Release Date: August 26, 2008
I never really understood the appeal of the Harvest Moon series — you plow a field, chop wood, and partake in other manual labor and monotonous activity for hours on end — but putting aside my utter lack of comprehension of how this premise could be fun, I dove into Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness headfirst and only came up with slight bruises.
The concept of the worryingly named Island of Happiness is that you are a passenger on a boat heading for a new life in search of your fortune, but on the way, your boat is inevitably involved in the obligatory storm, and you are shipwrecked on a deserted island. You are awoken by a family of survivors who were also on the boat and have decided that they are going to try and make the best of things and re-establish civilization. Despite nearly all of them stating that they have had previous experience working on ranches and the fact that your character looks about 12 years old, they decide that you are the best suited to run the prospective farm, which will be the crux of the island's fledgling economy.
There is something troublingly Orwellian about the story of a poor, young indentured farm worker being tied to the land for the purpose of a burgeoning commune, though maybe I am reading too much into things. The story seems to be there mainly to give some sense of order and purpose to the farm-managing aspect of the title. Even with the shaky premise, though, most of the game's events and calendar dates are driven by your interaction with the characters and the story. For example, if you decide not to celebrate someone's birthday or you sequester yourself on your farm and only come to the village to buy more seeds, this will affect your experience of the story, and it's refreshing to not have the game twist your arm into pursuing an asinine sub-plot instead of doing what you want to do. Having said that, there isn't much incentive to talk to the villagers because they're all so sickeningly optimistic about their poverty that it makes you wonder if there's something in the water.
There does seem to be a dark undercurrent to the story; some characters point out that there was a previous civilization on the island that disappeared for unknown reasons. Despite this being brought up at a number of opportunities, I have yet to discover what this was, though I keep expecting people to mention the Dharma Initiative.
The gameplay unfolds as quickly as you want it to, much like the story. Each new addition to the farm or island offers new opportunities for fishing, animal care or other money-making ventures, and while my patience was sorely tested in the earlier stages with the endless harvesting of potatoes, it soon became a lot more enjoyable. When I was playing, I couldn't shake the feeling that I had just found another job. The key to Harvest Moon has always been schedule and repetition, and even though the developers had obviously tried to alleviate the tedium of this by introducing adventure, collection aspects and a kind of Sims-esque life simulation, the responsibilities of weeding your farm and clipping your cow's toenails hang like a noose around Island of Happiness' neck. The idea that you can raise a family and have children definitely adds a dimension to the game that is interesting to explore, but again, this is mired by the ties to your farm, and the fact that your character looks as though he's in elementary school.
The main problem with the gameplay is less about the additional content and more about the very premise. The game thrusts responsibilities on you like an overzealous parent, which limits the fun that can be had with the additions. Some people like the idea of running the farm, and I can definitely see why. The mini-game integration is good, the style is very addictive (if a little slow to begin with), and the idea of taking care of animals and customizing your farm can be very rewarding. It's the insistence on the micromanagement of every little part of the farm that ultimately limits Island of Happiness. Playing this game is like being trapped in a glass cage with a game of checkers, but there's a dirt bike standing outside; you can't really enjoy the game of checkers when you know that there is a wider world of fun just out of your reach.
The mini-games are a good example of how this is done well, though, integrating sheep-shearing and cow-milking sub-sections, which blend well into part of your day. Unlike exploring the mine, 255 floors of similarly textured brown space, these feel like they belong to the game and fit in nicely. Even the addition of tourists gives Island of Happiness a much larger feel, almost as if it's part of my first Sim City.
The control system is dire, though. The DS' touch-screen has been shoehorned to the point where half of the buttons are completely useless, and getting from A to B is frequently interrupted by your character getting caught inside a rock or stopping when your stylus reaches the edge of the screen. The only thing that makes the tilling of individual squares of land more monotonous and irritating is a fiddly and obnoxious control system that won't let you do it. Since when did the d-pad become obsolete? Island of Happiness could have been made infinitely more playable had the movement been done in that way instead of the d-pad being used to control the inventory.
Since the screen also focuses on the action so closely, finding where you need to go around town or your farm can become a chore in itself, especially since lifting a finger reduces your stamina bar to zero, forcing you to sleep for 12 hours a day or forage for food like a starving animal. Getting lost can really try your patience, and the map on the top screen is useless since it doesn't follow your movements and it's zoomed out so far that key objects are often obscured. A simple flip map using the shoulder buttons, or perhaps just a better island map on the top screen could have prevented this, but as it stands, this adds to the frustration.
Graphically, Island of Happiness attempts Zelda-like cel-shading and kind of falls on its face. Some parts are rendered well, like the water effects and even most of the animals, but the key flaw in the gameplay also follows Island of Happiness to the graphics. You will see the same square of green for the grass, brown for the dirt and … well, that's it really — lots of green and brown, with little else but weeds to break up the visual monotony. So much more could have been done, but once again, the developer's focus on scale makes it difficult to find your way around the very similar-looking areas.
The sounds are rendered well; cows go "moo" and such, but the constant ringing of 1990s MIDI-style cute music makes you want to mute the game from the start, and you will be no worse off for it.
I wasn't able to connect to the online multiplayer, but from my understanding, it involves leaderboards of how well your farm compares to others, seemingly focusing less on the "play" part of multiplayer. It is difficult, though, to imagine a group of friends gathering to see who can milk a cow the best.
Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness has a lot of potential to be good, if you are willing to put in the time to have it pay off. Personally, I feel that working to the point where a game can be fun defeats the purpose of a game in the first place. Do not be misled by the cute graphics or sickly sweet characters; this title is for people who are willing to work for entertainment. I would group this with some of the more strenuous management sims, for the simple fact that it takes years of in-game time to unlock some of the features. Despite the addictive nature and mini-games, I couldn't get past the feeling that this was work. The feeling of accomplishment that you get from the game is diminished by the idea that your work is never done. If you turn a good profit on some crops, it's time to go and plant more. Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness will appeal to those fans of the series, but the control system is fiddly and unintuitive, and despite a well-linked story and gameplay, the presentation and underlying premise prevent it from becoming more than a management sim with a Fisher Price makeover.
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