OK, let’s call it. Harvest Moon: One World, released on March 3 2021, is the official time of death for what was once one of the most beloved farming simulators ever. And — not to be dramatic — but it turned whatever remained of my dying soul into actual dust.
To be clear, Harvest Moon has been limping toward zombification for years now, becoming more and more of a husk of its former self since 2014. After switching publishers, the original Harvest Moon creators were forced to change their series’ name to Story of Seasons (which has a new Switch title coming out on March 23), allowing the original publisher, Natsume, to release awful, artless imitations under the Harvest Moon name so uninformed fans like myself would buy it before realizing they’d made a horrible mistake.
OK, maybe I am being a bit dramatic. But with good reason. The loss of a beloved childhood video game series probably wouldn’t hit me quite as hard if it hadn’t happened on the anniversary month of a year spent in quarantine.
But in this perpetual chaos of pandemic isolation and uncertainty — as I played my Switch for the millionth hour in my too-small Los Angeles apartment, the city outside still reeling from being an epicenter of the virus — I needed the comfort of what Harvest Moon used to be. In the same way Animal Crossing was the best-timed lifeline after launching in March 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, I desperately needed the new Harvest Moon to ground me in mundane provincial existence. I needed a game that let me escape into the agricultural fantasy of a farming sim, engrossing even as ambulance sirens blare their reminders that I’m in fact still trapped in the hell of modern city dwelling.
But Harvest Moon: One World is the antithesis of everything people loved about the series, and the myriad of farming simulators it inspired like Stardew Valley.
Gone is the deep sense of place and connection you gained from settling down in a small nowhere town, developing long-term relationships with its townsfolk, and laying down roots by nurturing crops and livestock on a run-down ranch. Bewilderingly, they decided to turn Harvest Moon into an open world game instead, proving that no genre is safe from this infestation of popular AAA game design philosophy of throwing more stuff onto a big map in the hopes you’ll like one of the things.
The big, ugly map boasts six uninspired regions you’re supposed to teleport your whole ass farm back and forth from via some sort of inexplicable technology. And, let me tell you, the absolute last thing I want from a Harvest Moon game in 2021 while I’m drowning in Zoom calls, charging cables, and the ever-present glow of a computer screen is the introduction of a fucking high-tech energy machine that powers my mobile virtual farm (?).
The result of this mismatched design choice is that the game never truly lets you invest much of any permanent attachment into your farm, failing to do the basics to help me escape the nomadic lifestyle that often comes with modern urban life. Like, god, I have to go apartment hunting in Harvest Moon now too? The premise turns you into a traveling rancher, essentially, with all the dignity of a traveling salesman but none of the commissions. You can only take the buildings that make up your farm, too, forcing you to abandon any leftover crops on the land you painstakingly nurtured while there.
While the world of the new Harvest Moon is bigger than ever, it’s also one of the emptiest virtual spaces I’ve ever experienced. You can go to more places, do more busywork, talk to more townspeople than ever before — and each one is more hollow than the last. Every corner of One World’s vastness is devoid of mystery, meaning, intrigue, and wonder.
By contrast, previous Harvest Moon games gave you compact spaces with expansively meaningful experiences. A sense of sublime awe — of being this lone, infinitesimally small rancher learning to coexist with the all-powerful bigness of mother nature — was what made my first Harvest Moon experience so unforgettable. Almost two decades later, I still regularly think about the life I built for myself in A Wonderful Life on GameCube.
You started as just some kid who inherits their uncle’s farm located in the sleepy town of Forget-Me-Not Valley. As the seasons tick by, the years add up, too. You grow older alongside the townsfolk, marry one, have a kid, raise them, and eventually die of old age after hundreds of hours of playtime and what feels like a lifetime of quietly beautiful memories. On rare occasions throughout this extraordinarily ordinary journey, you catch hints of local legends, the mystical creatures known as Harvest Spirits, who leave behind special seeds for you to grow. If you’re very lucky (or look it up online) you may even meet one briefly in person, before they say something poetically cryptic and unceremoniously leave, never to be seen again. It was clear that this was their world and you were only a guest, thriving off the land thanks only to their good graces.
Please just let me be a farmer, Harvest Moon.
In a total role reversal, off the bat in the tutorial of Harvest Moon: One World you’re told that you are the only one who can revive the Harvest Moon Goddess herself. You’re the most special of people ever who must save the world by collecting six medallions from each region’s Harvest Spirit. As you aimlessly walk around the derivative landscapes that look the same but swap out one type of tree and crops for another, every few feet you encounter a Harvest Wisp, this lesser kind of harvest spirit that give you all the seeds you’ll ever need for anything.
It feels almost sacrilegious, appropriating the harmonious spirituality of the originals for this narcissistic individualism that pollutes every other damn video game where you’re the Very Special Savior-Ruler of a virtual world.
Everything about this game — from the premise to the mechanics, characters, settings, and god-awfully shitty 3D art style — feels like it was made without any human touch. It’s so lifeless and impersonal that it feels like a farming sim built by whatever ungodly algorithm spits out those weird Facebook ads for games that don’t even actually exist.
Everything about this game… feels like it was made without any human touch
The characters barely have names let alone stories. Your interactions with Very Excitable Man or Happy Woman (literally their names) are reduced to mailed-in requests asking you to get them this or that resource, pls, thx, bai. The various regions of the open world are utterly charmless and notably lacking in diversity, most egregiously in the clearly Hawaiian-inspired island town of Hola Hola, which is seemingly inhabited entirely by white people.
Despite giving the appearance of having more, there’s actually far less to do too, with stuff like the intricacies of breeding your livestock, caring for them when they’re pregnant, and raising their offspring to maturity from the 2003 game now simplified to pressing the A button three times until your cows or sheep give you milk or wool.
Then there’s the frequent glitching, causing vast expanses of the unsightly world to fall into a black void that eats up waypoints for missions. It will, at least, pop back into existence as you approach the black hole, but is having a game world that doesn’t flit in and out of cosmic nothingness so much to ask for?
Longtime fans of the franchise will probably tell me that I should’ve known better, that the decline of Harvest Moon has been clearly on display for years. That’s true I guess, but also some people held out a little hope (again) that this latest entry might be a comeback. As Harvest Moon’s premiere on Switch, it was the first game in a while that’d be solely developed for a console release rather than optimized for mobile gaming too.
But alas, being optimized for a console failed to make Harvest Moon any less ugly or shallow, and it’s unworthy of your $50.
The nostalgia that the original Harvest Moon games traded in was for simpler times, when the world was slower, more human, something worth savoring. But Harvest Moon: One World capitalizes on your nostalgia for a much better game instead, giving you something as short-lived and inhuman as it is forgettable.
I wish disappointment in a game series I loved as a kid wasn’t enough to barrel me over emotionally. But it’s just the cherry on top of a year that’s proven how absolutely nothing is sacred, no one you love is safe, and entropy destroys all things that exist in linear time (again, not to be dramatic).
Harvest Moon is dead. May she rest in peace after someone finally puts her shambling corpse out of its grotesque, reanimated misery.
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