Harvest farm crossing.
The Harvest Moon series is the OG of life simulation games. Before Nintendo established Animal Crossing and before Zynga spawned FarmVille, Natsume’s niche franchise was the benchmark for virtual living. Centered around farming and small-town interaction, a not so mainstream video game premise, it has endured gimmicks, market trends and platform changes with its core formula still intact 16 years later.
It’s amazing to find even after so long, Harvest Moon is still so beloved, charming and fun. You build a farm from scratch, work hard, watch it grow, tend to animals, get married, and live another life. This has been the equation of the franchise since the beginning, and while it’s mostly played it safe, it's worked a treat so far.
A New Beginning is the first entry on 3DS and the first handheld version to have 3D graphics. As implied by its brave title, it aims to change and improve upon its firm grassroots, similar to Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Now that it’s (finally) come to Australia via the Nintendo eShop, is this new title truly reflective of ‘a new beginning’? In some ways, yes, but in others, it’s safer to position the title as a ‘expansive reboot’, of the good kind.
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Watch Natsume's official launch trailer.
A New Beginning begins traditionally enough: you’re a springy youth eager to restore your family’s abandoned farm in a quaint town called Echo Village. You inherited the farm after your father could not upkeep the property after marrying your city-born mother, and the monumental task of restoring life and productivity to the land is on your shoulders.
Before your story begins, there is a character creation mode for players to tailor their desired gender, hair style, skin tone, eye shapes, and clothing. While not anywhere near as robust as other avatar creation systems, it’s great to see there is no longer a locked default persona in a series that has never really had any character customisation before.
The basic premise and mechanics are all there: sowing, watering, and harvesting crops; taking care of animals and their produce; shipping out your hard work for money: interacting with villagers; partaking in festivals and community events; and following the strict in-game clock to get the most out of your day while ensuring ample rest and a full stomach for your hard-working farmer.
That would be a decent enough start for veterans itching for the latest game, but A New Beginning’s biggest (and only) weakness arises in these early hours.
You see, Echo Village is different to past iterations in that it has a notable lack of townspeople: with the exception of yourself, the only other inhabitants are Hana the friendly general store manager, Emma the shipping bin operator and Dunhill, your jack-of-all-trades neighbour who talks way too much. There’s no real ‘community’ to interact with, and a limited range of supplies (with Hana being underfunded) to begin expanding your farm.
So, where the hell is everyone? Turns out that Echo Village faced a severe lack of sustainability and many past villagers moved on to greener pastures. The town is a shell of its former self by the time you arrive, and as a result, there is little to do but begin tending to your first batch of slow-growing crops and foraging random items in the surrounding forests and rivers for some small money on the side.
These activities may take up in-game hours, but it only takes about two minutes in real-time to finish a day’s work, and many players will be left bored and confused. The first five hours interacting with Dunhill (who acts as your tutor) and co. are equally some of the most tedious moments I’ve ever experienced in any game in recent memory, but the long-winded tutorials and slow introduction of new characters are somewhat of a necessity for those who may be unfamiliar or shaky with the game’s core mechanics surrounding farming.
But perseverance truly pays off. Similar to Animal Crossing: New Leaf, the developers designed this game as a slow burner that gradually introduces more and more game mechanics and possibilities. You’ll soon realise this is the deepest, most involved Harvest Moon title yet.
Working hard on your farm, taking care of your animals, giving back to the community and interacting with your fellow villagers brings the spirit and economy back to the town. The first few seasons of A New Beginning are slow, but they gradually reveal that the ideal end goal transcends running a successful farm: it’s about bringing back life to Echo Village.
Soon, old and new townspeople move in and open up shop, and more avenues of play become available. The animal guy returns and gives you access to cows, chickens and sheep to take care of. An architect moves in with ambitious blueprints to construct various new buildings. A talented tailor arrives, giving you the ability to design new clothes. Festivals become more lively and participating in them only encourages more people to join in.
You’ll soon realise this is the deepest, most involved Harvest Moon title yet.
Eligible bachelors and bachelorettes also appear for those looking for love, and if you’re a Harvest Moon fan, you’ll most likely be satisfied with the range of different personalities available to wed. There’s plenty of variety and each girl and guy have unique parameters to meet in order to woo them; some may never appear should you not befriend certain family members or meet certain targets, and finding out what needs to be done is part of the fun.
In A New Beginning, giving gifts to villagers and your potential wife or husband is essential to maintaining good friendships and unlocking new things. If you’re nice enough to your fellow townsfolk and give them gifts they enjoy, they will reward you with blueprints, schematics for items as diverse as furniture for your home, upgraded tools for farming, a new brush for your cow, and more.
I was surprised to discover during my experimentation that the friendship system is actually extremely in-depth, governed by a points system (Friends Points) which rises or lowers depending on the gifts you offer, animals you show them or even the clothes you choose to wear. Each villager has a distinct personality and it’s up to you to figure out what they like and dislike during your interactions.
However, because these values are hidden and not visually represented in-game, it’s sometimes hard to know where you stand with a particular villager without the aid of a guide, and the repetition of dialogue during the slower periods of the in-game years makes interaction a little tedious at times.
Farming becomes a lot more fun and experimental as the game progresses. More types of vegetables and flowers are available to buy and grow and each harvest has a unique quality meter depending on how consistent you are in watering your plants and giving them special fertilizer.
Animals, too have unique personalities and happiness meters, and tending to their hygiene, hunger and giving them affection is crucial in making sure they produce quality milk, eggs and wool (never for their their meat). Your hard work can then be shipped off for cash, used as ingredients for food (you actually have to eat in this game to keep up your daily stamina) or can be used a gift.
The newest feature that essentially makes A New Beginning the best Harvest Moon yet is the fantastic Edit Mode, a flexible system which makes Echo Village your playground. This mode only opens up much later in the game, but once available, your farmer will be able to do everything from redesign the interior of your house to literally picking up the house from the outside, Hulk-style and re-positioning it somewhere else on the map. It’s clear that more involved customisation is a major focus in A New Beginning, and it’s only a positive step-forward for the series.
If there’s one thing continuously refreshing about Natsume’s long-running franchise, it’s that the fun derived from the gameplay is completely non-violent and comes from the rewards of good ol’ hard work on your (virtual) farm. Releasing around the same time as GTA V, it was a great game to play when otherwise dulled by the constant killing required in other games.
On the audio and visual side of things, A New Beginning does alright as far as reboots go. The replacement of the traditional sprite based graphics on handheld Harvest Moon titles to a polygonal world translated a bit roughly, but the visuals have a charm about them and every character and animal is colourful and imbued with personality thanks to the art-style. The same can't be said for the soundtrack, which, while cheery enough, lacks variety and loops so constantly that I often just turned off the sound.
The Final Verdict
I've never been the biggest Harvest Moon fan, but I've followed the series loyally for the last 10 years and enjoyed its gameplay immensely. While initially skeptical, I've been overjoyed to discover A New Beginning is more than just another sequel with the basics and a new face, but a brave step forward for the franchise, with its new extensive customisation features and refinement of everything that has made the series so enduring.
Harvest Moon: A New Beginning is a game that 3DS owners who enjoyed Animal Crossing or any family-friendly life simulator in general should check out. It's definitely one of the more under-appreciated but excellent niche titles currently available in the growing library of Nintendo's handheld.