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GameCube Review - 'Harvest Moon: Another Wonderful Life'

by Hugh McHarg on Sept. 21, 2005 @ 2:32 a.m. PDT

Harvest Moon: Another Wonderful Life consists of six chapters, each one representing a different part of your life. Your successes and failures will be reflected in the subsequent chapters … so that you can experience all the drama that goes with living a full life!

Genre: RPG/Simulation
Publisher: Natsume
Developer: Marvelous Interactive
Release Date: July 26, 2005

Buy 'HARVEST MOON: Another Wonderful Life': GameCube

A Farmer, Not a Fighter

Opportunities to take refuge in the simple life don't exactly abound in console simulation or role-playing worlds. Driven by conquest, competition or vengeance, the hero – a knight or race car driver – is the role you're most often fated to take on. When the commonplace activities of making a life do come into play, they're often in the form of mini-games designed as a respite from the main action. Even then, they're more likely to have you gambling for gold than shearing a sheep.

Following Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life by a (perhaps too) short number of months, Harvest Moon: Another Wonderful Life sends you back to the farm, this time as a young woman with her own crops to fertilize, livestock to nurture and beaus to court. Even if Harvest Moon: Another Wonderful Life sits alongside its GameCube predecessor more as a charming companion than an exciting sequel with lots of new experiences, Forget-Me-Not Valley remains ripe with the comforts of routine and the rewards of a life devoted to cultivation rather than domination.

The Old Man and the Farm

Although you'll bear the weight of responsibility soon enough, you're not entirely on your own when you arrive in the valley. Wise old agricultural mentor Takakura helps you get acquainted with your farm and encourages you to stroll around town to meet key village personages, including the imposing Vesta, proprietress of a successful farm on the other side of the river who becomes an important source of supplies and farming know-how early in the game.

In no time, you're sowing seeds and milking your cow, learning all the while how to keep your plants healthy and your cow happy. Watering, fertilizing, brushing and washing – it's all there. You quickly realize the importance of developing a routine and sticking to it if you're going to finish all your chores and leave time during the day for socializing and exploring your environs. Just when it begins to feel like actual work rather than game work, the first tomato sprouts in your garden. Goofy as it feels pouring gallon after gallon of water on a little brown square of dirt, the effect of seeing your crops come to life is curiously fulfilling, both as an accomplishment in itself and as encouragement to keep going and find out what else you can do.

A great many opportunities await, from making your own seeds to the meals you can cook with your harvests, but life on the farm is about more than crops. You already have one cow to tend to, and while her milk is an excellent source of income, the amount she produces varies by season, and it doesn't last forever. Planning ahead is essential to make the most out of your milk money. Buy another cow, or buy a bull to start breeding your own? Buy a sheep, a chicken, or just use the money to buy more seeds from Vesta? Careful management of your herd and skillful investing are just as important as watering your yams twice a day.

Forget-Me-Not Valley is a tolerant place, full of characters living out their golden years and escaping the stress of urban life. As easygoing as the vibe is, though, traditional expectations about the proper course of a woman's life exert themselves in not-so-subtle ways. Marriage is essential to progress, and with only three eligible bachelors in town (a yurt-dwelling neo-hippie, a lay-about party boy and a moody rebel), the amorous pickings are slim indeed.

By Chapter 2 of Harvest Moon: Another Wonderful Life, you can already add a husband, a kid, and a bigger house to your list of responsibilities. Your son is of particular concern, as you now have to worry about all the likes, dislikes and vocational inclinations that affect his future. Your husband may offer helpful reminders to keep the refrigerator stocked and put the kid to bed at a decent hour, but the serious child-rearing stuff is all on you.

This domestic and pastoral drama unfolds in a world that looks simple at first glance, but impresses with thoroughly conceived variation and delicate design upon closer examination. The passing of seasons accounts for much of the game's visual appeal. Pink blossoms decorate trees in the springtime, and snowflakes drift calmly to the ground in winter. The rich green grazing field behind your barn fades to brown in the colder seasons. Every day, shadows elongate and bright colors grow dim just before sundown. It all makes for an idyllic backdrop to your years of working the soil.

Character designs and animations skew toward the cute. Non-player characters move about town with exaggerated, cartoon-friendly features, and most are designed to reflect caricatures of their personalities or status in the community. Van, successful in business, cuts a portly figure, while old Galen is the very image of frailty. Animals look and behave every bit as cutely as humans, with stout bulls and a rambunctious, frolicking horse you can ride around when the demands of farm life don't allow for a leisurely walk through the valley.

Forget-Me-Not Valley is full of auditory as well as visual delights. The sounds that accompany day-to-day activities like brushing cows and nuzzling chickens can get repetitive simply because you have to do those things so many, many times. Otherwise, the sounds of rushing water, unseen woodland creatures and other ambient noises fill out the humble, but pleasantly realized world.

A Good Farmer Doesn't Blame Her Tools

Harvest Moon: Another Wonderful Life, simple enough in its premise, nevertheless resists straightforward genre categorization. Elements like the strict seasonal crop-growing cycles and seed hybridization suggest an easy sim label. On the other hand, the light choice-making and exploration point vaguely toward role-playing territory.

Such considerations quickly become beside the point as you set about learning the tools and techniques that make you a good farmer. Controls couldn't be simpler. A smooth, context-sensitive button setup makes sure that any challenges the game presents are in the form of decisions about livestock, crops and family, not controller mastery. Any actions that require precision placement or aiming offer minor frustrations – you will waste a few bags of fertilizer on the wrong square of dirt – but with a little experience you learn to not be so hasty with the planting button.

A heart-meter system keeps you tuned in to how the inhabitants of your farm feel. The less nuzzling you do, the less they like you. Human characters only respond to certain gifts that correspond to their interests, and they'll tell you flat out when they're not interested in the particular flower or food you offer them. If you haven't made sufficient romantic inroads to your mate of choice when you offer the blue feather (a magical, prenuptial token), he'll agree that it's a nice feather, but won't immediately accept your proposal. After several hours, you realize that the core of the gameplay is as much about keeping people and animals happy as it is about building your farm.

What Happens on the Farm Stays on the Farm

While innocence suffuses most of Harvest Moon: Another Wonderful Life, the bizarre and the creepy make appearances from time to time. Requiring the purchase of a so-called miracle potion, the animal breeding process is one such oddity. Posing the cow and bull face-to-face, Takakura invites you into the barn and then immediately sends you outside to wait for the telltale "moo" indicating the deed is done. Also pay particular attention to Muffy, one of the townsfolk. Catch her on the bridge, and she'll tell you the sordid tale of her tryst with a married city-dweller. Viewed from a low camera angle, the scene almost suggests – purposefully or not, it's difficult to tell – that she's about to jump off the bridge to atone for her dalliance.

Virtual Farmers of the World, Unite and Take Over

If you're new to the world of Harvest Moon and inclined to like (or at least tolerate with a smile) the work necessary to reap the rewards, Another Wonderful Life offers a bounty of farming pleasures in a world full of friends to make and scenery to enjoy. If you visited Forget-Me-Not Valley in the 2004 GameCube title, you'll find the valley much as you left it, and the value-conscious may be justifiably wary of a purchase. Still, Another Wonderful Life gets by on a startling amount of charm that makes a return visit at least worth a lengthy rental, even for farming veterans.

Score: 7.9/10

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