Cow poo. Digging in the pouring rain. Chicken poo. Who in their right minds thought that farming could make for a relaxing pastime? Yasuhiro Wada certainly did when he created the genre defining Harvest Moon for the Super Nintendo back in 1996; suddenly, growing veg and animal husbandry didn’t seem quite so depressing after all. Over a decade on, and Harvest Moon has spawned numerous sequels for each successive console generation, from It’s A Wonderful Life for the Gamecube and PS2 to Tree Of Tranquility on the Wii.
Harvest Moon‘s producer, Yoshifumi Hashimoto, is also the creator of Rune Factory for the Nintendo DS. Released way back in 2006 in Japan, the series spin-off has been popular enough to spawn a handheld sequel, and a Wii version is due out later this year. Subtitled A Fantasy Harvest Moon, Rune Factory bravely attempts to take the agricultural management somewhere new – while farming is still central to the gameplay, there are now RPG elements too, with hit points, combat, spells and caves to explore. On paper, this collision of genres sounds like oil and water – the relaxed, pastoral atmosphere is what makes the Harvest Moon series so unique, so surely a Harvest Moon RPG would work about as well as an Animal Crossing survival horror?
Unconvinced, I turned to my fully qualified Harvest Moon expert (otherwise known as Sarah, my better half) for assistance. She’s spent more hours ploughing virtual fields and collecting digital hen’s eggs than anyone else I know, so she seemed like the natural choice.
“It’s brilliant!” she enthused. “As well as planting seeds and tilling soil, you get to go exploring and fighting, which breaks things up a bit. Caves are full of monsters, which you can either fight or tame to work on your farm.”
Once the caves are cleared of monsters, they can be used as a greenhouse where you can grow new types of crop – each cave has its own environment (Spring or Autumn, for example), allowing you to grow different types of vegetables all year round.
Monsters can be enticed onto your farm by taming them with a Pet Glove; patting a monster with a glove instead of a sword should win them over, though more aggressive creatures are far more difficult to subdue. Once on your ranch, monsters behave much like traditional Harvest Moon animals; they have to be be fed and housed in a barn, and in return they’ll work on the land, yield produce which can be sold, or even fight alongside you on your various quests.
Despite the presence of the usual trappings of a traditional JRPG – a protagonist with amnesia, spell points (or Rune points in this case), levelling and boss battles – none of it detracts from the more typical Harvest Moon duties. You can still go wife hunting, fishing, do a spot of cooking, spruce up your house and water the plants. The questing side of Rune Factory simply adds more depth, and gives you more things to do should you get bored with the quiet life on the farm.
Rune Factory‘s tinkerings with the Harvest Moon format extend to its visuals – characters are polygon- rather than sprite-based, and while they lose the distinctive style of their famous forebears, they’re well animated, with some well-designed monsters, from decidedly un-monsterous (sheep, foxes, ants) to big, demonic bosses. Rune‘s backgrounds, meanwhile, remain hand drawn, and they’re superbly colourful, detailed and varied.
Numerous tweaks have also been made to the tried-and-trusted Harvest Moon control system; a larger rucksack means more items can be carried at once, a handy target square shows you where you’re aiming and you can now run faster by holding down the right shoulder button.
Shortcomings are few and far between in Rune Harvest – in fact, Sarah could only think of one: the exorbitant cost of wine in the local pub.
Anyone who isn’t already a fan of Harvest Moon will probably be immune to Rune Factory‘s charms. Seasoned farmers, on the other hand, will relish the new challenges found here – it’s incredible that it’s taken nearly three years for the game to get a European release. Let’s just hope the sequel doesn’t take so long to appear.
Now, if only Sarah would stop playing it so I could have another go…