you can customize your avatar, not just when you start, but with all kinds of outfits and accessories as you play; not only does this let you make your avatar look as you want them to, but various characters will react better to you if you’re wearing things they like. You can also customize the layout of your farm quite a bit, meaning that you can move around property barriers, set up specific decorations, and segment the layout as much as you’re interested in doing, so you can compartmentalize your farm and decorate to your heart’s content. You’re given a workshop early on which allows you to manipulate the interior and exterior of your farm as you see fit, as well as build new things to place in both, so long as you have the materials to make the things you want. As you’ll learn early on, the game also has a focus on trading, as you can’t just dump your crops into a bin and be done with them; instead you’ll have to head to the trade bazar in the center of town, where you can sell stuff to vendors around the bazar. Not only can you buy novel items from the vendors, but each vendor has specific things they’ll want more of at specific times during the game, and if you harvest and sell those things to those vendors, you’ll turn an even greater profit. Eventually you can build your own shop if you play long enough, which automates the process a bit, but this helps a lot toward turning a profit, as careful players can make bank early on through properly watching the wants of those around them and taking advantage.

Aside from the increased trade mechanics, the game also features some returning elements by way of new ones. Around Fall you’ll be introduced to a wildlife safari, which houses all sorts of interesting animals, and allows for foraging you wouldn’t normally be able to acquire… as well as access to a mine, which allows you to find all sorts of minerals you can use in crafting, selling and so on. You also have access to a pretty wide variety of animals to work with for crop harvesting, pets you can recruit for various purposes. The town will also host various annual competitions you can enter, which will improve the town’s opinion of you no matter how you do, and if you’re particularly good at farming, you can also compete with other rival farmers in town to take over abandoned farmland in the town and utilize it to farm even more stuff if you’re so inclined. If you’re really into being a master farmer, you can even build trade objects that allow you to make better crops, more advanced foodstuffs, pottery, wine and more. In short, you’re given a massive amount of options for how to run your farm and make your money, so long as you can keep up your stamina in the process, and there’s a whole lot of options available to players who want a little or a lot of control.

On depth and the eternal cycle

An initial playthrough of Story of Seasons will probably take you around fifty or so hours unless you speed through the game as fast as possible, and you’ll almost certainly miss out on a lot of things the first time around, so you’ll have plenty of reasons to come back to see what you’ve missed or improve your farm in general. That said, though, there are a whole lot more reasons to come back to the game than just “to do better.” For one thing, each gender of player character has six different potential spouses to choose from, some of which are more difficult to woo than others, so you’ll find that changing who you go after can change a bit of the game. Further, there are two different difficulties to work with, Normal and Seedling, which vary up how much health and stamina are decreased based on your activities, as well as the costs and profits you’ll see while farming and even some of the requirements to spawn new vendors in the bazar. Normal is far more punishing in its requirements, so you’ll find that if you do well on Seedling (or poorly on Normal) you may want to step it up after a Seedling run to see how you do. Finally, the game even offers a New Game Plus option, of sorts, once you’ve completed the game by unlocking all of the vendors, allowing you to carry over a bonus of either cash, friendship points or nothing (if you just want the challenge). As such, you’ll find that because of the variety of options and choices you can make, there are plenty of reasons to jump in for another go if you’re interested, and since the first playthrough will take quite a while, that’s a lot of value all in all.

On the other hand, the biggest issues with Story of Seasons are the same issues that have plagued the franchise for years: progress takes forever, and there’s not a lot new to the experience. If anything, this time around the game takes even longer to progress in, as the tutorial feels like it takes forever, and even on Seedling there’s only so much you can do in a given day (while on Normal it’s even worse). It’s very much a game you have to dedicate a lot of time to if you want to succeed, which is fine, but it’s going to be a slog for players who are used to a more uniform and immediately rewarding system of progression as opposed to one that offers small benefits over hours and hours of play. Further, outside of the trade bazar, farmer competitions and wildlife safari, there’s not a whole lot that’s new here; while the characters and town are new, much of the mechanics are the same as they’ve ever been, if streamlined in some respects. If you’ve worn on Harvest Moon, Story of Seasons won’t do much to bring you back into the fold, sadly, as it’s much the same game as its predecessors. The trade bazar also seems like a novel idea that’s executed poorly, because it adds more “hurry up and wait,” mechanics to play. You’ll have to run back and forth to town any time you want to sell anything at the bazar, which is time-consuming and tedious, and you’ll have to ship a whole lot of stuff to bring in new traders, which only adds to the slow progression metrics the franchise is known for. Fans and those who want a more laid back experience will love it; anyone else will find it tedious, sadly, and may not see it through to the end.

That said, for newcomers, franchise fans who were let down by Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley and those who’ve been away from the series for a while, Story of Seasons is absolutely a Bokujō Monogatari game in thought and deed, and as the games go, it’s definitely one of the better ones, if not the most innovative of the lot. It looks and sounds adorable, plays exactly like you’d expect a game in the series to play, and remains as accessible, laid back, and challenging as its predecessors. With some new or expanded mechanics based around shipping options, farm and character customization, the wildlife safari and competitions between rival farmers, there’s enough new content here to bring diehard fans back for more, so much so that there’s plenty of reason to come back again and again to change and improve your farm as you see fit. That said, the game still relies on the same laid back progression framework that makes progress a drawn-out and lengthy affair, the game doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from its predecessors, and some elements, like the trade bazar, could really have been handled better. Still, Story of Seasons is a solid first release in the series for XSEED to port, and it’s one of the better releases in the series in a while overall, one that fans and newcomers will have a lot of fun with, so long as you don’t mind taking your time with it.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Story of Seasons is a Bokujō Monogatari/Harvest Moon game in thought and deed, and as such, it offers a laid back, cute look at farming and friendship that’s enjoyable for fans and newcomers alike, so long as you don’t expect it to reinvent the wheel. The plot is as basic as ever (though slightly more hands-on, at least in the beginning), the presentation is adorable and colorful, and the gameplay is more or less the same as it’s ever been, making it simple to learn but involved enough to keep you thinking long into the game. Between the heavy variety of options, new gameplay mechanics for shipping and customization and difficulty and New Game Plus replay options, there’s plenty to keep you coming back to the game even once you’ve finished it, so you’ll definitely get your money’s worth if you like what the game does. Still, the game follows the same pattern of slow progression and small rewards of its predecessors, doesn’t do nearly enough to deviate from the mechanics that made the game what it was a decade and a half ago, and adds in changes (to shipping, for example) that often add to the tedium of the experience rather than improving on it. Story of Seasons is still one of the better Bokujō Monogatari games to come out in a while, and it’s a good first release from XSEED in the franchise, one that both franchise fans and newcomers should enjoy; while it won’t do anything to convince you if you weren’t into the series at this point, it’s easy to recommend to anyone else, and it’s a good start for the series in its new publishing home.

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