Harvest Moon has seen many seasons through; having been on the market for over fifteen years, closing in on its 20th Anniversary in Japan. From the franchise's debut adventure on the SNES to the more recent onslaught of DS installments, the core premise has remained near enough identical: setup shop in an abandoned farm, grow local produce, sell food stock to local markets, watching the village thrive through a healthy and hopefully sustainable market.
This time round players are literally thrown, almost abruptly into a field where, after picking a gender and dress, the local town mayor wonders up and invites our new protagonist to manage an abandoned farm as an opportunity to start afresh. Unfortunately the vast majority if residents of Echo Village have left, seeking prosperity elsewhere, and part of this new relocation for the hero is to essentially restore Echo's status as the place to be.
Harvest Moon certainly isn't a game for everyone, known for a more relaxed pace when perhaps compared to other lifestyle simulators like Nintendo's own Animal Crossing series, sister franchise Rune Factory, and the notorious social game, Farmville. With Harvest Moon: A New Beginning, it's a case of familiar ground to start with as the first week or so involves a fair few, obligatory tutorials, with only a handful of portions as optional dialogue. This includes the usual seminar in planting and raising crops, caring for animals and what to do with produce once harvested. For newcomers these first few hours are crucial in getting to grips with the basics; but for the seasoned Harvest Moon expert, it's a shame that this beginning section can't be bypassed.
Before the main storyline and activities kick-in, players will need to become acquainted with how to cook for oneself and maintain farm-life to a tee. The bread-and-butter mechanics involve sowing seeds into prepared patches of land, using a dainty watering can to provide enough nutrients to see the likes of turnips and potatoes sprout within a few in-game days. These vegetables can then be plucked away, depositing these in the local shipping hole to gain a wad of cash the following morning. Initially this is how the majority of the day would be spent, including milking and cleaning a gifted cow by the village's resident animal expert, Neil. Because it is fairly expensive feat to start buying more livestock and tools to help the town expand, a little exploration is needed to rally in a manner of different insects and material from the surrounding forest to also exchange for helping of much-needed cash.
There will need to be some patience and a keen eye for self-lead exploration, but once the farm and town-related chores become second nature, A New Beginning starts to slip into more Animal Crossing-style territory, with players physically helping rebuild the town through the help of new resident and aspiring architect Rebecca, using material rummaged up from around the surrounding area to put together a manner of different buildings to help entice new residents to take up home and shop in Echo. It's this particular element of A New Beginning that cements the name into the ground, quite literally, as the once sparse town evolves from having a local shop, and not much else, to a thriving and interesting community to interact with. After a tedious start going on serene walks with the slightly barmy shopkeeper and brief encounters with the mayor, other businesses as part of the town's restoration include a chirpy tea shop, pet store, travel agency, swap shop and more, each lead by a new resident that's hoping to make things work in Echo.
Dunhill will also task players with outfitting the town with new street lights, take part in local festivals and generally help keep the town in good, working order. Despite the onslaught of information at the start, these requirements become more like gentle nudges in the right direction, opening up the remainder of the experience, letting farmers engage at the right pace. It's certainly makes each day feel more personal and less linear when compared to past Harvest Moon games, with practically any aspect of the town customisable - even moving entire buildings to be closer to home!
The slow-burner beginning sets up the faster pace and foundation for what comes after: the traditional Harvest Moon requirement to find a suitor and get married. There's a wide range of potential other-halves in A New Beginning, each having a very distinctive pathway to love. At this stage it becomes a game of gifting, treating and obviously saying the right things; taking snippets out of a dating simulator and weaving it into the world of farming. Not all suitors would be receptive to the same sorts of gifts too, making half the challenge the need to find out what makes a guy or girl tick. Some suitors enjoy a bouquet or two; others opt for stones and material, some for food. The hardest characters may even require a specific house built, or are only available during a certain season. Each character also has a more human approach to the dialogue too, making the need to commit to a virtual village relationship a bit more convincing than past instalments. With six for each gender, there's certainly some replay value to come in and attempt to unlock as many endings as possible for the dedicated Harvest Moon enthusiast.
From the early beginnings of simply hoarding turnips and potatoes for petty cash, the second year offers a vast amount more, with newly formed couples (and their offspring) able to take vacations to all sorts of exotic places, opening up the landscape from simple forestry to beaches and serene mountains. Having a partner on-board will also help alleviate those daily chores that, at this point, have become frustrating to maintain - watering each and every shrub, for example. There's a surprising amount of depth at this point of the game, and makes the early slog seem worth the wait - as with past titles in the series.
Alongside the added content in the 3DS release, developer Marvelous have attempted to bring the much loved Harvest Moon world into 3D with a dynamic camera, a new art-style to suit the potential for a bigger perspective, and 3D effects to take advantage of the stereoscopic camera. The look does maintain a fair bit of the charm and colourful vibrancy from the past DS games, but does come across fairly bland in places. The camera work is a useful addition, however, allowing players to step back and view more of the over-world at once, or get closer to the action at the press of a button. There are some lag and framerate issues, though, particularly when the 3D switch is flicked to the on position. It's far smoother and easier on the eye without using the stereoscopic features, unfortunately, with the 3D output appearing to be a more of a tacked-on option.
The shift to analogue/circle pad for movement in this release, compared to the more restrictive control in the DS games, does allow for a more flexible means of trundling about the town without going the long way round. That said the perspective in 3D does have its faults, especially when trying to work out the special awareness between player and object - for example smashing rocks or battering tree-stumps to create sounds. More often than not, there's a tendency to miss because of the odd sense of perspective.
The bottom screen does house an overworld map, allowing players to zoom into certain aspects to see where many of Echo's residents are at any given time, but lacks any additional options that truly make use of the additional real-estate. Having an easy-inventory like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D would have been a simple option to incorporate; but there's still a need to open up an inventory menu and re-assign - it's a time consuming and dated approach.
Alongside the single player campaign, there are also a handful of local and online features that come into play after having experienced a few seasons on the ranch. The main focus is on trading and exchanging items with other players; trying to receive key goodies to ensure festivals are tackled with the best crop available. In principle it sounds like a fairly straightforward process; but there is - at time of writing - a lack of players truly engaging with the online space, or simply demanding without offering up anything substantial in exchange.