Harvest Moon for the SNES could have been lost in the wave of excellent games released in Japan during 1996, yet the farming simulator grew into a well-established series that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. During these years Harvest Moon has visited multiple platforms, experimented with different playstyles and even been renamed to Story of Seasons when, in 2012, Marvelous Inc. stopped licensing the series to Natsume. From 2014 onwards, Marvelous Inc. has instead used its own publishing brand, Xseed Games, to localise for western audiences, while Natsume began releasing its own farming simulator series using the Harvest Moon title, which, understandably, has confused many fans.
Alongside its silver jubilee, Story of Seasons is celebrating its latest addition - Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town for the Nintendo Switch. This game was directed by Hikaru Nakano, who has a long history with the series; being part of the development team since the days of Harvest Moon 64 and previously directing the 2020 remake of Friends of Mineral Town.
Talking to Eurogamer in a new interview, Nakano explained the series began with "the general idea of not having a fighting game, but one of those peaceful games in which you just move to a farm", and developed around the idea of "what kind of lifestyle would you live actually if you were working on a farm?". When it comes to Pioneers of Olive Town, Nakano views the game as a "new chapter" that "really gives new life to the series".
The inspiration for Pioneers of Olive Town, Nakano revealed, came from "a sense of wanting to remake a lot of things from scratch and start again, start afresh, and, so with that, we naturally came towards the theme of pioneering, exploration". With this idea in mind, the developers decided to place the farm within a forest, rather than simply an open field, hoping it "gives the sense that it's [the farm] been there for a much longer time in history and you're also really connected to mother nature".
These feelings of exploration and history are definitely present in the opening hours of the game when your starting area is a small plot of land with a broken bridge on its eastern edge. My goals quickly shifted from money-making to fixing this structure; I wanted to know what secrets lay in the field beyond and exactly how far my lands stretched.
These ruined structures, like the bridge and the dilapidated chicken coop you first encounter, also help create the idea you're not just starting a farm, but rebuilding a lost settlement. Many Story of Seasons games begin with you arriving on a farm that is ready and waiting for an owner - the buildings may be rather dusty, but, after earning a bit of cash, you can easily buy your first chicken or cow. In Pioneers of Olive Town, however, you need to carve your way through the undergrowth to reach the chicken coop, craft the materials required for fixing it and, finally, tame the wild chicken wandering about your farmland, which may be a distant relative to those raised by your grandfather. Only then will the Animal Store in Olive Town start selling chickens, creating a connection between what you achieve on your farm and the development of the town itself.
The forest setting also had an impact on which activities the developers chose to include in the game, a process Nakano gave us insight into: "the most important thing we keep in our hearts and minds is obviously what works well with the stage we're providing. In this case it's a forest - what kind of functions work well with that environment and make sense as it were and then, on top of that, obviously it's a farming life sim, so what kind of things would you expect to have in this kind of game genre as well?" It's why the traditional mechanics like growing crops and mining return, alongside more unique ones like beekeeping and mushroom growing, because the game is, in Nakano's words, "just making use of nature's blessing."
Where Pioneers of Olive Town differs from previous Story of Seasons titles, however, is the large number of makers - machines used to convert items into something more useful or profitable - you can utilise. Nakano explained to Eurogamer that the stronger focus on crafting all came from a desire to give the player more choice: "we wanted to make it where, of course, you can still take the money to town and buy what you need to, but we've added in that option of, if you also have the inclination, the motivation to do so, you could cut down the trees, could mine the rocks and you could make it yourself as well."
Unlocking makers is tied to levelling up the 12 skills available to your character. These range from beekeeping to mining to communication with the citizens of Olive Town, and the purpose of each maker is tied to its assigned skill. If you want to convert crops into seeds to save money, for example, you need to focus on the fieldwork until you unlock the Seed Maker.
Skill progression is seamlessly integrated into the game, with every action granting a small amount of experience, achieving the development team's goal, as Nakano described, of implementing "this kind of natural skill development like, whatever you do, there is that thing in the back of your mind that it's going to be rewarded in some form", and ensuring "whatever your actions are, whatever you do, it's not wasted".
Where the makers falter, however, is in both how much space each one takes up - the field outside my farmhouse is quickly becoming maker city - and how some have similar purposes. At one point I wanted to convert sheep yarn into cloth and was confused about why the Textile Maker, which I previously used to weave thread into cloth, couldn't create this item. Flicking through my blueprints list, I discovered the Cloth Maker, which is the specific machine for transforming any type of yarn, be it sheep, alpaca or rabbit, into cloth. Having two makers whose purpose is fundamentally the same feels like busy work for the sake of busy work, especially when gameplay could be easily streamlined by either combining the two machines or unlocking the animal cloth by upgrading the Textile Maker.
One aspect Pioneers of Olive Town does succeed in is its inclusion of queer relationships, which first appeared in the Story of Seasons series in last year's remake of Friends of Mineral Town. Nakano explained the continued inclusion of LGBT+ relationships is out of a desire to "keep it [Story of Seasons series] modern, we want to make our players happy and adding LGBT elements to the game is a no brainer there", and "the whole ethos behind the game is about freedom, playing how you like to. We want our protagonist to be able to fall in love and have that kind of relationship with an NPC regardless of their gender and sexual orientation". He also hopes that "this time around we've been able to express it a little bit more naturally, so things come across a bit more natural and easy flowing, seamless as it were".
For queer players like myself, the ability to have a relationship with a same-sex character is highly important in games like Pioneers of Olive Town, where the dating sim aspect is a crucial part of the gameplay. By giving you the freedom to explore this aspect of yourself within the game, it, in turn, becomes more immersive - as if an invisible barrier between you and it has been removed. It's the little touches too, such as having the NPC character bios accurately reflect the change in your relationship in Pioneers of Olive Town. These help create this atmosphere and demonstrate how the developers have taken the time to ensure every aspect of the feature has been included for both the same-sex and heterosexual relationships.
Pioneers of Olive Town was released in Japan in February this year and, while the game has seen success in the charts, players have reported experiencing a number of bugs and framerate drops. Personally, I've experienced long loading screens, especially when moving between the farm and Olive Town, and framerate drops, which have become more evident when riding through my farm on horseback.
The team behind the game are, however, aware of these issues; producer Dia Takemura wrote about the planned patches on the Japanese site for Bokumono, which is the shortened version of the Japanese name for the series, Bokujō Monogatari. These fixes include improving the loading times for certain areas and fixing issues that cause the game to freeze, such as when the fishing rod is equipped within the mine. There are also plans for future patches and updates, which will provide long-term fixes to the game.
Whether Pioneers of Olive Town becomes the new chapter in the Story of Seasons the developers hope for depends on how these upcoming patches improve the overall quality of play. Hopefully the fixes will rework the loading times and, especially, the maker system to create more engaging gameplay, which doesn't suffer from its odd overcomplications. (Cloth made from yarn is still a textile.)
Despite these problems though, Pioneers of Olive Town still has the same atmosphere of peace and tranquillity present in all of the Story of Seasons titles. You never feel rushed to complete a certain goal and there's always time to sit back, go fishing, mining or even just wander about your farm. It's commendable that, as Nakano says, "the theme of the game is just unchanged and, even after these 25 years, at the core it's still the same game."
Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town will be released for the Nintendo Switch in Europe on Friday, 26th March.
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