Review: Puzzle de Harvest Moon (Nintendo DS)

Puzzle de Harvest Moon
Genre: Puzzle Game
Developer: Platinum Egg
Publisher: Natsume
Release Date: 11/06/07

No, I have no idea what’s up with the Spanish in the title, either. Just ignore it.

Harvest Moon, Natsume’s bread and butter franchise, is one of those confounding game franchises that there is NO POSSIBLE WAY someone could have predicted it would be anywhere NEAR as successful as it’s ended up being. It’s a farming simulator, features dating simulator elements and has some of the cutest graphics ever in all of its incarnations. Its surprisingly simple design belies the inherent challenge associated with making a fully functional profitable farm AND befriending all of the townsfolk AND finding yourself a wife/husband. Most of the games are fundamentally similar to one another from console to console, and many times there multiple releases of functionally identical titles on ONE console. And yet, it claims a not insignificant portion of the gaming populace as fans of its quirky and unique designs, people who would buy each and every title with the Harvest Moon name attached to it no matter how identical to the previous releases it ultimately ends up being.

Yeah, I’m one of them. I regret nothing.

This hasn’t stopped Natsume from trying to freshen up the franchise, of course. While the more recent DS games are functionally similar to their old-school N64, GB/GBA and PS1 counterparts, the major console releases have gone in a fairly different gameplay direction, and the PSP and DS revamps of the series (Innocent Life and Rune Factory, respectively) have taken steps to TOTALLY reinvent the franchise for a new generation of gamers. I mean, it’s still all about farming and making friends and all, but there’s a distinct attempt here to make MULTIPLE Harvest Moon franchises to appeal to a wider variety of players and keep the name brand going for another ten years or what have you.

Because I’m not broke enough. Thanks, guys.

And somewhere along the way, Natsume came up with the idea for Puzzle de Harvest Moon. On its face, PdHM is essentially little more than their own take on the concept of Puzzle Fighter; take characters the fans will recognize and put them in a puzzle game facing off against one another. Now, this is hardly new ground by any means, but unlike the common practices of sticking your characters into the Puzzle Fighter or Columns or Tetris molds and reaping cash for a lame knock-off, Natsume and developer Platinum Egg decided to create a whole new puzzle game for PdHM, one that would completely take advantage of the name brand by incorporating elements of the franchise into a game that’s interesting for both puzzle game fans and fans of Harvest Moon.

And if they had succeeded, that would have been awesome. Sadly, that’s not the case.

Okay, so, there’s no story at all in PdHM which is a shame; I could TOTALLY see puzzle battles where you have to battle other characters to marry the character of your choice, then battle your beloved in a winner-take-all farm free-for-all, but such is not to be. Instead the game works like your typical “franchise character puzzle game”; pick a character and go play a game mode. As game modes go there are a few; you’re given four options for single player games: Normal, which is your typical 4 player free-for all; 2 on 2 team battles; Quota, which works like Normal mode, except you’re given specific crops to harvest to get the most points; and Survival, which again works like Normal, except if you take first place in a match, you keep playing; if not, you don’t. There’s also a tutorial available for you to learn the game mechanics, though it’s not terribly useful and doesn’t really explain much, so you’ll end up having to play a few matches to get the hand of the game anyway. Multiplayer offers you Normal, 2 on 2 Battle and Quota modes to goof around with as well. There’s enough game modes at the core of the game to keep it interesting, though perhaps a mode where you DON’T HAVE TO play with four players might have been nice. Still, what’s here works well enough and the game offers play for four players with one game pack, so there’s plenty available to do.

It’s certainly presented well enough, too; the character portraits are done up in the same style as the games the characters themselves come from and they’re all as cute as ever (though what the heck is up with the protagonists being named “Pete” and “Clair”? I’d have sooner they just be called “Boy” and “Girl” so as to represent the idea that their names are YOUR name). The actual gameplay environment looks as it does from the games as well, as do the plants and animals that show up while you play. It’s not terribly taxing on the system but stylistically they’re cute and whatnot so that’s forgivable. The music is also sufficiently upbeat and consistent with the style from the previous games in the series, and what little sound effects are here sound appropriate for the game itself. In short, it’s presented as well as one could possibly hope or expect, which is certainly promising.

Unfortunately, the gameplay doesn’t fulfill that promise.

See, the thing is this: you really, REALLY have to give Natsume and Platinum Egg a ton of credit for not just sticking their characters into another “me too” puzzle game that plays like everything else on the market. They went the extra mile to make a puzzle game that is unique in most respects while paying homage to the series in both style and substance, and for that they absolutely have to be commended. Basically, the game works like this: you pick a character and you and three other characters are presented a farm field. On the right, you’re offered five “items” to choose from, each of which has different effects. Seeds are used for growing plants to pick, and bunches of seeds likewise are used to grow multiple squares of them. Your own color seeds are worth more points than the seeds of others, but you can pick plants from any square. The colors of the plant squares can be changed ALA Othello, by placing one of your own on each side of other colored plants; thus, you can take over the entire board in a few quick placements if there’s enough density of plants. You’re also offered tools to cultivate the plants; a basket, which automatically picks whatever it’s used on; watering cans, which surprisingly water plants (the more cans in the icon, the more spaces the can waters); and fertilizer, which feeds plants (and again, the more fertilizer, the more spaces it affects). Animals also pop up in your list of tools, in both regular and gold varieties, each with their own special abilities; your dog, for instance, will prevent anyone but you from harvesting cops in an area (the gold dog does this for the whole screen), the chicken will eat any seeds placed in an area (the gold chicken does this to the whole screen), you get the idea.

The core idea of the game, as it were, is to grow and harvest crops while your opponents do the same, and whoever has the most points at the end of the “seasons” wins. You start out picking an amount of time (4, 6 or 8 minutes) which the game then quarters into “seasons”, or rounds of gameplay. The rounds don’t do anything but change the types of plants you grow, though, so a change in rounds doesn’t mean much (it would’ve been amusing, if frustrating, if the plants from the prior season died upon a season change ALA the Harvest Moon games proper). You have to water and fertilize your plants (each seed requires two of each item to grow), then pick them, either with baskets or by scribbling over them with the stylus. As noted, your own plants are worth the most points, but you can take the plants of any player if you choose, though the game protects plants for a few seconds after they grow so their owners may claim them first. All in all, it’s a neat idea that really could, in theory, work pretty well if done right.

So it’s a shame that it’s not done right here.

The problem with coming up with an original concept is a simple one: if it sucks, you really don’t know until you release it. Ripping off Tetris, lame as that is, makes a game Tetris, and who doesn’t love Tetris? So while one must give Natsume credit, as I’ve said over and over again, for making an original game… it’s an original game that sucks. The core gameplay mechanic of scribbling over plants to harvest them is an annoying and silly mechanic; whoever’s touch screen is the most responsive and whoever can scribble the fastest takes the points, and it literally feels like I’m killing my DS as I’m playing the game because of the repetitive scribbling actions. There are only four single-player and three multi-player modes, and they’re all functionally identical to one another except for one or two minor modifications here and there. Playing against the computer, even on the highest difficulty settings, is INSANELY easy; plant a few of your own plants and harvest them ASAP, then spend the entire rest of the game stealing theirs and YOU WIN. There’s a penalty for throwing away items, but there’s no need to ever do so since you can just use them on the board in the same amount of time for absolutely no penalty; in fact, it often benefits you to water and feed the plants of your opponents because it means you can steal them faster. Though there are twelve characters to choose from, there is absolutely no difference between them, so while you can pick your favorite characters without fear of them sucking, I’d like for a team battle between whoever the computer picks and my team of Pete and Karen (say what you want; any girl who’ll love you for getting her slobbering drunk is a girl you can marry in confidence) to actually have some sort of ramifications.

And honestly, even if the mechanics all worked and the characters were all different from one another, you will have seen the ENTIRE EXPERIENCE in two games. Even assuming you pick 8-minute rounds, that’s TWENTY WHOLE MINUTES. There’s no reason to ever play it again, and the game isn’t functional enough to retain your interest beyond one hour. And hey, while it’s great that four players can play with one game, no one is going to WANT to play with you after one or two games anyway; even if you can’t use the same tactics you’d use against the CPU against your friends (unless they’re really dumb), the game comes down to who can scribble the fastest and who can make the most use of the least veggies (the more on the board, the more others can steal, after all). This game is only going to appeal to the most hardcore of Harvest Moon fans; most HM titles take days and weeks to complete, so selling fans on a full-priced one hour game? Not likely.

Now, the thing is, by poking around in PdHM you can EASILY see where a good game might exist under everything. The idea for the puzzle game itself is REALLY cute and could work well. Some character special abilities, the inability to pick any plants but your own (or a serious reduction in points for picking someone else’s) and less scribbling of the plants would make this game a whole lot better, as would a few more gameplay modes. The problem is, the game we’re presented ISN’T very good, and in this case the whole is definitely worse than the sum of its parts. If a sequel is released that may well fulfill the promise of PdHM, but as stands, the game doesn’t play well, lacks depth, and isn’t very fun with or without friends. Do yourself a favor and pass it by.

The Scores:
Story/Game Modes: 5/10
Graphics: 7/10
Sound: 6/10
Control/Gameplay: 3/10
Replayability: 2/10
Balance: 4/10
Originality: 7/10
Addictiveness: 2/10
Appeal: 2/10
Miscellaneous: 2/10

Overall Score: 4.0/10
Final Score: 4 (POOR).

Short Attention Span Summary
Puzzle de Harvest Moon is a novel, if unsatisfying, first try at a Harvest Moon puzzle game. Cute presentation and a very original concept are, unfortunately, not able to make for a game that’s fun to play, alone or with friends. Given a second try we might see better results but as it stands now this is a game you can safely avoid at any price.



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