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Monday, December 29, 2014

Review: Harvest Moon 3D: The Lost Valley (Nintendo 3DS)

Review by Clark A.

Harvest Moon 3D: The Lost Valley bears the namesake and logo of the prolific Marvelous-developed farming simulators, but this new game ought to be singled out as something very different.

Without delving too deeply into legal shenanigans, the aforementioned creative minds behind the bulk of the series will be self-publishing its own games games for the foreseeable future so publisher Natsume is leaping at the opportunity with its own in-house title. So while Natsume influenced the franchise in its early days, The Lost Valley represents the future with the company wielding complete creative control.

In other words: if you want “a new Harvest Moon game”, The Lost Valley is precisely that. Natsume’s vision of ranch life isn’t a perfect one –it’s riddled with design oversights and creative departures that will no doubt agitate fans – but above troubled waters lies a bridge of originality and a demonstrated eagerness for risk taking. If the developers address the several elephants in the room, this new spin spells terrific news for future instalments in the aging IP even though The Lost Valley itself can’t hang with its more polished Marvelous equivalents.

The Lost Valley essentially boils the gameplay down to two classic elements, which I don’t mind in the slightest. I’ve always preferred deviating from fieldwork when possible in Harvest Moon titles in favour of romance and other such diversions, but as witnessed last year when Game Freak adjusted Pokémon’s formula to bring the focus away from the deviations that it had become laboured with to again focus chiefly on capturing and battling monsters, reassessing an IP’s core appeal pays dividends.

The first of The Lost Valley’s two elements is the farming, which is a familiar one that has undergone several tweaks. There’s a concerted effort to streamline the daily grind of watering plants and pouring seeds through simple button shortcuts and context-sensitive action triggers. When scaling a franchise back to its roots, however, the central mechanics must be appealing or the entire experience is compromised. Natsume averted total disaster with this new system that facilitates speediness, but the length of the animations means the player’s actions take several seconds longer than necessary. It sounds minute, but because you're working to an in-game clock that's constantly ticking over, the end result is that you’re going to feel pressed for time on a daily basis. It's more stressful than a Harvest Moon game should be, and the cause is something as simple as those animations.

On the plus side though, you’re given all the basic tools within minutes to begin shaping the landscape as you see fit. And that’s no turn of phrase either; in this game you do indeed shape all of your surrounding area, which is separated into grid-like fragments of blocks that vary in altitude. These topographic blocks represent The Lost Valley’s most jarring yet revolutionary feature and farming’s immediate companion; land development.

The topography affects not just the crops you can grow but how you perceive the entire farmland and its purpose. Virtually the entire world is an oyster for the player to manipulate freely and deck out with a healthy mixture of practical farming apparatuses and aesthetically pleasing structures. As mentioned previously, Harvest Moon’s latest downplays the series’ extraneous features, so the player’s incentive to tolerate fieldwork becomes a deeply personal investment in the valley itself. The land you’re given immediately is nightmarish to navigate thanks to a glut of pesky tress and impassable rivers so transforming the land into a profitable utopia is a pleasing process by which you'll see clear progression as you play. So compelling is this gameplay loop, in fact, that you’ll push your character’s stamina meter to the limit endeavouring to make the land structure bearable. Watching the wasteland evolve into a nearly inimitable product of player freedom is something truly special.

While an array of land tweaks can be performed from the outset, you’ll have to devote your playtime to what little narrative exists if you wish to develop structures and churn out a profit. Unlike previous Harvest Moon games, winter weather is the default for every season and the appropriate foliage must be unlocked by completing a series of task-intensive missions. It’s an odd direction considering the story’s relatively light-hearted nature and the typically homey feel of the series. This certainly isn’t aided by the repetitive nature of the missions, which ultimately has players more caught up in the least immediately rewarding portion of the series.

The tasks are potentially fulfilling in the long term due to the rewards, but far too often is the customisation barricaded so far behind tedium that the limitations of the creativity pop to the forefront. It’s a shame that The Lost Valley doesn’t offer much in the way of creative freedom beyond developing the land because building a miniature world is gratifying and could have been this game’s forte. Obviously it’s got nothing on Minecraft in terms of raw potential for manifesting ideas, but considering no Nintendo system has seen Minecraft of a decent clone of it, Nintendo aficionados would appreciate pocket world building that differs greatly from other life sim games on the console like Animal Crossing and Fantasy Life.

And when the game aces neither traditional farming nor the new land customisation system, the downplaying of beloved features becomes that much more disheartening for fans of those elements. In the interest of clarity, socialisation and the like are not outright absent; they’re simply stunted, vestigial organs that exist to creative the illusion of familiarity as they’re half-hearted in execution.

All up, this new game is essentially a sandbox that demands gratuitous maintenance relative to its feature set. And unfortunately unlike the latest Animal Crossing, it’s taxing to place preventative measures around your digital world to ensure its livelihood in your absence thanks to a system involving real-world clocks for the watering of crops.

The game very much dictates when you can socialise with shopkeepers and villagers, making the narrative experience feel undercooked for the sake of highlighting creativity. Sadly, this sometimes comes at the price of player choice despite the game’s undying attempts to facilitate precisely that. At the very least, it would not have been remiss to include a town or some sort of hub that grants players more control over their lives than semi-random events that occur each morning.

I wish farm life in Harvest Moon 3D: The Lost Valley was more gratifying because its fundamental ideas are all there. With the franchise essentially split in two going forward, I encourage Natsume to continue its experimental ways, because it's likely that the other guys will churn out the most traditional experiences possible. Given extra time for polish, this studio can easily be the one to define the future of this endlessly endearing franchise.

- Clark A.
Anime Editor
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Review: Harvest Moon 3D: The Lost Valley (Nintendo 3DS)
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