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The Latest Chapters In Gaming's Favorite Farm Story Wither On The Vine

<em>Pioneers of Olive Town</em> is flawed, but the actual farming is soothing and engaging.
Screenshot by Kaity Kline
Marvelous/Xseed Games
Pioneers of Olive Town is flawed, but the actual farming is soothing and engaging.

Since I've been spending a lot of time inside over the past year and have a job that makes me pay attention to the terrible things happening in the world, I've been turning to relaxing games to get my mind off that. I played hundreds of hours of Stardew Valley this year, a farming role-playing game that owes a lot to the granddaddy of farming sims, Harvest Moon.

The format usually goes like this: Your character is tired of living life in the big city, so you move to a farm your grandfather leaves you in his will. It's in complete disrepair, so you have to fix it up and bring it back to its former glory. You make money by growing seasonal crops, raising animals, foraging, mining, and cooking, and you make friends with the villagers by giving them gifts.

Part of the magic of these games is not only managing your farm, but getting to know the villagers in the town. Speaking to people and giving them gifts they like raises your relationship level with them, and you can make friends, get married, and even have children. I don't think I'm the only person that has gotten way too emotionally attached to my in-game husbands.

I'm talking about two different versions of the game today, because the history is a little confusing. Natsume published the Harvest Moon series in North America until 2014, when the original developers split off to a different publisher. Natsume kept the name Harvest Moon and started making their own games under that title, which tend to deviate a lot from the original format that people know and love. And the original series, now published by XSeed Games, is known as Story of Seasons.

This month saw the release of both Harvest Moon: One World and Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town -- and I needed to see if either of them were worth buying.

Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town

The newest Story of Seasons sticks with the traditional format: You move to Olive Town, a seaside village to restore the farm that your grandfather left you. The town is desperate to get more tourists and the mayor gives you different requests to update the look of the town throughout the game.

It is a forgettable installment of Story of Seasons overall, but I still enjoyed some things about it and found it relaxing to play.

My main complaint involves the characters and dialogue. There are almost 40 villagers in the game, and all of them are as interesting as cardboard. When you walk around the village talking to people, you get the same dialogue over and over, and sometimes they'll just say things like "Hello" or "What's up," or something about the weather.

Special events are a frequent and repetitive topic of conversation in <em>Pioneers of Olive Town</em>.
Screenshot by Kaity Kline / Marvelous/Xseed Games
Marvelous/Xseed Games
Special events are a frequent and repetitive topic of conversation in Pioneers of Olive Town.

It's especially cringe-inducing during special occasions in the game, like the spring egg hunt and the summer fireworks display — which are all any character will talk about for the three days leading up to the event and days after.

It doesn't get any better during the heart events, either. Heart events are cut scenes that happen when your relationship with a potential partner bumps up a notch — they're frequently charming and revealing, but in Story of Seasons they're utterly generic. During one heart event with fisherman Emilio, he let me have the last piece of cheesecake at a restaurant. With snarky biker Damon, we rode on a motorcycle and he was angry at his family for unspecified reasons. With Reina, who works at the museum, she accidentally thought I returned some museum books late — but it turned out the mayor did it.

I love to get attached to fictional characters. I want to get a taste of people's hopes, dreams, fears, and personalities early on. I've played 30 hours, until late summer in-game, and I still don't feel any depth from the characters. In old Harvest Moon games, I'd feel an emotional connection with some characters on day one. Pioneers of Olive Town gives me nothing; I would've rather had fewer characters with more attention to quality.

The game's producers say they're adding a patch some time after release to revise and add dialogue, but I don't see how this can be fixed unless there is a complete revamp.

However — if you don't care about relationships and you just care about farming and gathering resources, it's still a relaxing time. The animals are adorable, with plump cows with heads just as big as their bodies and the option to adopt multiple types of dogs and cats. You can also decorate your house, but I wish there were more choices for furniture and decor so that I could really customize my space.

You start the game with one section of your farm unlocked, and you must collect resources in order to expand. Once you get to a new area, you unlock different types of resources like wood, grass, and minerals. You also collect resources to unlock facilities like a chicken coop, a barn, and the ability to fix bridges. The exploration aspect is fun to me and keeps me playing the game.

It's satisfying to upgrade your tools and be able to smash seven rocks at a time, or swing your axe in a circle and have multiple trees come down around you. It makes collecting resources more enjoyable than tedious.

But overall, the game fell flat, no matter how fun those tool upgrades were. I'm hoping the dialogue update will give it some new life.

Harvest Moon: One World

Running around the map looking for sprites that can give you seeds takes up a LOT of time in <em>HM:OW.</em>
Screenshot by Kaity Kline / Natsume
Running around the map looking for sprites that can give you seeds takes up a LOT of time in HM:OW.

While I did have some fun playing the new Story of Seasons, Harvest Moon: One World, sadly, doesn't have any redeeming qualities. I was flat-out bored playing it — and it wasn't even relaxing, because in-game time moves so quickly that I barely had time to get through everything I wanted to do in a day.

One World, like Natsume's other post-2014 Harvest Moon games, deviates from the format that made it famous. (Not always a bad thing, as long as it's done well!)

Your character starts in an isolated cabin on the mountains, with your mom and your friend Doc as the only other people around. For your entire life you've only eaten potatoes, and you find a book that teaches you about farming new things, eventually leading you to grow a turnip that everybody is stunned by.

Growing the turnip awakens the harvest sprites, little nature fairies that are in every Harvest Moon game, and they send you on a journey to explore the map and collect tokens to awaken the Harvest Goddess.

You can't buy seeds in stores at first — and later in the game they're available only as an expensive backup plan. Instead, One World wants you to get your seeds from the sprites who are scattered around the map, so for most of the game I was running around and collecting seeds. This kills a lot of time in the day (and not to mention, is super boring). Your stamina also gets drained just from walking around the map, so after a certain point I had to give up on seed-hunting and head home, because I didn't want to risk my character passing out — you do eventually gain the ability to jump to different points on the map, but it doesn't help all that much with the seed-hunting.

And when you're not looking for seeds, you're doing fetch quests for a series of flat, cardboardy characters.
Screenshot by Kaity Kline / Natsume
And when you're not looking for seeds, you're doing fetch quests for a series of flat, cardboardy characters.

You progress through the game by completing tasks for characters that make the characters in Pioneers of Olive Town look vibrant by comparison. They don't say anything new unless you complete a quest for them, and many of them don't even have names — they're called "Nervous Man" or "Exhilarated Woman." I felt no motivation to try getting to know any of the characters on a deeper level.

So it's a Harvest Moon game without enjoyable farming, boring characters, and tedious, stressful exploration. Not exactly what I want when I play a farming RPG.

If you want to play a great farming simulator in quarantine, I'd suggest replaying Stardew Valley — which just updated with a ton of new content. Or if you absolutely must have a Harvest Moon experience, the classic Friends of Mineral Town has been updated and rereleased for the Switch.

Kaity Kline is a columnist for NPR's Join the Game and a producer on 1A. She is a native of New Jersey, a lifelong gamer, and a former gaming YouTuber. She tweets at @kaitykline

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Kaity Kline
Kaity Kline is an Assistant Producer at Morning Edition and Up First. She started at NPR in 2019 as a Here & Now intern and has worked at nearly every NPR news magazine show since.