It's always amazing to see a franchise reach a milestone. It is a reminder of how old the industry is getting and how old you may be getting. As great as it is to hear about the larger franchises like The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy reach anniversaries of 20+ years, it is also uplifting to hear about some of gaming's smaller franchises reach similar milestones. Harvest Moon is a good example. Starting out on the Super NES, it has carved out a niche audience over the last 15 years, bringing its formula to just about every Japanese console in every generation. To help celebrate the occasion, Natsume and Marvelous AQL have brought Harvest Moon 3D: A New Beginning to the Nintendo 3DS, a game with a bold title — and the mechanics to match.
Like all Harvest Moon games, you start off as either a boy or a girl looking to start a new life in a new town as a farmer. The town of Echo Village is in dire straits due to a bad economic downturn. You've arrived at a time when families are leaving in hopes of better luck elsewhere. This leaves you as the only other town inhabitant other than a tour guide named Dunhill, a shopkeeper, and a person responsible for shipping packages. Undeterred, you take it upon yourself to run the family farm and hope that you turn things around to help Echo Village return to its former glory.
The crux of the game is the same. Every morning, you get up and tend to the crops, watering and fertilizing them as needed. Crops that are ready can then be stored as food or sold to help pay for more seeds, tools and other improvements that can be made to the farm. The same goes for any livestock you may have, as you must ensure they're well fed and producing the things they should, such as eggs, milk and wool. As the seasons progress, you can participate in contests for both items against other town inhabitants or partake in activities like bug catching, fishing and attending festivals. Eventually, you can get a pet that can help around the farm, and you'll get the chance to woo and potentially marry the man or woman of your dreams, depending on which gender you chose. You'll even get to start a family, fulfilling all of the requirements that fans expect from every iteration.
For the game's first season, you'll find that there isn't too much to do because of a number of factors. The prerequisite tutorial mode is present, but it almost assumes that you've never played a game before. You'll be taught how to farm and how to ship items, but you'll also be taught how to pick up things and move. All of this is done in the slowest, most tedious possible way. You may be able to skip most of it, but when tutorials feel like they span hours, you know that pacing is a problem. When you aren't being taught the basics and left to your own devices, you'll find that the lack of people in town means you'll be able to get through all of your chores before the accelerated game clock even hits noon. At first, you'll be thankful for the abundant amount of free time because it gives you a chance to collect bugs, fish and flowers, but once you realize how small the town is, you'll find it difficult to get through a day without going to bed early to accelerate the clock.
Once you get past the first slow season and the barrage of tutorials, the game hits the usual pace after more town inhabitants move in — specifically the architect. In addition to your daily crop and livestock tasks, you'll be given other assignments, such as gathering materials for new buildings or getting decorations in place as permanent town fixtures or for specific festivals, which become available after more people return to town. From there, you'll gain access to better tools and a wider selection of mates to woo, all of whom seem more varied than ones in previous games. Relationships aren't static, and while you can't get a divorce, you can break up with your potential beau in the dating phase if you feel things aren't working out.
The benefit of the architect is in the customization. You get a small taste of this when you start up the game and notice that you can customize the look of your farmer. The options aren't that great at the outset, and when you compare the customization options to that of other games, you'll find it very lacking. However, when you consider that your look was predetermined in other Harvest Moon games, you'll be thankful to have a little input here. From there, you can customize just about everything you can get your hands on. As long as you have the room, you can arrange just about everything from the location of your house to where the animals are stationed and where the crop-growing land is going to be. If you want the people and shops to be closer to your farm, you can do that. If you want the people whom you visit the least to be in a seldom-visited corner of the map, you can do that, too. All of this is done by turning on the option, humorously lifting the buildings and objects, and effortlessly putting them down in the desired location. The feature represents a wealth of options for seasoned players in terms of helping their farm and town feel more personal, and it also gives new players something to occupy their time once they finish their daily chores.
While customization is the major change, there are smaller ones that fans will appreciate. Spouses and pets can do more, as spouses can help with the farming and cooking while pets can help with animal corralling. You can invest in traps that gather up to five fish at a time instead of settling for one fish at a time. Soil type also has a hand in both the crop type and quality you can grow, and you can grow other types of crops, such as honey and mushrooms, which don't need soil or much maintenance. The variety is helpful for series vets who want a little more to do around the farm, but the new additions aren't too overwhelming. At the core, this is still a rather calm and relaxing farming game that lets you do things at your own pace while letting you put in the amount of work you want relative to the desired results. It still isn't a game for everyone, as most will get bored since there's no end game in sight, but fans who are already hooked will be happy that the changes won't disrupt what they enjoy.
The sound represents one area where simplicity works, and that philosophy carries over to this entry. A New Beginning features absolutely no voice work, so expect any long conversations to be text-only affairs. The sound effects are minimal, but they get the job done. There's nothing extraordinary about the effects for things like watering the crops or reaping wheat, but they are recognizable enough for most people, as are the animal sound effects. The music is always cheery, as fans would expect, but there doesn't seem to be much in terms of variety. For the most part, you'll hear one tune play over and over again for each passing day, and while it is nice, don't be surprised if you want to turn down the volume and put on some headphones connected to some other tunes.
Graphically, the game is fine. This is the first time on a Nintendo handheld where the series has gone for polygons instead of sprites, and the result isn't bad. Were it not for the seemingly low frame rate, this could pass for a PSP title. The models seem to animate well and keep with the series' art style, and the color palette shows range but is still as brightly colored as ever. It could use a little sharpening in areas, especially when you zoom in on things, but the change from sprites to polygons hasn't hurt the game's overall appearance.
While the game uses the system's 3-D stereoscopic abilities, they don't seem to add to or detract from the game. The default angle at which the game is presented gives the visuals some depth, and the amount of zoom in the camera either strengthens or weakens that illusion, depending on the angle. The frame rate seems to be the same with or without the effect on, but with no real advantage aside from the battery life of the system, it comes down to personal preference.
Harvest Moon 3D: A New Beginning adheres to the qualities of its forebears, so this still isn't a game that would enjoy a mass audience. This'll be fine for series fans who will be more than pleased to see the game open up in other categories. The graphical overhaul and increased customization are plusses, as is the presence of an overall quest outside of farm maintenance. For fans, this is a perfect entry to pick up. For newcomers, this isn't a bad place to start, as you'll definitely feel like you've gotten your money's worth. If you can stand the first slow month, you'll be happy with what's in store.
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