Developer: Black Lantern
Release Date: Nov 20, 2007
Most people who hear about a game called John Deere: Harvest in the Heartland would know immediately whether or not they were interested in playing it. Anybody who doesn't find farming or life simulations interesting is (quite rightly, in this case) going to dismiss John Deere: Harvest in the Heartland completely. It is not a game for those who don't find planting seeds and milking cows an appealing prospect. Having gotten that rather obvious disclaimer out of the way, the most important thing to consider next is whether John Deere: Harvest in the Heartland is worth playing by those people who like the idea of watering crops, entering vegetables into harvest fairs and mucking out pig stalls. Unfortunately, the answer is, "Probably not."
The obvious comparison to make here is to the most well-known and -loved farming simulation around, the Harvest Moon series. While Harvest in the Heartland can mostly stand equal with Harvest Moon in a technical sense, it loses out in a big way when it comes to the hallmark quirky personality and extensive "lifestyle" options in Natsume's long-lived franchise. This doesn't mean that Harvest in the Heartland has no personality at all — just that it's been done better in other games.
Harvest in the Heartland is, for the most part, a technically sound game. The graphics are more or less what you would expect from a farming simulation, with each type of crop, building and animal clearly depicted and distinguishable from the others. The graphical style is minimal and leans more toward the "realistic" side than Harvest Moon, which could be a positive or negative point, depending on whether the player prefers cute sprites or more lifelike representations.
The animation is a mixed bag, ranging from quite decent (the animals peck, moo and snort endearingly enough) to nonexistent (after five or so swings of the player's sturdy axe, an entire tree will simply disappear into thin air). Lazy animation such as this is infuriating enough, but forgivable. What are not, however, are the massive frame rate drops that occur when the player's farm grows beyond even a modest size. With the addition of rain and snow animations on top of the ubiquitous irrigation systems, the game almost completely gives up trying to handle things decently and simply pops irrigation systems and whole buildings in and out of view, sometimes when the player is right on top of them. While this doesn't really affect the player's ability to play the game properly, this kind of sloppiness really hurts an already generally uninspiring title such as Harvest in the Heartland.
The music is purely forgettable, formulaic nonsense that at least isn't offensive to the ear, but it is unlikely to have the player humming in time and most people will likely just turn it off before long. The sound effects consist mostly of standard barnyard animal noises and generic "crunch" harvesting effects that will be missed about as much as the music once the player mutes the game in favor of a portable music player. In most simulations, however, success is rarely measured in terms of visual or sonic achievement and so we must ultimately turn toward the main point by which a game will be measured, which is how it plays.
Unfortunately, Harvest in the Heartland comes up short in the gameplay stakes as well. The basic mechanics of planting, watering and harvesting crops (by far the most common and repeated tasks in the game) are implemented well enough. The stylus controls (usually involving a dragging left-to-right action such as when hoeing a field) work reasonably well, although the repetitive nature of every task means that the player will eventually change to the A button fairly quickly to save his sanity (and fingers). Only gluttons for punishment will choose to "swing" a hoe, watering can or axe 50 or more times a day rather than simply tapping a button to do it with a minimum of fuss. This is less a glaring fault than an inevitable part of gameplay progression, though, so it can't really be held too strongly against the developers of the game.
What can be held against the developers of Harvest in the Heartland is the way in which the "work" quickly becomes boring, cheerless and even redundant. In essence, the goal of a farming simulation is to start from humble beginnings with a tiny plot of land and eventually grow the farm into a thriving powerhouse of vegetable and animal production. Of course, endlessly milking cows and hoeing fields is always going to get a bit tedious, and this is where Harvest Moon really destroys Harvest in the Heartland. In Harvest Moon, the bare-bones digging and hoeing is broken up by "lifestyle" elements such as owning pets, going into town and meeting women and eventually even having children. For some reason, Harvest in the Heartland almost completely abandons any aspect of "life" apart from planting and harvesting crops and maintaining livestock. The only real reward that can be won is that of your own satisfaction in making money by selling produce. There are admittedly four rudimentary mini-games to be found in the town, but they are without exception uninspiring and yield nothing more than a waste of time.
While this may have been acceptable if there were anything interesting on which to spend your hard earned money, the sad truth is that besides more land (which is insanely cheap and can be maxed out in a few game hours) and building "upgrades," there is almost nothing to put funds toward except John Deere tractors and John Deere tractor accessories. Being the very namesake of the game, one would expect the John Deere farming equipment to have a large effect on gameplay. This is definitely the case in Harvest in the Heartland, but unfortunately, the tractors actually damage the game further.
Upon first buying a John Deere tractor, the player will be astonished at how much easier the game becomes. It is a real relief to not have to manually hoe, plant or harvest crops by hand anymore. Doing all of these things is reduced to simply driving around with the d-pad, and the work is automatically done beneath the tractor as it moves. Of course, this leads to 90 percent of the game becoming horribly redundant. The tractors are not even expensive enough to stop an average player from owning one within a couple of game hours. With one fell swoop, most of the work that occupied the player is made ridiculously easy. Add this to the fact that none of said work was even interesting or rewarding to begin with, and it becomes increasingly difficult to give Harvest in the Heartland a positive review.
Even without taking the tractors into account, every other aspect of farming can be streamlined by the player in a similar way by paying somebody in town to do the work instead. If some cows get sick, the player can "heal" them by buying syringes in town and injecting them into the animals. This seems like a fairly interesting and diverting feature until the player realizes that for a tiny cost, the town veterinarian will automatically prevent sickness in all animals on the farm for an entire season, making the whole thing a joke. The same concept is in effect for cleaning up after the animals, building maintenance and keeping rocks out of the fields, which makes large portions of day-to-day work unnecessary. Even with a large farm, it is not uncommon to be finished with all of the available tasks and upkeep well before mid-afternoon, which is laughable considering how much work must be involved in running a farm in reality. Because of this, it's quite easy to lose patience with Harvest in the Heartland, unless one enjoys mindlessly repeating boring tasks and making a lot of money with hardly anything to spend it on. There is some slight motivation in entering crops and livestock into the Harvest Fair that occurs once a season, although the rewards for doing so are little more than a static "trophy cabinet" screen and bragging rights.
For the most part, John Deere: Harvest in the Heartland is not a bad game. It is, unfortunately, a boring game with little incentive to play for longer than it takes to afford the tractor and ride it around for a while (maybe five hours, which is very little for a simulation). It will ultimately only appeal to those who found Harvest Moon too "cutesy" and were annoyed by having to find a wife, or indeed, "living" at all. Harvest in the Heartland is extremely difficult to recommend to anyone except those who absolutely must play every farming simulation that exists. All others should probably pass on this one.