Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What Went Wrong - Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon

Waaaay way back in the beforetimes of 2006, Natsume, in their infinite wisdom, decided that simple farming games just weren't cool anymore.  There has to be some sort of hook, some change-up to the series, and they decided on two different methods.  Two methods that couldn't be further from each other, and on different platforms to boot, because, well, obviously that's how you'll get an idea of what people want.  Anyways, the method that Nintendo DS owners got was a little game that you might have heard of called "Rune Factory:  A Fantasy Harvest Moon".  (As a sidenote:  Rune Factory: Oceans is getting localized with a slightly different name for PS3/Wii.)

Rune Factory took the concept and added a few easy additions without really taking much away.  You don't really get a pet, which is a sort of a staple of the series, but there's a proper replacement in the form of tamable monsters.  That would be the other big addition, is Monsters and the combating thereof.  All around the area in Rune Factory, are caves that you can explore with monsters inhabiting the interior of that you can kill for experience (Rune Factory is a bit more of an RPG than normal) or tame to take care of on your farm.  There's also a few more possible romance options than normal.  The point here is that they didn't really cut out a lot of stuff and, if anything, made it a bit deeper.

Innocent Life?  Not....not so much.  And to explain that, I am basically explaining my problem with the more 'narrative' of the installments of the Harvest Moon franchise.  Even though Innocent Life isn't what I would call one of the 'narrative' games, in that it certainly feels loose enough where you can do whatever and I imagine though the goal is clear, it's not concrete.  But, essentially as I've explained before, Harvest Moon as a series is just something you play when you want to chill out and grow some plants, pet some animals and hit on some local ladies.  No real goal is needed, so when one is pushed on you, it kinda ruins the whole reason you're playing.

Let's cut to the chase that is possibly my biggest "ehhhhh" thing with the game:  You're a robot.  So right there, the ability to romance people in the town is completely excised.  And honestly?  Human interaction period is mostly optional at best.  Through the whole game, I imagine you need to talk to about a dozen people, if that.  Even though nobody knows you're a robot (at first) absolutely nobody is interested in you beyond saying, "Hey, there's that poor kid stuck at the Easter Ruins."  The characters, in fact, aren't generally interested in much, really.

So, let's move on to the overall story here with that, since the other characters in the game are pretty vital to what is, in all honesty, a pretty terrible backstory.  Now, you know that you play a robot, but I haven't told you why just yet.  And the reason is simple:  Everyone on the fucking island is too lazy to save their own life.  Essentially, everyone on the island knows of the 'legend' that the lands became un-farmable without high technology because the Spirits of the island became angry with the people there.  And that only by farming the Easter Ruins properly, with a human touch and care, could they be appeased.  So what do they do?

Absolutely fuck-all.

To the point where Dr. Hope Grain (ugh.) goes, "Hey, this is pretty bad, the volcano looks like it might erupt and if that happens we're all going to die, I should probably do something."  But given that he is old and frail, and apparently completely unable to inspire others to do what they need to do, he just builds a robot to do it for him.  A robot that he programs to be a pure, innocent being, like a child, who will grow and flourish as the crops he plants does.

It's....not a very good backstory.  And Innocent Life isn't that good of a game, either.  It's a fair game with good points, I'll grant it that, but the sum of the frustrations with it simply outweigh the good.

Quite simply, the game is not at all built to be anything but a game where you farm and/or raise animals (eventually).  The townspeople offer nothing in the way of entertainment or insight or bond-growing, and even when you can go about and collect other materials, there's not that much plentiful and they barely even sell.  The wild food you can gather after you buy a scale pack has to grow back, even, and will sell for even less until they're fully grown again.  You can't even fish until Summer since you have to talk to the Fisherman to fish.  Not even in a sense where you have to get a fishing pole from him to go out and fish on your own.  But in the sense that you have to talk to him, get a pole and then you give it back.

The point is that there is very little to do if you are not farming.  Even cooking doesn't bring a lot to the table since it doesn't even require things to cook, since they're from your apparently magical ever-full refrigerator.  Which, I guess, is fine.  The farming is fine in this game, especially when you start unlocking things to make it easier to work with the rather large field you can eventually have.  Rail systems you can set up to put harvested crops onto so you can more easily take them to your shipping pod, for one, is a really neat idea, if not perfectly executed.

This reliance on the farming aspect makes it perfectly simple to pinpoint the exact moment where the game goes fully wrong:  Monday, 8th Day of Summer.  You see, weather has often been a key player in the Harvest Moon games; you got your sunny days, your rainy days (snowy in winter), and then your calamity days.  The Calamity days are when it's storming so harshly that you can't really do much aside from wonder why Natsume thought this was a good idea.  It also does bad things to your crops, which is what I'm getting to here.  The 8th day of Summer, as far as I can tell, is always going to be a storm day.  So, if you've been doing what you're supposed to do and you've got a bunch of stuff planted, well, there goes your money.

And Innocent Life is a bit worse at it than any other game in the series, as far as I can tell.  I more or less lost 4 or 5 plants per main crop (I usually do plots of 9 of the main stuff) and everything else was decimated or completely removed.  At that moment, when I saw that, I knew there was just nothing more I could experience in the game to make up for it.  As I explained to a friend, it's an excellent Robot simulation game, in the sense that robots really don't do a lot to spice up life or have fun.  So I will say that Innocent Life is clear in its goal and handles it well, but that doesn't make it interesting for anyone who plays Harvest Moon for the overall experience and not just the farm sim part.

As I said before, there's a lot of good in the game to be found by anyone who plays it.  The locales and areas all look absolutely wonderful.  Houses are large and detailed nicely, if feeling a bit out-of-scale at times, and there is a lot of area to explore before you realize there's really no point unless you're trying to treat your eyes.  The music is non-invasive and mostly fitting, though quite forgettable.  (I had noticed someone on a board somewhere said that to really hear the music, you had to use headphones, but never got around to it.)  And as a game, it plays fairly simply and nicely, even if there's hardly a good game to pair it to.

Also, you get a dune buggy. (Pictured a few pictures above)

But all in all, while interesting and while exploring an area where a Harvest Moon game genuinely has merit to be attempted in, it's a flawed game that will eventually convince you that you don't really like it, despite how you may feel playing that first season.  Which is a little disappointing, given that a Futuristic Harvest moon could have been so much more.  Perhaps they'll attempt it again sometime, but in the right way.  We can always hope.

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