For me, the Harvest Moon series reached its pinnacle with Magical Melody on the GameCube. Unbelievably, this still hasn't been released in Europe, possibly due to an over-estimation of demand that led to a sizeable unsold surplus of previous GameCube title, A Wonderful Life.
It managed to fix things about the series that I hadn't even realized were wrong; where previous Harvest Moons had been all about the satisfying grind to get the farm up to standard, this one put much more emphasis on becoming part of the town by making friends, encouraging new residents to move in, supporting the local businesses and sizing up the ten (ten!) potential spouses. Farming felt like your character's day job, and not like the entire purpose of their existence. I preferred it that way.
I am opposed, naturally, by two other schools of Harvest Moon fandom. The first, usually relatively new players, prefers A Wonderful Life, which, though shunned by many longer-term fans of the series, achieved enormous acclaim from others. AWL fans enjoyed its relaxed pace and contained, relatively small setting, populated by its comparatively tiny, oddball cast. The second, composed of Friends of Mineral Town advocates, rejects the calm of A Wonderful Life and the enormous breadth of Magical Melody in favour of a beautifully made, portable and pure Harvest Moon experience, which mixes its social aspects with the classic grinding of Harvest Moons past. Here, the emphasis was upon acquiring every single one of the buildings, recipes, upgrades, items and more through sheer, honest hard graft, and oh, was it rewarding.
Self-evidently, then, the Harvest Moon series has broadened considerably over the past five years; it now offers a distinct variety of rewarding and immersive farming-based experiences as opposed to incrementally better versions of the same thing. Unfortunately Harvest Moon DS does absolutely nothing to broaden or improve this outstanding series further. It is an incongruous, cobbled-together mish-mash of Mineral Town's gameplay and A Wonderful Life's setting, without the charm or personality of either. It does almost nothing to take advantage of the DS' abilities, instead choosing to recycle Mineral Town's exact sprites and items in a 2D version of AWL's Forget-Me-Not Valley, which has not been adapted at all to suit the portable format. There aren't even any shops. You have to telephone the characters from Mineral Town in order to buy farming supplies. Now tell me that's not lazy.
The actual mechanics of the game are as functional as always. Buy seeds (on the phone), hoe plots, water, harvest and repeat until there's enough money to do something more interesting. The problem is that there isn't really anything more interesting to do. It's not like Mineral Town, where there's plenty of friendship-forming, a lively town and plenty of farm expansions to be getting on with outside of harvesting crops - the town is oddly stagnant, with its tiny cast, and there are only five bachelorettes, who (in a step back from Magical Melody's sped-up and varied social and dating scene) take an awfully long time to woo invisibly with gifts. Forget-Me-Not Valley worked well for AWL because AWL was not purely about the farming; Harvest Moon DS has Mineral Town's work ethic in a setting that doesn't accommodate it.
Indeed, it's entirely possible to never leave the farm, which really does make the game feel like the ultimate in pointless grinding . You can buy your supplies over the phone, everything from seeds to tools to buildings and new animals, and the only reason to venture outside is to collect wood and stone - even that can be done remotely with the help of an item that inexplicably lets you use the map screen to cut grass, chop wood or hammer rocks from afar, or by enlisting the Harvest Sprites to gather things for you. Harvest Moon DS is theoretically held together by a strange storyline that involves a fight between the Harvest Goddess and the Witch Princess and the consequent scattering of the Harvest Sprites, who turn up in seemingly random places and offer their services as you play through the game. Sadly, finding them offers little incentive to persevere with this half-hearted mish-mash of a game, as the help that they do offer only robs you of what little there is to actually do in the Valley.
The lacklustre touch-screen elements serve only to further bolster the impression that Harvest Moon DS was created in a thoughtless hurry. Harvest Moon DS' sole noteworthy touch-screen element is a glove that lets you rub a cow (or cat or dog or sheep) with seemingly no actual effects, and feels tacked-on. When you think of the fun that could have been had milking cows, grooming horses, fishing and (possibly) pinching the bottoms of potential spouses, it's all the more disappointing. Rearranging your inventory is the only other use for the touch-screen, and that involves a tiresome amount of stylus-switching and can be irritatingly imprecise.
I'm so sorry, everyone. I really, really wanted this game to be great, but it just isn't. However much I adore Harvest Moon I cannot pretend that this is anything other than depressingly average. It is an inferior and slightly cumbersome version of Mineral Town that fills no particular niche; established Harvest Moon fans will notice immediately how lacking it is in personality or any semblance of new content, and novices would be far, far better off with Mineral Town for their portable farming needs.
Although Harvest Moon DS possesses the same base addictiveness as its forebears, it has no charm, no originality and no ambition. It comes across as a cynical, rushed, botched rehash of Mineral Town as opposed to a new and fulfilling entry in the series. Save your pennies for Magical Melody - with any luck, Rising Star might yet let the GameCube enjoy that last hurrah.
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