Let's not procrastinate here. Your time is valuable, and I'm not going to make you wade through four paragraphs of concept nonsense this morning before actually telling you anything about this little mystery of a game - due to its numerous name-changes and constantly shifting release date, it's already gotten everybody confused enough. So, the facts: Innocent Life is the first Harvest Moon game not to be developed by Marvelous Interactive, and it bears no relation to the previous games in the series. It's a diversion, if you will. As you'll know if you read our Harvest Moon interview the other week, its development was handed over to a tiny, completely unknown development studio called ArtePiazza in an effort to create more innovation and variety within the series.
And in that, it has certainly succeeded - Innocent Life is a completely different Harvest Moon (and if you're already into the series there is a fair chance that you won't like it at all - but we'll get to that later). You play a child robot, tending a forgotten farm on an island whose inhabitants have long relied on technology for their living. Your rural existence is juxtaposed with a shiny, hi-tech town five minutes down the road and as the game progresses, you accumulate a selection of futuristic gadgetry to help with your agricultural endeavours. The result is that the farming, over time, becomes more and more secondary to exploration of the island and progression of the story; it's a bit like Harvest Moon mixed with Lost in Blue. There are no expansions to buy, no potential wives to woo - hell, after you get a robot helper, there aren't even any plants to water. The farming is more a part of the setting and context as opposed to the sole focus of the gameplay, as it always was before.
The question is, of course, if you aren't spending all of your time farming in a Harvest Moon game, then what the devil are you doing? And the unfortunate answer, for the entirety of the early stages of the game and often thereafter, is: nothing much. Innocent Life gifts you with an inordinate amount of time. You could fill your entire starting plot of land with plants and it would still only take about two hours to do your daily chores - and as you unlock more and more farmland, you gain access to robotic helpers and automatic crop harvesting systems to compensate. The result is that you very rarely have anything much to do on the farm, which theoretically gives you the time to explore the surprisingly large island and find caves to loot for tools and jewels to expand your all-but-redundant farming capabilities.
However, access to the island is strictly limited by the storyline. Innocent Life's storyline determines your progress to the letter, and it only moves along once a week, which once again leaves you with a lot of time on your hands. With so little by the way of farming to do, even in the later seasons, and such strictly limited access to the island, you're left with six days of either wandering aimlessly around all day or hopping into bed at 8AM for every exciting day or two of exploration, discovery and tangible progress. Much of the time, you feel like you're waiting around for the game to allow you to progress; it can be suffocating, and leaves no room for freedom.
And when you're waiting around like that, sitting on a cliff waiting for a pretend sunset or running around in circles outside the schoolyard in town just to pass the time, Innocent Life can seem very pointless. You set up a farm and plant crops, but then you don't have to care for them. You harvest them and sell them for money, but because progress is determined entirely by the storyline, money is pretty meaningless - there's never anything to buy. You can look after your animals, but you can't enter them in contests. Indeed, if you're a fan of previous Harvest Moon games, you're actually not very likely to enjoy this at all - at least, not for the same reasons.
You see, considered (as intended) on its own merits and not as a part of the series, Innocent Life is compelling for its own reasons. It's quite a melancholy game. In a scene reminiscent of the end of Silent Running, your first week is spent confined to the old ruins that comprise your farm, tending a single patch of potatoes with an old watering can. Farming, for your little robot boy, is a way of becoming more human; through caring for plants and livestock, he comes closer to nature. His Human Status is improved by every action, from cooking to chatting to townspeople to exploring caves. Volcano Island, as it is called, is a place where almost everyone has long forgotten about farming, and produce is manufactured in giant, mechanised auto-farms - your rural existence in Innocent Life can feel quite lonely, and the ambience is greatly helped by the game's beautiful appearance and quiet, reflective musical score. Walking back to a deserted, long-abandoned farm as sunset draws in and spring blossoms float through the air is a far cry from the cheap-and-cheery presentation of most Harvest Moons past. In order to enjoy Innocent Life, you have to abandon notions of progress and purpose - you're farming for farming's sake, not to make money to buy a bigger house or a better barn or presents for your sweetheart. It's a different philosophy entirely.
Innocent Life is love-or-hate, and consequently impossible to score. It's incredibly slow-paced, it can feel horribly scripted and restrictive, and you spend a lot of time just waiting for things to happen. It's nothing like previous Harvest Moons, and some would say that it takes away everything that made them engaging - the satisfying grind, the value of hard work and money, the bright and happy setting and relationship-building with the characters. On the other hand, it's unique, and genuinely takes the series in a new direction, which is to be commended. It doesn't possess the same can't-put-it-down addictiveness as Friends of Mineral Town, the series' greatest portable success, but I have found myself coming back to it day after day, moving the story along at an unhurried pace. The setting and ambience are captivating and entirely unique, its presentation is undeniably excellent and the gradual exploration of the island is compelling; Innocent Life is essentially a very slow-paced adventure game, and though it's not for everyone, I found myself appreciating it enormously.
This futuristic Harvest Moon is definitely worth playing. But I'm not at all sure that you'll like it.