Review by Jerrynsteph4eva
A fresh new outlook on Harvest Moon with a major flaw.
I've been a fan of Harvest Moon ever since the SNES days. I still remember the first time I played it. I stayed up late into the night playing it, exploring the town, getting to know the villagers, clearing the fields and taking care of my animals. The game was truly unlike any other game I had ever played. Trying to explain the game to my friends proved challenging. How do you tell your friends that a game based upon farming was one of the best you had ever played? But they too came around after playing the game.
Since that day, I've played every single game in the series, eager to explore the new town and try out the new additions. Naturally, after playing what I consider two of the best entries in the Harvest Moon series on the Nintendo 64 and Playstation, I eagerly anticipated the series arrival on the new sixth gen consoles. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the Playstation 2 entry didn't do the Harvest Moon series justice and seemed to take all the fun things I had come to love from the series and threw them out the window. So when Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life came around and it attempted to be both new and keep the old style gameplay, I had high hopes for it. Did it live up to them? Read on.
The first thing I noticed was that they tried to reinvent the game and give it more of a storyline. In fact, the first five to ten minutes are simply introducing you to the characters, town, farm and backstory of the game. It starts off pretty similar to the previous HM games: your father has died and his friend, who lives on the ranch, called you over to fulfill your father's dream of restoring the farm. However, as you'll soon find out, the game divides itself into chapters, rather than give you free reign to live out your life from there. They really try to play up the presence of a storyline, which is evident from the chapter system. Each chapter attempts to guide you towards a goal (usually implied), giving you a set amount of time (usually a year or two) to reach it. For example, the first chapter is mainly about getting your farm set up and finding a wife. Unfortunately, unlike expectations would lead you to believe, the game offers you very little story, usually in bits and pieces at the beginning and end of each chapter. In fact, most of the storyline is developed through talking to NPCs or finding elusive events. However, there are several cool features of the chapter system. Unlike other Harvest Moon games that feature a stale village with villagers that hardly ever change, the flow of time is evident in each chapter. Villagers will grow older with you and new people will come to the village (while others may leave). The village evolves the longer you play, which is a cool concept and certainly a fresh new look on the game. Which brings me to my next point...
Several changes have been made to the way time is handled in A Wonderful Life. Rather than have thirty days per season, the calender has been cut down to a mere ten days. Time also creeps along when you're inside buildings this time around too. However, don't let that trick you into thinking that the game will fly by: though there's less days to play, those days will feel like forever compared to previous days in the series. Time creeps by much more slowly in this game. Unlike other Harvest Moon games where you feel like the days go by in the blink of an eye, in this one you'll find yourself constantly waiting for time to go by (more on that later).
Graphically, this game shined back in 2004 and it still shines for a Gamecube game today. The graphics transitioned well into the third dimension while still keeping the trademark grown up kids style the HM series seems to love. The scenery transforms each season and the characters are very well done. The valley itself is immense and full of varying scenery that makes it fun to explore. They also added a new feature: first person mode. This gives a whole new perspective on the game as you can check your crops up close or stare at the clouds as they float across the sky.
Unfortunately, the sound took a massive hit and is one of the major flaws of the game. HM fans have come to expect songs that change every season, as well as various other themes, of which AWL has thrown out the window. Sure, the varying sound effects that play are well done (a cow sounds like a cow and watering crops sounds just like you're doing it in real life) but when it comes to music, the game falls flat on it's face. This time around, instead of having changing season songs, the game gives you a record machine. Fans of Friends of Mineral Town will get the best use out of this (more on that in a minute), but for those of you playing the vanilla game will find it frustrating. The game gives you two records to play: an upbeat spring/summer song and a somber fall/winter song that is hidden on your shelves. Don't get me wrong, the songs themselves are pretty catchy, there's just one major flaw: they're practically the only ones in the entire game. Keep in mind that they're catchy but also repetitious and get quite annoying after long periods of time (in which you'll be glad you have the ability to turn off the record player and have silence). Of course, the music only plays while you're on your farm. As soon as you're in town, you'll be treated to...silence. No town theme, just silence. Sure, there's a theme for the bar and the house near the top of the map, but that's pretty pitiful.
However, there is one shining hope for the music and almost makes up for the lack of it: the ability to gain more by connecting with the GBA. Sure, these records should be available should you not have a GBA but for the HM fans out there, it's a really cool feature. After connecting with the GBA, you'll get the ability to buy records of music from past Harvest Moon games. While it was pretty lazy of the developers to rely so heavily on past music, hearing songs from old HM games (namely the event theme from HM SNES) was quite awesome and certainly made farm work better knowing I could choose from a much larger selection of songs that were remade well.
In order to connect with the GBA, however, you must own this game and Friends of Mineral Town. While the records are the main benefit of connecting with FoMT, you also get more recipes and might hear a rumor about your farmer here and there. Unfortunately, to get the full benefits of connecting, you have to complete an annoyingly repetitious trip of purchasing things on FoMT, then reconnecting and buying it on AWL. But in the end it's worth it (even more so for FoMT fans who can get a brand new house).
But what of the GAMEPLAY you ask? Well, unfortunately, the gameplay is hit and miss. While the traditional elements of HM games is there, everything is changed to the point where it's foreign and unrecognizable. Does that make it bad? No, all it means is that seasoned vets will have to relearn a lot of things for this game.
The first major gameplay change I noticed was the farming itself. First of all, seeds were reduced from 9 squares to just 1. This has several ramifications: the first (and obvious) is that not only are you losing a lot of potential profit, but for the aspiring chefs out there, you'll have to grow several of the item to make your favorite dishes. The second means that you'll have to spend a lot more on seeds than you would have. The third, which you'll see is an common problem with this game, is that it frees up much a lot more time when you only have to water several plants rather than several plots. The second major change to farming was that everything had to be done twice a day. That means watering your plants twice, milking and feeding your cow twice, etc. This means your plants grow twice as quick and you get twice the profit. Normally this would be a good thing if it weren't for the fact that time moves so slowly in this game, meaning oftentimes you have to sit around and wait for your crops to dry up so you could do everything again. However, one of the coolest new features comes in the form of seeds: hybrids. After a certain event, you are able to combine two seeds into a brand new one and create hybrid plants. It's actually pretty cool to mess around with and see what you can't come up with.
Another thing that makes this game unbearably long is the sleep system. Instead of the HM norm (sleeping until 6 AM each day), you sleep only a few hours before waking up again. This means that if you're truly finished for the day, you'll have to wait around for 6 AM or chance it and sleep again. For example, you may finish up around 5 PM and go to bed. Chances are, you'll wake up around 11 PM and be forced to either go back to bed and skip another few hours or wait out the clock until you can actually do something again. It's actually a pretty good way to skip through time if you're tired of standing around and watching villagers roam past you, but you can miss a few events or miscalculate and sleep through a certain time you needed to be somewhere.
Another massive change was the animals. For the first time, you could get ducks, goats and (first time on console) a cat. These seem cool at first, but unfortunately none of them are the most useful. The biggest change comes from the cows. Not only can you get multiple breeds, but you can also buy bulls and breed cows with a major side-effect: cows don't give milk when they're pregnant and stop giving milk one year after they've given birth. This means you either have to keep buying new cows or you have to keep impregnating your cows. For the HM fan who relies on his animals to keep a steady profit, this is a major downfall as it almost forces you to purchase a bull and have quite a bit of downtime.
Festivals are pretty much nonexistent in the game and take the form of random events. Though your calender may tell you some of them, just like the heart/random events, it won't tell you anything about where to find them or when they are. Unless you're using a walkthrough, consider yourself lucky if you happen to find even a few playing through this game.
The game majorly emphasizes family this time around and most of the chapter system and story is based upon your family. The marriage candidates this time are pitifully easy to woo (with the exception of one) and the game literally forces you to choose one to marry or the game will end after the first year. In fact, should you choose to ignore all the candidates, the game will send one to YOU before the end of the chapter (of which you can choose to ignore as well and end the game). In fact, after every chapter's story, if you've been ignoring the primary goal, the game will offer you a chance to get a game over by choosing to either abandon your farm or your potential family.
However, unlike other HM games, your potential bride massively affects your family life. For example, choosing to marry the laid back farmer Celia will make your child look like the both of you and make your future child laid back and easygoing as well. However, choosing to marry the quiet introvert Nami will produce a red haired child who is likewise introverted and quiet. Not only will your potential wife affect how your child acts and grows up in later chapters, but your friends and actions while your child is young will affect it as well. This is actually a really cool concept and offers a ton of replay value to see how differing actions affect your home life.
One thing that may annoy some is the passage of time between chapters. After you've finished a set amount of time in-game and trigger the end of the chapter, the game will skip forward several years to a future date. For example, after the first chapter, the game will skip to the point where you and your bride already have a toddler. While this helps move along the storyline, some may feel that it's omitting key moments they would have liked to play through. And while there's certainly no shortage of time to play through this game (more a lack of things to do with that time), the game does end after a set amount of time. What this means is no more infinite playing time like HM64 and BTN, but rather you have to see everything you've worked for end, which may bum out a few people (like me) who don't want to lose everything they've built up.
The developers were obviously trying to break up the monotony of the day to day that the previous HM games suffered for by introducing hybrids, twice a day chores, shorter months and a chapter system with a storyline. Unfortunately, the new time system not only shot that idea down but made it even WORSE and harder to play through. Is AWL a great game? No. Is it a fun game worth playing? Yes. AWL is certainly more for the patient gamers who can take the monotony (though HM fans are notorious for that, this game is even more so). And while the features do offer up tremendous replay value, the boring segments of the game are too large to ignore. This game is certainly worth a rent to see if you like it, but don't go off purchasing it unless you've found a great deal. While it's not a great Harvest Moon, the changes and the chapter system make it an interesting game that's at least worth a try.
P.S. If you're looking for a more traditional HM game that offers the same characters and setting, check out HM DS, a 2D 'remake' of this game in the same vein as FoMT was to Back to Nature. While the chapter system and unique additions are removed, it's certainly more fun for the traditional HM lover.
Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Product Release: Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life (US, 03/16/04)
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