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Friday, March 3, 2017

Review: Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns (Nintendo 3DS)

Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns review

Review by Clark A.

For over 20 years, Story of Seasons (aka the artist formerly known as Harvest Moon) has served as a light-hearted farming simulation that is inherently addictive. Caring for a barnyard might not sound tantalising on paper, but the series allows players to curate which simple routines they wish to perform and then grants a timed and controlled context with which to incentivise particular behaviours. In doing so, several entries achieve a precious equilibrium. Personal goals and micromanagement work in unison to create a “work hard, play hard” mentality that rewards time investment but doesn’t necessarily penalise easygoing players either. It might be more in the vein of a traditional “game” than Nintendo’s Animal Crossing, but whether it’s time to sniff the roses or juggle dozens of tasks, it’s still the player’s prerogative.

If each entry could be reduced to a subset of feature lists, of course, the franchise would arguably not be so prolific. I’ve long surmised the chief reason for its longevity comes down to each game’s own atmosphere. This is to say the cosiness evoked by the town the player inhabits, the folks the player interacts with, and the presentation are might be as crucial to sticking around as tasks and goals themselves. Said elements provide a framework in which carrying out mundane missions can transcend busywork to become genuinely appealing. It does become trickier to discuss the merits of each game’s world compared to “game X had cooler horses”, but it’s probably a more remarkable discussion.

The previous Story of Seasons entry on 3DS endeared me thanks to its lovable faces and the world that held them. Trio of Towns is a step in the same direction in theory, but it winds up making marvellous strides, enriching the game’s world in a capacity previously unseen. At the risk of patronising you, dear reader, the latest Story of Seasons really does feature a trio of towns. They might not be as individually spacious as say, A Wonderful Life’s Forget-Me-Not Valley, but the basis for their success runs deeper than a quantitative swell. What you get are three fully realised towns that take the franchise in a bold new direction without compromising what it stands for.

Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns on Nintendo 3DS

Before even tackling these areas, however, Trio of Towns labours to elicit passion from players and give them a stake in their avatar’s proceedings. Most Harvest Moon titles are content kicking off the opening minutes by handing an unproven farmer a plot of land due to inheritance or obligation. That works fine as a minimalist introduction, especially to a system where the player calls the shots. This title, however, opens with a heated quarrel between a business-minded father and his head-in-the-clouds offspring about whether he or she can hack it as a farmer. This serves as a launch pad for a greater coming of age story wherein the protagonist must prove themselves by learning the ropes of farming.

It isn’t the subtlest tale of this ilk by a long shot, but in terms of actual integration, it’s a welcome addition. It feels natural and more relevant to today’s audience than ever. More importantly, it marks the first of a couple key tweaks to the series’ tone. The opening sequence introduces various family members and outlines the pleasantly open-ended goal of becoming a farmer. Slice of life elements are the bread and butter of Harvest Moon and this game really bothers to interlace trivial small talk into the script to make the transition from a suburban lifestyle to a rural one feel warranted. Even long after you’ve completed the tutorials and since proven yourself worthy, your family doesn’t dry up and disappear; they’re just like the townsfolk with their own individual preferences. Unlike them however, they’ll actively write you letters and visit your house to go all out with the idea that these people are the player’s flesh and blood. Whereas titles such as Harvest Moon: Save the Home Land were adamant about working toward an endgame, the plot here is integrated to complement existing sensibilities by expanding the scope, not simply hand the player one central objective. Although the usual customisable silent protagonist is the lens through which the player interacts with the world, he or she feels more grounded in reality. Considering how increasingly weird the Harvest Moon plots have gotten over the years, it’s nice to see this humbler approach.

After sifting through the tutorials, it’s a bit of a slow burn as you steadily gain access to the game’s various regions and meet the citizens. Besides rationing out the game’s features at a calculated pace, I suspect this is to school new players on the part-time job mechanic, which is more prevalent here than ever. As for what this employment entails this time around, well, certain tasks are more dextrous than others. Tapping a button repeatedly to harvest someone else's tiny plot or chop up lumber is fairly tedious. Plucking weeds has more agency involved since you need to run around and find ones that are often hidden. The most appealing are package delivery missions, since they encourage the player to visit various characters and locations they might otherwise not bother with. Shipping specific items is a solid one as well since it incentivises manual production of particular foods and animal by-products.

3DS game review

However mundane a couple of the chores may be, they’re quick and painless at the worst of times. I would go as far as to say these jobs are the driving feature of this particular Story of Seasons entry because they tie each town together into one world; clients from one town may ask you to help someone in another. Furthermore, completing several tasks in one town increases its ranking, which in turn enhances the town’s physical appearance, features, and stock of items. They’re not as financially dependable as the time-honoured selling of crops, milking cows, and mining for ores, but they serve an overarching purpose and occasionally provide nifty rewards such as a Mario costume. Operating in conjunction with the story, your father also provides a list of deeds he feels will test your prowess as a farmer. These are fundamentally similar to the part-time jobs but tend to be issued with the long-term in mind rather than one day deadlines.  

There’s no explicit need to bust your back to have a good time, but opting to do so presents tantalising rewards for the long haul. As a whole, they champion the notion of spreading goodwill and climbing your way up the social ladders of various communities. Considering some Harvest Moon titles tend to dry out in appeal before you’ve reached the end, I can confidently say this one has serious longevity going for it. In harnessing a wealth of tasks to serve a grander purpose, the developers have conjured an environment in which players will view the experience as more than a repetitive means to an end.

Once you’ve gained full access to the three towns on offer, the game’s vision becomes apparent. What’s most impressive about Trio of Towns isn’t the fancier farming mechanics. Rather, it’s how Marvelous has leveraged the titular towns to express the series’ classic values through new means. Each one has a motif derived from real-world locations. Tsuyukusa represents traditional Japan, Lulukoko mimics certain forms of native Hawaiian culture, and Westown takes after America’s Wild West. Characters dress in appropriate attire such as yukata for Tsuyukusa. Denizens of Westown will greet you with a hug and those of Lulukoko will express gratitude through the phrase “mahalo”. You’ve even got attention to detail like cicadas singing on hot summer days in Tsuyukusa. Not every gesture coincides with a real-world equivalent, but there’s a concerted effort to make each culture pop and conduct the atmosphere of each locale.

Harvest Moon game reviewThe result is informative and enlightening, but thankfully not always rammed down the throat either. Similarly, the way these regions interact is fascinating to observe firsthand. The three radically different societies exist in close proximity but ultimately complement and rely on each other. Each town has enough core resources to sustain itself; the likes of livestock, crops, and restaurants are not exclusive to any town in particular. Even so, conventions like mining have been reallocated into towns that are more thematically appropriate and so there are exclusive commodities (see: reasons for people to visit each town on a whim). Citizens do naturally gravitate toward their own community with regards to food preferences and friend circles, but foreign relations are booming and courteous.

Prior games like Harvest Moon: The Tale of Two Towns also featured multiple settlements, but that one in particular took a completely different angle towards unity than Trio of Towns. Chunks were bitter in tone so the player, an outsider and mediator, had to achieve peace between two warring neighbourhoods. Here, though, the appeal lies in observing firsthand how well these three towns have integrated for the benefit of all involved. The shared values between cultures, the potential for socioeconomic gain, and the respect for individuals is enough to keep such quarrels at bay. For a series that has always been about creating close ties with friends and serving the local community, the slightly broadened scope helps hammer that message home in new ways.

Of course, the towns also switch up how the player interacts with the world with their own little intricacies. Each one has its own hours of operation for stores, so the time of day partially dictates where the player’s options and who they’ll be interacting with. Then you’ve got dynamic weather that only impacts certain parts of the world and not others. Ignoring the blatant geographic improbability of such varying climates existing in close proximity to a desert, the tropics, and rural Japan, this breathes a bit of suspense into visiting any given area. Admittedly, the world itself can feel a little cramped in that there’s no real space to separate the municipalities. Even so, the attention to personality given off by each zone’s scenery is impeccable. The likes of gorgeous Japanese architecture and tropical landscapes full of wildlife will elicit unprecedented vibes in line with Story of Seasons’ easygoing attitude.

Farming game simulator review

Because there are three fully-featured towns here, there obviously must be quite a few residents to fill them. Yet despite having an enormous cast of characters spread out across the game’s world, just about everyone has stories, goals, and personality traits. The former two tend not to be spelled out explicitly, so talking to villagers each day and viewing the wealth of cutscenes is more enthralling than ever. Some folks are recovering from tragic loss, some are lively pranksters looking to grow up, some are obsessed with sweets due to childhood illness. They maintain relationships with numerous other characters complex enough to warrant an elaborate chart, which you can gradually observe during their daily routines. As a side note, the bulky cast means there’s more birthdays and festivals than ever. The point here is each resident has texture and this works miracles in bringing an already exciting world to life.

Trio of Towns does of course have nifty new features. It further boils down some of the gratuitously cyclical farming tasks that the previous Story of Seasons outing forgot to address. Being able to adopt any pet from a Shiba Inu to an irresistibly cute capybara is electrifying stuff indeed, especially coupled with the newfound liberties pets have in this game. Yet for all these newfangled goodies, it was the game’s namesake and atmosphere kept me crawling back for binge sessions.

It’s still the same cosy time and resource management simulation we fell in love with decades ago, but Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns stands out from the pack in understated ways. Its gentle but omnipresent plot functions in tandem with a broader perspective of agriculture to serve up one of the more distinct entries in this long-running franchise.



- Clark A.
Anime Editor
Review: Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns (Nintendo 3DS)
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