Harvest Moon: Save the Homeland is the latest in Natsume's addictive farming simulation series. Unlike traditional combat-oriented RPGs, Harvest Moon features a novel premise. Each game in the series has challenged players to sow seeds, harvest crops, turn a tidy profit, and build involved relationships with other townsfolk. Like the games before it, Save the Homeland brings your young character to a dilapidated homestead and lets you work from there. Sadly, not all is bliss on the farm. Money-grubbing developers plan to flatten the town and build yet another faceless amusement park in its place. The citizens had no hope, until you showed up. As the inheritor of your grandfather's farm, you have one year to nurture the farm back to its previous state and somehow find a way to convince the developers that the town is best left undemolished.
The PlayStation 2 version of Harvest Moon brings with it a graphical overhaul that nicely conveys the lighthearted feel of the series. The entire game has been rendered in a colorful cel-shaded fashion--a style that suits Harvest Moon nicely. The characters, animals, and locales are more detailed than ever before, while still maintaining the cartoon aesthetic that has always been the Harvest Moon trademark. The puffy, potbellied cows are simply adorable, while the characters you will interact with on a regular basis are sharply dressed and all have an individual style to set them apart from the other citizens. Witnessing the sunrise and sunset is impressive, and there's something unmistakably endearing about watching the first leaves of autumn flutter down to earth, signaling the change of season. Exploring the rather sparse landscape in 3D exposes some slight issues, though. The third-person behind-the-back camera angle gets stuck behind in-game geometry occasionally, and at times the perspective isn't what it should be. Positioning your character perfectly for watering crops or tilling soil can sometimes be a taxing problem, but this can also be seen as part of the challenge. In addition, there are slight transitional load times before moving into every area, and as you need to race around town rather often, this can get rather tiresome. Considering the uncluttered environments, these technical problems should have been all but eliminated.
On the audio front, Save the Homeland entertains with the cheerful melodies and exaggerated weather effects that fans of the series have come to expect. In addition to your farm's theme song, each season brings with it a new theme that plays as you explore the countryside, and while they repeat infinitely, they provide a pleasant backdrop for your daily routine. The same set of whistles, barks, and subtle tool noises round out the aural selection, completing a package that neither overly impresses nor disappoints.
The daily routine in Save the Homeland varies very little from the first hour you play to the 100th. Each morning, you'll rise from your bed, watch the weather report and a cooking show on television, and then go outside and prepare for a hard day's work. If you haven't already found a dog, you might leave food in a dish in the hopes of attracting one. If your hound is already accounted for, you may spend some time teaching it a trick or two before performing your duties. Tilling soil, planting seeds, watering soil, harvesting crops, and lugging those crops off to market in your handy rucksack is the bare minimum. You can also squeeze in time to forage for salable goods or go fishing at the local watering hole in hopes of catching "the big one." You'll need to take time out of your day to pay tribute to the harvest goddess, for her gifts are useful indeed. And then, you must make sure to be kind to your neighbors, so they will in turn be kind to you. Harvest Moon may be a younger player's first introduction to the unexciting duties of real life, but they would never know it with all the fun they'll be having.
Of all the Harvest Moon games, Save the Homeland easily has the most solid storyline. There are nine different endings, each representing a different way of stopping the troublesome park developers. Once you've reached one of the endings, you have the option to begin a new year, with all of your hard-earned renovations and livestock intact. You can feasibly reach one of the endings and "beat the game" in a relatively short period of time, but reaching all nine endings is a lengthy task, and you're in no real rush, giving you plenty of time to enjoy the daily routine. One unpleasant side effect of this continuously recycled game system is that you never get to spend a great deal of time in the winter months, which although being tough on the farming side of things, are especially picturesque. Despite these predetermined endings, Save the Homeland is still predominantly a nonlinear experience, and it can be enjoyed and replayed nearly infinitely. Sadly, Save the Homeland includes the series' painfully slow scrolling text, and the developer saw fit to omit a function for skipping lines. Additionally, players who were intrigued by the surprisingly adult references to alcoholism, gambling, and other personal issues in Harvest Moon: Back to Nature will be disappointed to find that the characters in Save the Homeland aren't quite as imperfect.
Far too many games come packed with poorly written, uninformative manuals, but Harvest Moon: Save the Homeland contains a perfect example of what game manuals should be. There are clearly explained instructions for all the many duties that need be performed, as well as explanations of the effects of seasonal weather and comprehensive tutorials on caring for animals and growing crops. Each of the 20 characters is profiled, and a handy list of birthdays is included, reminding you of the importance of gift giving. Important tips, basic recipes, item listings, and much more are all laid out in 28 pages of nicely organized and highly useful information.
Fans of the previous versions of Harvest Moon will find that a number of changes have been made to the series. Most notably, the hammer and ax tools have been removed in an effort to streamline the farming process. You no longer need to clear weeds from the fields or smash rocks to create additional open ground. Nor will you need to go spelunking for ore to mine or chop wood to build fences and additions to your home. In previous games, nearly all the area around your home could be used to plant crops, and later in the game, you could maintain well over a dozen plots, as well as a hothouse. Save the Homeland has instead set aside a small plot of land, where the soil is always ready to be tilled. The crop selection has been reduced to four--potato, tomato, corn, and breadfruit--and you can no longer raise sheep for their wool. Crops are also planted in individual squares instead of in groups. The courtship aspect of Harvest Moon has also been changed. Instead of finding a future wife, Save the Homeland instead limits you to only dating the local ladies, likely because of the young age of the protagonist. Perhaps most drastic was the removal of the delightful festivals from Harvest Moon: Back to Nature. These changes may be seen as a step backward by many of the series' enthusiasts, and die-hard Harvest Moon fans may be put off by the removal of many of these beloved features.
Counteracting the otherwise simplified approach these changes imply, Save the Homeland has what is likely the fastest daily clock in the series--a single day literally flies by. Once you factor in the time that needs to be spent foraging, fishing, and squeezing in the occasional part-time job for the neighbors, it will seem like there just isn't enough time in the day. And with the removal of the storage bin, which in previous games made selling crops a cinch, Save the Homeland becomes a strategic lesson in time management. Luckily time stops indoors, and you can still find time to develop relationships with the many colorful NPCs. Fostering these relationships is what you will likely spend the most real-world time on. Visiting characters on their birthdays, giving gifts, and watching their reactions to you change from mild indifference to adoration is intensely satisfying. That many players will wish there was more time to explore and perform what are essentially a repetitive series of menial chores is a testament to the Harvest Moon series' addictive gameplay.
By downplaying the farming aspects of Harvest Moon, Natsume has decided to make Save the Homeland a more social game than its predecessors. Dealing with nature and creating genuinely fun social interaction are things that the series has done well, and few games can claim to be as deeply involving as Harvest Moon. If for some reason one of your animals should fall ill and die, the subsequent mourning and funeral sequence you sit through is absolutely heart wrenching. This is countered by the absolutely splendid feeling you'll get when the girl of your choice finally decides to stop making snide remarks and lets you know that your birthday gift is exactly what she wanted. If anything, other RPG developers should take note of Harvest Moon and examine role-playing in its truest sense.
The Harvest Moon series suffers because it is what many would call a "niche genre." It's an RPG only in the basic sense, having more in common with dating sims than the traditional hack-fests that have saturated US store shelves. It definitely won't appeal to anyone who can't look past the nonviolent gameplay or childish caricatures. Previous games in the series may have offered more features, and deeper, more compelling gameplay, but the simplified nature and attractive graphics of Save the Homeland make it an ideal choice for those new to the series. On its own merits, Harvest Moon: Save the Homeland is an engaging, long-lasting experience, and it may just be some of the most fun you can have on a lazy weekend afternoon.