It is unfortunate that the simulation genre as it is known in Japan is not more popular in America. For years the Japanese game industry has enjoyed the success of many titles that define the term "simulation" with eccentric literalness. Far removed from the God-like perspective of SimCity and its ilk, games like Tokemeki Memorial and Dance Dance Revolution are wildly popular for providing players with the chance to live a virtual experience rather than simply control it. However, because of their often culturally specific nature (involving anything from dating and other social rituals to cooking and career advancement), these games have seldom been distributed internationally, leaving non-Japanese-speaking gamers with precious few opportunities to experience this unique genre. Fortunately, one of those opportunities has been the Harvest Moon series, a "farming simulation" which has enjoyed a stable success here in the States for the past few years and has now finally reached the PlayStation 2 as Harvest Moon: Save The Homeland.
For players who havent played the previous games of the series (like myself) Save The Homeland may seem a bit odd at first. As mentioned, farming is the main focus of the gameplay, expressed with all the bright and cheery panache that is typical of Japanese simulation games. After the player chooses a name for the cuddly-cute, baseball cap-sportn anime-boy main character, the game opens with an equally cute, proto-typical plotline that involves saving your grandfathers farm from evil-minded no-gooders who want to bulldoze it and the surrounding community into oblivion. The gameplay involves (among other things) planting and harvesting crops, tending livestock, and interacting with villagers in an attempt to gain money and influence that will allow you to devise a plan that will—you guessed it—"save the homeland."
From what I understand Save The Homelands gameplay is somewhat simplified from the previous installments. The farming and social activities have supposedly been streamlined to allow for a greater emphasis on plot, and this is evidenced by the fact that Save The Homeland wavers somewhere in-between a narrative and non-narrative game much of the time. The basic elements of gameplay are not story-based and mostly involve tending crops and livestock. Players navigate around their farm and perform duties via a series of tools, such as a hoe for tilling soil, a scythe for harvesting, etc. Although the game basically begins with little more to do than plant and water a small variety of crops, the world of the game quickly opens up once a little cash-flow is generated, allowing the player to purchase cows and chickens and spend money on gifts and services in the town that foster social relationships.
The social aspect of the game is the only means by which to move the plot forward. Rather than direct conversation, the only means by which to truly interact with villagers is by giving gifts. Every character in the game has a favorite gift (usually food) which the player must either find, buy, grow, or make. The more correct gifts given and under the right circumstances (a birthday, for example) the better the relationship. The better the relationship, the more likely a "plot event" will be triggered with that character leading to a series of gameplay sequences that will finally lead to one of several different happy endings. The only catch is the time limit. The game takes place over four seasons (Spring through Winter) each of which have 30 days. The player only has until the last day of Winter to finish the plot, otherwise all is lost.
If this all sounds rather strange thats because it is. Harvest Moon: Save The Homeland is oddly caught between two worlds in many ways. Although I certainly think the games works and I admit to enjoying it much, my suspicions are that it suffers slightly from trying to impose the story-driven nature of a narrative RPG onto what has traditionally been nothing more than a game designed to allow you to build up your farm. Although the necessity of pursuing plot-related activities has been added, a shift in gameplay focus that could have provided some more intuitive ways to interact with the plot havent followed. For example, it can seem pretty awkward at times that the only way to advance the plot is by giving gifts. One wonders why (s)he cant just go up and ask someone for help in a situation where it is clearly needed rather than having to lavishly unload valuables on him or her in hopes to stimulate some compassion. Also, although there are several different plotlines in the game, they dont ever really interconnect. Once you decide which one you are going to pursue to "save the homeland" theres little point in indulging in the others. This is a little disappointing since, from what I gather, a few of the more intricate social features of past Harvest Moon games were abandoned to allow for this new plot design. The ability to marry and participate in yearly festivals are absent from this installment, a trade-off that would seem more forgivable if the plot(s) were more dynamic and involving.
Still, though, I dont count these as significant marks against the game. Although the game does show symptoms of spreading itself too thin by trying to appeal to two audiences, it manages to achieve an absorbing and worth-while balance all its own. Theres no doubt that managing the farm is a lot of fun. Players might be surprised at how likely they are to loose themselves in the simple pleasures of grooming their horse everyday, teaching their dog to herd cows, or the satisfaction that comes with cooking a fine meal with vegetables they grew themselves. All these activities are well-designed, intuitive, and reward patience with an unusual sense of achievement. The story of the game, for its worth, is never less than cute and appealing. And even aside from the specific plotlines the village itself offers a warm sense of community that can be enjoyed independent of the plot(s). This is due in no small part to the absolutely delightful visuals. The cel-shaded characters and landscapes of Save The Homeland are vivid and appealing to say the least. Just watching characters go about their daily errands is identical to inhabiting in a piece of living animation. The music reinforces this aesthetic flawlessly, with soothing and spunky melodies that are guaranteed to get you excited about potatoes and corn even if all else fails.
In the end, Harvest Moon: Save The Homelands weaknesses might also be its strengths. If the designers goal was to appeal to a more general audience with this game then they were certainly successful. Although the mix-and-matching of the plot and gameplay results in a little unevenness, the over all appeal is hindered very little, and will most like only turn-off those who are ceaselessly in love with the earlier installments. For the rest of us who have either never played the Harvest Moon series or are unfamiliar with the Japanese genre the simulation in general, I cant imagine a better introduction than Save The Homeland. Its simple, cute, lively, rewarding, and original beyond belief if youve gotten the idea into your head that videogames cant be about anything other than violence.