Review by Firebird377
"A charming and addictive entry into the Harvest Moon series"
Island of Happiness is the newest incarnation of the long running Harvest Moon series, and is the second to come to the DS in North America. While there are no great innovations that revolutionise the series it is still a solid entry into the franchise that takes advantage of the unique features the DS has to offer while having solid gameplay and a charming presentation.
Anyone familiar with Harvest Moon will be able to jump right into Island of Happiness. For the uninitiated, you are tasked with running a farm by growing crops and raising animals. Along the way you'll work on expanding your farm, making friends with the local populace, pursuing romance and eventually raising a family. Island of Happiness introduces a new goal as well; the expansion of the namesake setting. Starting off practically deserted, you need to attract new occupants, help build bridges to open up other areas of the island and ensure that the residents don't move out. It's quite satisfying to see the island grow and prosper, but ultimately the focus of the game remains on farming.
On that note, Island of Happiness' farming is much more accessible and friendly to new players than the more esoteric Harvest Moon DS. Comprehensive tutorials make the basics clear and the menu systems are functional and aesthetically pleasing. The controls are simple and responsive, with buttons controlling tools and items while the touch screen is used to move. While the movement is fluid enough, it seems odd that the option of using the D-Pad is not given, as some people may find the touch screen to be a bit finicky for precision movements. The touch screen is also used to interact with people and animals, as well as for picking things up, opening containers, selling items or giving them to people as gifts, and so on. The game relies heavily on the stylus, and while the controls are generally excellent the stylus use can feel forced at times.
Once you've learned how to control your character and run your farm you'll quickly settle into a routine, splitting your time between running the farm and pursuing other goals. Farming is repetitive but relaxing, and working to expand your personal assets is an addicting process. Crop growing is a slightly more complex process than in previous games, as you must keep an eye both on how much water your plants get, but also on the amount of sunshine they receive. Overdose on one or skimp on the other and your crops will earn you less cash than if you balanced them perfectly. It's not a huge change, but it does add a little more thought to the process of growing your fruits and vegetables. Keeping with the sunshine theme, Island of Happiness expands on the number of different weather types you'll see over the year, again making farming slightly more complex as you must account for bright sun, cloudy days and drizzling rain.
Raising animals tends to stray away from relaxing and towards tedious, but the increased monetary gain is enough to keep you interested. Additionally you can procure funds by fishing, cooking, scavenging the wilderness or mining, all of which are viable methods of supplementing your income.
Interacting with the other characters is also rewarding, as the other inhabitants of the island are an interesting and well designed bunch, although they do suffer from a lack of dialogue options which can make talking to them on a regular basis monotonous. However, the cast is large enough to keep things from getting too repetitive, and working to befriend them is a worthwhile experience. The pursuit of romance offers up additional social options, but aside from a few special events the dialogue is equally repetitive.
The game's final main goal is expansion. In addition to opening up the island to newcomers, you are given a wealth of ways to expand your homestead. Adding onto your house, constructing additional buildings like a chicken coop and a greenhouse, the game gives you many ways to spend your hard earned money. Once again, it's a satisfying experience to see such progress being made. Expanding the island itself is a more tangible goal, but at times it can be a frustrating and confusing one. Aside from building roads and bridges, it's often not obvious what you must do to attract new people. Sometimes you are simply forced to be patient and wait for events to trigger, which makes the whole experience more passive than it should be.
On the technical side of things, Island of Happiness takes advantage of the DS' hardware to present a very graphically appealing game. Everything has a bright and friendly vibe, and the character models are all quite impressive. The game does an excellent job of creating a vibrant and cheery island that is pleasing to explore and farm on. Meanwhile, the audio is a mix of happy and upbeat tracks that, while enjoyable when playing are ultimately forgettable and a little weak by Harvest Moon standards. The sound effects are functional but again, unmemorable. Additionally, Island of Happiness seems to have avoided the host of bugs and translation errors that have plagued previous Harvest Moon titles, and it's good to see an increased commitment to stamping out such problems.
There is an online component as well, albeit a very minor one. You can see how you compare to other farmers by ranking up against them in various contests, and you can also take advantage of the DS' voice capabilities to talk with friends. Unfortunately, that's the full extent of your interaction with friends. Not being able to trade crops and other items feels like a lost opportunity, especially since this was featured in Rune Factory, the Harvest Moon spinoff that's also based on the DS.
Island of Happiness is not without its flaws, although neither breaks the game. First off, it's too easy. While it's quite true that nobody plays Harvest Moon for the hardcore challenging gameplay, you'll be raking in money at an absurdly fast pace with only a modicum of effort, which eliminates a lot of the financial management decisions that you are forced to make in other Harvest Moon series. Secondly, while the game offers up a fresh new setting, it never seems to fully take advantage of it. As mentioned, helping the island to grow is fun, but beyond that there's not much that helps it stand out from the land locked settings of its predecessors. Taking the island theme and running with it would have helped Island of Happiness stand out amongst the other games in the series, but a lack of island themed festivals, crops, etc. brings the setting down. Most importantly, the game lacks a sense of exploration that seems natural for a deserted island; rather than going out into the wild to discover new areas, you arbitrarily unlock them. As a result, Island of Happiness maintains the illusion of offering innovations to the series, but is never able to fully realise them.
Despite that, it's hard not to recommend the game to those new to the series and veterans alike. New players will find one of the most accessible Harvest Moon games to date, while those who have raised many farms in the past will find a solid, if slightly generic instillation to the series. While not without its flaws, it offers up an addicting and rewarding gaming experience with a charming setting that draws you in.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 09/05/08
Game Release: Harvest Moon DS: Island of Happiness (US, 08/26/08)
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