Review by DDJ
"The Precursor to a New Generation of Harvest Moon"
Harvest Moon is an interesting series. In many ways, it more closely corresponds to the real world than any other game. While others might be based on real events that someone somewhere may experience, Harvest Moon is completely based on aspects of everyone's life. Sure, not everyone is a farmer, but everyone needs to make money, everyone wants friends, and everyone wants to fall in love.
This has always been one of the biggest draws of the Harvest Moon franchise, but it's also one of its largest challenges. Everyone experiences the gameplay aspects in real life, so it's very clear what's missing in the game. In the real world, your friends don't repeat the same thing to you every time you speak to them all day long; they notice and talk about the developments in your life, in their lives, and in the village as a whole; and your spouse (or eventual spouse) will hopefully actually leave the house at some point.
So while past Harvest Moon games have certainly been entertaining, engaging and addicting, they have also reliably left something to be desired. Their weaknesses were glaring, if only because players can encounter things in every day life and say "wow, it'd be really cool if that was in the game". With Harvest Moon, our knowledge of the real world has always merged with our experience with the game to form the ultimate Harvest Moon game in our own minds.
Harvest Moon: Tree of Tranquility is not that game, but it is certainly very, very close - probably as close as anyone could reasonably expect it to be as a standard console game. In this iteration, the game ceases to be a manageable, closed, limited little village and becomes its own vibrant, complete society. The mechanics in the game, very clear in past iterations, are much more subtle, contributing to the feeling that this isn't simply a game, but really is an accurate simulation.
It is not perfect, and there is still room for improvement, but on the whole Tree of Tranquility is a giant leap forward for the series, in nearly every respect.
Graphics and audio have never been absolute cornerstones of the Harvest Moon series, but they certainly do serve as a nice enhancement. And given the graphical nature of the recent entries in the Harvest Moon series, it was reasonable to expect a jump forward in Tree of Tranquility. After all, it's a whole new console with increased hardware capabilities.
Unfortunately, those expectations were completely unrealized. Tree of Tranquility does not even come near touching the graphical capabilities of the Nintendo Wii - visually, it could probably have been run on the GameCube. The graphics are a disappointment.
However, when you look past what the game was capable of doing graphically, and instead analyze the graphics and visualizations with respect to the "farming" motif, the game's physical needs and the overall atmosphere, the graphics are adequate. Not good, but not bad. They're not so bad that they're distracting, but they don't wow you. And they certainly could have been better.
Tree of Tranquility dodges one of the greatest criticisms of its console predecessor by opting for a more realistic, adult-looking character model. Characters are substantially more proportional and move more realistically, though they retain the Anime-looking facial style (not that that's necessarily a negative thing). Note the characters still aren't proportional, with hands large enough to palm a watermelon, but at least the character models are no longer distracting.
The most crucial aspect of the characters with respect to Harvest Moon's appeal, though, is that they must be relateable. The characters must feel to the player as real, complicated individuals, and the characters' graphical depiction must not get in the way of the creation of that impression. To that end, the character models are a success.
The current generation of graphics processors could support even more realistic, fully-animated character models - with hair that actually moves, for example - but the character models used here are somewhat appealing, adequate for the game's purposes, and charming in a cartoony sort of way. What is lacking in graphical advancement is compensated by the design of the characters themselves.
Character Design: 7/10
It's not my intention to continuously compare Tree of Tranquility to past Harvest Moon games, but in this instance I must: the environment of Tree of Tranquility still does not compare with that of A Wonderful Life. A Wonderful Life was far and away the most beautiful game in the Harvest Moon series, and despite its superior hardware capabilities, Tree of Tranquility does not even come close.
The only visible advancements in environment design are those that are to be expected with a step to a new console: smoother curves and less obvious polygons. Beyond that, however, the graphics are notably similar to those of the series' previous console incarnation. The overall graphical style is still rather cartoony where new levels of realism were possible. Natural items, like trees, don't look realistic, though they do mesh well with the more urban environmental styles.
That said, it has never been the objective of Harvest Moon environments to be the epitome of realism: instead, like the character models, the environment is intended to be a bit charming and to facilitate the rest of the game. So while some more advancements would've been reasonable to expect, their absence is not terribly threatening. Like the Character Design, the Environment Design is adequate for the game's purposes.
Environment Design: 6/10
Visual Expression is a term to refer to how the graphics are utilized. The greatest graphics in the world are useless if the camera never displays them. In Tree of Tranquility, the visual expression is somewhat lacking. The most clear example of this lies with the camera: in the fully-rendered and designed three-dimensional world of Tree of Tranquility, the camera is still largely fixed. This has been a Harvest Moon mainstay, and in itself isn't negative: however, in Tree of Tranquility, the camera is positioned at a level that would more suggest a freely movable camera. Instead, the absolutely positioned camera limits visibility, especially to the south.
Beyond this camera issue, the visual expression is adequate. The camera typically gives the player a good view of relevant areas, and does a good job of adjusting in particular situations - for example, when close to a wall in the mines, the camera adjusts upwards and points nearly straight down, and when working on one's field, the camera assumes a stationary position for easier field usage. These changes can feel a bit non-intuitive at times, but considering the existing camera infrastructure, are a positive feature to offset the otherwise odd camera angle.
An interesting camera feature that has been introduced is an automatic zoom feature that occurs whenever the player engages in a conversation with an NPC. While this feature is presently a bit "clunky" (the game pauses a couple seconds before executing the zoom), it actually does a good job of enhancing the conversation by allowing the player a closer view of the character's facial expressions.
One note that must be made is that the game does not support a separate widescreen view style: some players have made a huge deal out of this, but overall it is not an issue. The game becomes stretched when viewed in widescreen, but the change is only noticeable when compared directly with the alternative. Overall, the game looks perfectly fine when viewed in either 16:9 aspect ratio or in 4:3.
Visual Expression: 7/10
In the modern era of video games, load times are dictated almost exclusively by graphical data. A lot of fuss has been made over the load times in Tree of Tranquility, but within the broader scheme of modern gaming, they are about average. The outdoor playing area is divided among several enormous districts, each of which take around 10 seconds to load; and this load time is executed every time a player enters the area, regardless of whether it's from another district or from a building within the area. This makes navigating the play field a bit aggravating if you don't already know how to get where you're going, but otherwise is unobtrusive.
These load times likely could have been managed better; loading data for individual building interiors upon entering a district would make the initial district load time even more significant, but would make navigating within the district more efficient, and would lower the time taken when entering and exiting buildings. Additionally, the game does not employ any kind of progressive loading of environment data like many modern games, a concept that would be easily workable, and was even utilized to a certain extent in the game's previous console iteration.
Graphical Mechanics: 7/10
'Media' also includes the audio portion of the game, though the importance of this respect pales in comparison to the graphical needs. In the Harvest Moon series, the unstated goal of the audio has always been 'don't be annoying'. This might partially be because the audio quite often is annoying, but is also because audio simply does not play a very important role in the Harvest Moon series. It can enhance the environments, but it certainly doesn't command any aspect of the game.
Tree of Tranquility nearly accomplishes this 'don't be annoying' objective. For the most part, sounds are reasonably fitting, though not vibrant or realistic. Tools make noises that tools are expected to make, the environment has some faint nature audio that help establish your area, and the sounds of your character's footsteps are especially nice.
Unfortunately, the mild appeal of the sound effects is countered by the voice acting. Voices are extremely rare in any Harvest Moon game, and Tree of Tranqulity is no exception - but you'll wish they were even rarer. GameFAQs user Hoshiji perhaps said it best: "It sounds [like] someone on the staff brought in their teenage son/daughter and they recorded everything through a tin can!" The use of voices is actually very rare (typically only heard when your character becomes tired, you examine a wild animal, or you give an especially nice present), but they are cringe-worthy when they appear.
The music of the game is not quite as charming as it has been in past Harvest Moon games, but it's not distracting, irritating, or overly repetitive, so it serves its purpose adequately. The way the music is used throughout the game does a fair job of helping solidify the player's impression of their current location as well, as every environment - shop, outdoors, mountains, mines, etc. - has its own 'theme' song.
And the game's audio rating gets a full point increase by finally including the option for the user to adjust the music and sound effects relative to one another: so if the music irritates you or the sound effects make your ears bleed, you can turn one down without losing the other.
Overall, the graphics are adequate where they could be great. Not only did the developers not go the extra mile to advance the graphical nature of Harvest Moon to a great level, but they did not even advance them to the lower capabilities of the new console generation. What's more, the visual expression took a step back in a couple areas where significant advancements were possible. And the audio is nothing to note.
That said, graphics are not a cornerstone of the Harvest Moon franchise. Instead, the graphics are intended to allow you to actually relate to the characters, and to provide a certain level of charm. The graphics here accomplish both these objectives. In that way, the graphics stay out of the way of the broader game, and are therefore downright adequate.
So the game looks decent. What good is that if you can't do anything with it, can't figure out how to play it, or lose interest in it after 10 minutes?
Tree of Tranquility misses the mark on simplicity, but is deep enough to keep a player's interest. Additionally, it retains a reasonably intuitive control scheme while accounting for numerous actions, and maps those actions very well to the screen feedback.
Tree of Tranquility resists a major temptation when it comes to designing its control structure: they do not make motion controls necessary. Let's just take a moment to absorb that. One of my greatest complaints with some Wii games is that they make the player rely too heavily on delicate motion controls. Tree of Tranquility makes motion controls available - and they work somewhat well - but they are not necessary for playing the game. That, to me, is huge.
The button mapping on the controls is reasonably intuitive. Tree of Tranquility is a somewhat complicated game where numerous menus and operations need to be consistently available, and making that work with the Wii's limited supply of buttons is a delicate task. However, the game accomplishes this well, keeping the most common operations accessible by the simplest button presses. At times, too many operations are consolidated into too few buttons, but overall this approach is better than the alternative.
Control mapping refers to the actual manifestation of the controls on the screen - not just what buttons correspond to what actions, but how the different actions work. For example, when using a tool, how obvious is it where the tool will be used?
Overall, the control mapping in the game is a step ahead of past iterations of the Harvest Moon series. One button is now dedicated to allowing the user to "align" themselves with a specific square of soil, so no more are players plagued by mis-tilled spaces and doubly-watered crops. This is especially good given that the joystick is relatively sensitive - while this would be an issue if delicate motions were needed, there is no occasion in the game where a delicate tap of the joystick is needed to properly align the character.
The most prominent issue of control mapping in the game (and this may feel like a jump from the previous point, but this category is broad) comes with regards to items stored in one of the several storage units: the "rucksack" (a backpack the character carries with them at all times), the refrigerator, the shelves, the cabinet, etc. There are two major issues with these items: first of all, items can't be sorted within the storage unit; and second, items, once "stacked" cannot be unstacked. Don't worry if you're not familiar with "stacking", but if you are, you'll know how irritating this can be.
That issue is significant, but does represent the only time when the control mapping scheme of the game becomes incredibly visible. A couple other operations are a bit clunky - for example, putting a tool away in order to pick up an item - but are not largely annoying, and likely couldn't have been executed better.
Control Mapping: 8/10
For a game to have any real appeal, it must be accessible and easily learnable. The controls and concepts of the game must be relatively obvious, or they must be well-explained. When the player plays for a couple hours and still is unsure of their objective or the controls, something's wrong.
Unfortunately, Tree of Tranquility appears to operate on the assumption that the player has played a Harvest Moon game before. To fans of the series, most of the game is very obvious: however, to those new to the series, it's a bit difficult to tell at first how one should play. For example, the tutorial features nothing about actually planting crops, only on watering and harvesting them. And it isn't until you've played the game for a couple hours that the primary objective of the game even becomes apparent. It's entirely possible that a player could spend the entirety of their first couple game-days visiting only their own farm and the town, given that the game does not make it clear that there are other areas.
Beyond that, the player has to seek out information themselves on a variety of tasks, like mining and fishing. This isn't inherently a bad thing, but the places where this information is found are rather non-obvious: for example, the Blacksmith holds the tutorial on mining. The combination of non-obvious tasks with non-obvious locations for task tutorials make it entirely possible for a player to get significantly far into the game without ever realizing that they have certain options available to them.
Tree of Tranquility is a dream to a fan of the Harvest Moon series, and part of its appeal to recurrent fans is how the new features build upon the old. However, the developers have not put forth adequate effort into incorporating new fans into the series' fanbase, so Tree of Tranquility is a bit inaccessible to those new to the series.
Games need to exist on a delicate balance: as stated above, they need to be simple enough to be learned without being aggravating. But they also need to be complex and deep enough to retain their player's attention. These aren't simple Shockwave games that you pull up for free in your browser when you're bored: these are big purchases, and they need to be worth the $50 spent on them. And while most games can rely on online play to provide the necessary deepness, Harvest Moon does not have that luxury.
Despite that natural handicap, Tree of Tranquility excels in providing complex and deep gameplay. It's the first Harvest Moon that really features different styles of play, rather than a certain set of requirements and a periphery of optional activities. In Tree of Tranquility, it's actually possible to play an entire game and never grow a single crop, and instead make your living solely as a miner, fisher or rancher. It's more difficult, sure, but it's possible.
Overall, the depth of the different tasks (and the sheer number of different activities) available to the player means that not only will no two play-throughs be identical, but no two will even be similar.
Overall, the only true challenge to Tree of Tranquility is its accessibility to newcomers. Its control schemes are intuitive enough for anyone to learn and adopt quickly, and the game is complex and deep enough to keep your attention for a long, long time. The only issue is in getting into the game in the first place if you're a newcomer to the series.
Newcomers may have a harder time, but that's not to say they'll never enjoy it - they certainly will, it just may take some time. And while this challenge could have been avoided without substantially altering the gameplay (simply through more accessible tutorials and more early guidance), it should not distract from the accomplishments of the game otherwise.
Progressing through the game, there a various discrete mechanisms that you run across that function largely separate from other aspects of the game. For example, except for in very round-about ways, your farming style will not typically impact your social activity.
How well these aspects function within themselves, and how well they function within the realm of the game as a whole, are crucial to forming a good, balanced, cohesive game. And in Tree of Tranquility, Harvest Moon strikes gold.
Mechanics are the balance of different parts of the game within themselves. This is where it is the goal of the developer to ensure that no part of the game is too easy, and no part is too hard.
In Tree of Tranquility, this balance is almost reached. The game finds a good compromise between making tasks easy enough to speed through if the player wants, and difficult enough to mesh into the larger game environment.
Some activities do ere on the easy side - for example, a truly dedicated player can meet all the requirements for marriage in only a couple seasons. And some activities do fall on the surprisingly difficult side - for example, the main plot quest requires finding some items that can take a couple game-weeks to find. But overall, each task is well-balanced within itself - none so easy that they're simply discarded, and none so complicated that they become aggravating.
'Tasks' refers to both the variety and the balance among the various activities available in the game, and Tree of Tranquility's achievements in this category are half the reason it challenges the classic Harvest Moon games for series supremacy.
In terms of variety, the sheer number of activities offered by Tree of Tranquility are staggering. The old standby tasks are here: grow crops, raise animals, get married, and complete some big game-long quest. But what's notable is that while those tasks have become deeper and more involved (as they always do from iteration to iteration), other tasks - like mining, fishing, and raising a family - have really come into their own as full complements to the gameplay.
And what's even more notable is that despite the variety of these available options, they are reasonably balanced. To achieve a complete game, the player still needs to engage in social interaction, farming, ranching and miscellaneous jobs to succeed. There is no single task that can override the need for all the others, but several of the tasks can be used for a player's main source of income. Tasks in Tree of Tranquility exist at an impeccable balance of availability, profitability, and necessity to other in-game developments. Late in the game, the player does become aware of certain options that blow everything else away, but until then the game is fairly balanced.
And as fans of the series have been waiting for, Tree of Tranquility gets back to putting some fun in the festivals, with several (albeit somewhat clunky) mini-games. The festivals aren't quite on the level of the older Harvest Moon games, but they're certainly an improvement over recent iterations.
But let's face it. What keeps people coming back to the Harvest Moon series isn't so much the potatoes and turnips. It probably isn't even the cows and sheep, or the mining, or the fishing, or the money-making. Arguably Harvest Moon's primary allure is the social structure in the game: making friends, finding your mate, getting married. Tree of Tranquility's achievements in this category are the other half of the reason it challenges for Harvest Moon supremacy.
The advancements in this realm of the game are astounding. Villagers actually notice and react to changes in your character's life, the island, or even the lives of your family. They comment on your engagement, they congratulate you on your marriage, and they notice as your child grows. They are very much living parts of the island. Their depth really contributes to the impression that you're actually accomplishing something on the island, as villagers will actually take notice.
The villagers also go through some changes of their own. Depressed characters become happier as you progress through the game plot, and other characters will open up to you and actually display some level of emotional depth. And the existence of several villagers who actually arrive during the game contributes to the impression that this island exists in a greater world, not just in its own little reality.
The sheer abundance of villagers on the island also contributes to this impression: the island starts with over 30 characters and can end with over 50, making it truly impossible to really keep tabs on every villager. This creates the image that there are things going on in the village that you don't fully know about, enhancing the idea that the game is really a simulation of a reality, not just a game with certain developer-specified mechanics.
I could go on for the entire length of a review about how fantastic the social structure in Tree of Tranquility has become, but suffice it to say that it is the number one feature - at least in my mind - of the game, and is one of the main reasons the game has achieved such a high level of esteem among Harvest Moon fans.
Social Structure: 11/10
Ah, the plot. Always a necessary evil in Harvest Moon games. Face it, no one plays Harvest Moon games because they adore the plotline, but at the same time, can you imagine playing the game if it felt completely open-ended? It might work for The Sims, but Harvest Moon inherently needs a tiny bit more direction.
Plots throughout the Harvest Moon series have gone through a series of iterations, from the plot simply being an excuse to require you to build a farm, to it being an overall rewards system for doing things you probably would've done anyway. Traditionally, however, the plotline has always been placed somewhere in the background or periphery of the game.
But the plot in Tree of Tranquility takes a gigantic leap forward and moves into the main portion of the game. Here, the plotline actually matters. It determines when villagers arrive; it determines what areas you can access; and it actually affects the attitudes and emotions of the villagers on the island. Actual characters are involved in it, and they will react with your efforts. The plotline is no longer just a private effort between you and your father, late grandfather or goddess, as it has been in the past.
The plot is relatively simple to understand - collect items, basically - but the actual progression through it can be very difficult. Some Harvest Moon players may not like this new plot structure, as it does place an increased focus on a part of the game that up until now has been mostly a back-story. But overall, the expanded plot segment was an absolutely necessary feature for this Harvest Moon, as it completes the game and really brings a driving force behind your character's work.
The gameplay in Tree of Tranquility is where the series takes its most dramatic steps forward. Every aspect of the older parts of the game has been enhanced, from the chores to the plotline to the social interaction. The social system especially took a giant step forward to where we'd always hoped it would reach. Early in this review, I referred to one of the problems with Harvest Moon games being that people can clearly see what's missing, as those aspects are present in every day life. In Tree of Tranquility, we see a much closer connection to how social interaction works in the real world, and the game benefits enormously from this.
Carried by its re-energized social interaction system and enhanced by the improvements made to the plot and the activities available, Tree of Tranquility is - from a gameplay perspective - the gem of the Harvest Moon series. No aspect of the game has been left untouched: nothing is left to be desired.
Overall, as has been said several times throughout this review, Harvest Moon: Tree of Tranquility challenges the classic Harvest Moon games for series supremacy. Not since the days of Harvest Moon 64, Harvest Moon: Back to Nature and Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town has a game presented itself with such solid fundamentals in Harvest Moon tradition, such fitting advancements of classic Harvest Moon concepts, and such entertaining and balanced all-new features.
From a graphical standpoint, Tree of Tranquility may not be anything to write home about, but the graphics accomplish their objective: they allow the player to relate to the characters, they provide a level of charm, and they don't distract from the rest of the game. Sure, it might be reasonable to expect the graphics to have improved much more than they did - or to at least have reached the levels previously touched in the series - but the graphics do accomplish their overall purpose.
And while the game might not be as accessible to newcomers as would be desired, this is offset by a easily learned, intuitive control scheme and an incredibly wide variety of options once the player becomes immersed in the game. That immersion could have been taken care of better, but for those familiar with the Harvest Moon series, the game offers pure gold.
And finally, the gameplay is absolutely superb. The different activities are deeper, more engaging and more thorough; tasks that used to be relegated to the periphery are as thorough as mainstay activities used to be; and all these different options somehow come together in a perfect balance, both within themselves and within the larger context of the game. And most importantly, the social system - arguably the most popular part of the Harvest Moon series - has taken a giant leap forward from a simple mechanical game to a realistic simulation.
Overall, Harvest Moon: Tree of Tranquility is almost the game Harvest Moon fans have been waiting for. The complexity, the replay value and the social structure are phenomenal, and will more than satisfy fans of the series. The advancements made here, tempered only by the lack of progress in some areas of the game, will vault Harvest Moon into its next era. One day, we will come back and look at Tree of Tranquility as the precursor to a generation of Harvest Moon games, just the way we currently look at Harvest Moon 64.
And as is the custom with Harvest Moon games, each of these advancements will be accompanied by inspiration for all the new features that could now be included. Why not let the player open up their own shop, and hire villagers of their own? Why not include multiple islands to choose from? Why not randomize the town layout, so that every game is different? And while these ideas - and the many others you all will surely come up with - are certainly valid in and of themselves, it is important that we stop to recognize the step forward that Tree of Tranquility is. Then, it can mentally merge with our own ideas to again create the ultimate Harvest Moon game - even better than the one in our minds before.
Overall Rating: 7/10
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 10/07/08, Updated 01/19/10
Game Release: Harvest Moon: Tree of Tranquility (US, 09/30/08)
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