Among all entertainment art forms, video games rely heavily on violence and bloodletting. I realise that as a game critic I spend more time with these things than most people (and what is healthy for a “hobby”), but it really does become exhausting when the default loop is always some form of killing. Sometimes it’s bloodless. Sometimes it’s turn-based. Sometimes it’s even cute and fanservicey. But it’s always about attacking things. The video game industry generally behaves like what the film industry would if the film industry were exclusively comic book films (which I know it wants to be, but it’s not quite that just yet). This becomes exhausting after a while, no matter how positive the spirit that it’s presented in, and all of the above is why Story of Seasons is always a delight when it rolls around. It’s a bit of relief from the norm for video games.
Pioneers of Olive Town isn’t really a pioneering game, but it does take the basic Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons structure and mix it up nicely. On the low-key, it’s actually the developer’s take on the western genre, with the “pioneer” in the title referring to your relocation to a wild, untamed plot of land and village that’s in bad needing of building up. It’s like that classic HBO show, Deadwood or Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly… only with no swearing, gun duels and exposed breasts. Much of the opening chapter of the game is focused on taming the wilds around your farmland. You’ll need to clear away weeds, chop down trees, smash up rocks, and even scoop up puddles. Every day some of this overgrowth grows back, so you’re constantly pushing against the tide, though naturally it’s designed in such a way that eventually you do tame it, and then it’s just a story of maintenance.
Weirdly enough I actually have had this exact experience in my own life, and perhaps that’s why I found Story of Seasons to be so heartwarming and “home-y” in tone. when I was young, my parents moved us into a property in regional Australia that, prior to us building on it, didn’t even have a house on it. It was a large block of land (two acres), and it was covered in untamed, waist-high grass, covered in blackberry brambles, and it was a hill, so when it rained, the base of the hill became so muddy it was like quicksand. This property was so untamed that we needed to first use a hand sickle to cut the grass, before then taking to it with an industrial-strength slasher (and by “we” I do mean my parents. I was certainly never allowed to touch that thing). Eventually, though, the brambles were cleared (which, while necessary, did mean we didn’t get bucketfuls of free, delicious blackberries), the grass became mowable using standard gardening equipment, and the trees started to grow. Thirty years later, my parents, now in retirement, have a small vineyard, a bee farm, and enough fruit and vegetables that they rarely need to shop for fresh goods. They even make a bit of money on the side by taking their produce to weekend markets.
Pioneers of Olive Town condenses all of that experience down into a few hours play, but it’s spot on. All Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons games start with you having to tame an untamed field, but this takes things to another level entirely. While living in a tent (that I didn’t experience, though until my parents started renovating and extending the house, it was small), you’ll be slashing, cutting and hammering, and then, once you have that first house, you’ll be fully invested in your little plot of land.
At that point, the second major goal in Pioneers of Olive Town starts to take over – you need to help this town grow, both in terms of attracting new residents, and making it something of a tourist hot-spot. You do that by fulfilling the various requests that get pinned up on the town hall bulletin board, and while that is quite a simple process, the life that this little town takes on is something quite apart from the usual Harvest Moon experience. Where most of those games want to recreate small rural village life, this one wants to instil a sense of a bustling, energetic town, and while it never becomes too big, the developers have done a good job of capturing the aesthetics and feel of a tourist trap. Early on you actually get a camera to take snaps, and you’ll find yourself – almost surprisingly – pulling it out quite often because it is a very photogenic town. As an added bonus and neat little trick, the photos that players take from around the world are actually shared as the loading screens in-game, and that does a remarkably good job of helping to set the scene and show just how much life and spirit the game has to offer.
In most other areas you’re doing much the same things in Pioneers of Olive Town that you always do in these games. You water crops to eventually sell them off once fully grown (saving a couple for your own cooking, of course). Eventually, you start caring for animals and getting additional produce out of them. Some days you’ll descend down the mine to get ores and metals to upgrade your home or equipment, and you’ll run around town looking for the special someone that you plan on marrying to shower them with gifts. And then some days you’ll feel too lazy to bother with any of that and you’ll just go fishing instead. Finally, there are periodic festivals and other events that you can participate in for a bit of extra cred around town and simply to hang out with all your buddies.
All of that will be familiar to long-time fans of the series, and I don’t think any true fan of Story of Seasons ever wants any of it changed anyway. Tweaked around the edges, perhaps, but you mess with this formula too much and the fans will riot. What separates Story of Seasons from lesser efforts in the same genre (most notable the recent Harvest Moon: One World) is the eye for detail in it all. Characters have interesting things to say often enough that you’ll never get bored of them. The sense of humour is bright and bubbly, and little cut scenes happen frequently enough that you’ll keep playing along, knowing that the next one is just around the corner. The art is bright and minimalist, but aesthetically so, done more for a particular visual effect than a budgetary limitation. There is a lot of personality emanating out of Pioneers of Olive Town, in other words. Without quite having the same charm that has seen Animal Crossing save us all from abject misery over the past year, it’s very much in the same space.
Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town is wholesome. It’s a little naive in the way it presents the “grass is always greener on the other side” perspective on country living, but this series has been kicking around since the Super Nintendo and always gets away with it, on account of being so sweet and good-natured that it’s impossible not to love.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb