But Is It Better Than Stardew?

The idea of a quiet life in the country sounds positively hellish to me. I may be an introvert, but I’m a CITY introvert, god dammit. Early to bed and early to rise? No thaaaank you, I’m a night owl. I love horses, but I am content to keep my love at a distance, as opposed to shoveling stables. And the idea of eating at home every meal… no. Just, no. I love to cook, but you know what else I love? Walking to a cheap restaurant where someone else will cook garbage for me, and I can put it in my body. That’s a good time.

Despite the country and I clearly being a bad match, I am CONSTANTLY getting ads on YouTube encouraging me to rent out a country home for a little getaway. Why? How did The Algorithm get the idea that I’d be into that? Well, to be honest… it’s probably because I’m a sucker for farming games.

To be clear, I’m not talking about Farming Simulator or its ilk. I mean no disrespect to those games, but I’m not here for elaborate renditions of the workings of farming machinery. I’m more about farming RPGs like Harvest Moon, Rune Factory, Story of Seasons, and Stardew Valley. I had the privilege of getting in at the ground floor, playing the SNES Harvest Moon on an emulator as a child and becoming obsessed. It was to the point that I started to start my own farm in my backyard to disastrous results. Ever since I’ve been pursuing farming RPGs in nearly every form they take.

As a fan of farming RPGs, it has been a frustrating journey since 2016. The genre has long been troubled by ups and downs, but all its shortcomings were codified with the release of Stardew Valley, a game that so perfectly captures the best of farming RPGs that it makes all its peers look incompetent by comparison. However, I am a staunch believer in the inevitability of progress, and so every year I pick up the newest farming RPGs to see what ideas they’ve brought to the table.

2021 has supplied us with two entries from classic franchises, in the form of Harvest Moon One World, and Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town. Rune Factory 5 should be coming out later this year, and hope springs eternal for it, but… I’m sorry to say, Harvest Moon and Story of Seasons haven’t quite hit the mark for me. What’s worse, this isn’t a surprise. Story of Seasons and Harvest Moon have both felt stuck in the mud for some time.

Both series stem from the same origin, and I don’t just mean conceptually. The SNES Harvest Moon from 1996 is a Japanese-developed game, and its original title is Bokujou Monogatari, or Farm Story. The name Harvest Moon was invented for its US release by Natsume, who handled the US publishing, while Marvelous handled the Japanese release. When Marvelous decided to stop working with Natsume, Natsume wasn’t willing to give up the name. So the original Harvest Moon became the Story of Seasons series, and Natsume spun up its own attempts to make Harvest Moon games.

Rune Factory ties into this legacy as well: the first title was called Rune Factory: A Fantasy Harvest Moon, an attempt to diversify the farming RPG space. At the same time, Marvelous tried a sci-fi version with Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon. There’s no Innocent Life 5 on the horizon, nor even an Innocent Life 2. That one died on the vine. Rune Factory, on the other hand, has outgrown its roots and stands evenly with its estranged siblings Harvest Moon and Story of Seasons. Rune Factory has been consistently good to excellent, but the same can’t be said of the other two. It’s easy to assume given the history that since the split, the Story of Seasons games have been good, and the Harvest Moon games bad. Sadly, it’s not that simple.

You see, it’s hardly been a linear road of progress in the genre. There are moments of greatness in the history of Harvest Moon: the original, Harvest Moon 64, Back to Nature, and A Wonderful Life stand out as true classics of the farming RPG world. Those are games from the Super Nintendo, the Nintendo 64, the Playstation 1, and the GameCube respectively. That sounds like a lot, but between Harvest Moon and Story of Seasons, the two series have put out thirty-seven games. You do the math, and that’s not the highest hit rate… especially considering that twenty-seven of those have been released since A Wonderful Life, the last truly great entry. Certainly, there are other games they’ve released that I’d call decent, but no real winners.

Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town comes damn close, closer than they’ve come in a long time. It’s got an appealing art style, a charming little town, and enjoyable farming mechanics and crafting clearly inspired by Stardew Valley. The gameplay loop is mostly just classic Story of Seasons/Harvest Moon, but it’s tuned enjoyably and is easy as ever to lose yourself in.

For all that, it feels unfortunately… cramped? Your farm feels small, the town you’re attached to feels smaller, and tedium begins to set in as you find your days have no variety, and no pleasant distractions from the routines of farming. The mining is dull (a frequent problem for the series), the villagers are excruciatingly uninteresting characters, and there’s no feeling that the rising and setting of the sun changes much of anything. It’s fine, but I don’t know why I would play it when I could just play more Stardew Valley.

I can’t claim that Harvest Moon: One World comes particularly close to greatness. To be frank, the game is a bit of a disaster, though a refreshingly ambitious one. It feels like farming RPG outsider art in a fascinating way: you constantly bump into choices that no one in the genre has ever made before, for better and for worse. For literal DECADES, I’ve understood that the way one raises crops in these games is tilling the earth with your hoe, planting the seeds, then watering them with your watering can. The flow of till, switch to seeds, plant, switch to can, water is engraved in my soul. 

Because of this, I was stunned when One World had me do the whole routine without ever switching tools. Walk up to untilled land and hit A? Well, you’re carrying a hoe in your inventory, so obviously you want to till it. Hit it again, the game understands you would want to plant seeds, so it presents you with the list of seeds you have in your bag. One more time… well naturally you want to water the seeds. No need to switch, One World will just pull out your can and water.

I can feel the divide in my audience right now. Some of you don’t play these games, and that last paragraph felt like the most bizarre rant about nothing. Then there are those who play these games, and are having a phoenix down moment. “Wait, you can do that?! I mean. Why couldn’t you, I guess, but WOW.” And that’s what my brain kept doing in this game. Did you know you don’t buy seeds in One World? You can, after a fashion, but it’s not your primary source of seeds. The world is full of harvest sprites who, if you talk to them, will just GIVE you a random bag of seeds. You know how when the seasons change, your crops die because they thrive in one season but not another? Not in One World. The seasons NEVER change here, but there are different regions for each season. You can just walk to the area where it’s always winter. 

Oh, and if you do, your seeds will grow differently. Depending on where you plant those carrot seeds, you could grow regular carrots… or maybe they’ll be snow carrots, or baby carrots, or black carrots. Of course, all of this is made possible by the fact that you can at any time just pack up your farm and move it somewhere else. Wait, what? You can just move your farm? Yeah, it’s wild!

Were these out-of-the-box ideas only contained in a better game. For all its creative thinking, One World is a badly written, poorly paced, boring mess. I’m glad I played it to see all these different solutions to problems I hadn’t even considered, but it’s not exactly an enjoyable time. Just stick with Stardew Valley.

I keep bringing Stardew Valley up, and it’s with good reason. When Eric Barone’s indie farming sim hit in 2016, everything changed. Barone himself stated he was motivated to make the game because he thought that the Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons series “had gotten progressively worse after Harvest Moon: Back to Nature.” (For what it’s worth, I agree, with the possible exception of A Wonderful Life.) He sought to make a game that would capture the spirit of Harvest Moon at its best while addressing the shortcomings still present in the series. And, well… he did it. Stardew Valley captures all the joy, depth, and charm of the best Harvest Moon games, with its own excellent ideas to boot.

Stardew’s writing is excellent, with townspeople that are enjoyable to talk to and have a lot of different events to bring out their personalities. It has a ridiculous variety of crops to grow, enjoyably complicated by their quirks and additional farming mechanics like the need for scarecrows, and the ability to automate via sprinklers. Its mining/dungeon is approximately a hundred times more interesting than Harvest Moon or Story of Seasons has ever managed. There’s a larger progression system of reviving the town’s community center that ties into everything you’re doing, a ton of customization… I could go on and on.

It’s a huge game that you can play for hundreds of hours on a single save if you want to, and plenty of replay value. It’s still getting supported with new content and features from semi-regular patches. It’s got online coop, which Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons has never figured out. It’s available on more than a half-dozen platforms, and all of them are at worst solid ports. And in the wake of Stardew Valley, every farming RPG is faced with a very, very hard question: “why would I play this instead of just more Stardew Valley?”

God willing, Barone offers us a new Stardew Valley one day. The talent and creativity displayed in that game is too great to go without a sequel, direct or spiritual. Until then, the rest of the farming RPGs have a choice on their hands. Do they try to go head-to-head with Stardew, with the odds of failure nearly certain? Or does this genre that has failed to mix up its basic mechanics in twenty-five years try something new, and also face extremely likely failure because they have no idea how to mix up the formula? This is the problem with perfection: once you achieve it, it’s a dead end. And Stardew Valley perfected the formula that Harvest Moon built back on the Super Nintendo.

As both a critic and a fan of the genre, I’ll keep giving these games chances. Hell, I was pretty sure One World was gonna be a disaster when I bought it. I have to see what they try, and where they go, for good or for ill. Rune Factory 5 looks really promising! Will it be better than Stardew Valley? I highly doubt it. But just maybe it’ll be different enough that I won’t mind.