Natsume's Harvest Moon series is one of the greatest long-running anomalies in video games today. Despite being a series of farming role-playing games that offer pretty modest improvements from game to game, and with almost no marketing muscle behind it, Harvest Moon has garnered a fairly large and fiercely loyal following. The whole thing is pretty easy for onlookers to dismiss, but an hour spent milking cows and planting tomatoes makes it clear what keeps the fans coming back. Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life, the latest entry in the series, doesn't fix what's not broken, and it delivers the same addictive gameplay the series is known for in a prettier package.
In a peculiar game like Harvest Moon, the fact that the underlying narrative is one of the most peculiar parts is saying a lot. Though you'll actually be playing the game as a young boy, the narrator is an older man who is helping you maintain the farm, and he's actually telling the story to the memory of your father, who left you this farm in the first place. As an odd combination of second- and third-person perspectives--which you could safely call anything from fourth- to sixth-person--the technique is more interesting than just about anything the narrator actually says. It's all pretty ancillary to a lot of the actual game, but it's eccentric touches like this that really define the feel of the game.
Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life is an RPG, but not in the save-the-world-from-an-absolute-evil way. Your character doesn't really have personal stats to build, but rather, the fruits of your labor are quite literally fruit. And vegetables. And milk, and eggs, and wool, and fish, and, ultimately, children. The game basically lets you play out the life of a farmer, which, admittedly, sounds like a dull, tiresome undertaking, but there's a satisfyingly meditative pacing to it. Once you get familiar with the particulars of caring for livestock, cultivating crops, and getting paid for your efforts, you'll get into a groove where it's dangerously easy to just let hours slip away as you take care of your day-to-day chores.
There are aspects of the game that take on a certain clockwork quality. There's the aforementioned groove you'll get into, and you can always expect Van, the traveling salesman, to show up on specific days, but if you grow tired of just milking your cows, collecting eggs from your chickens, and watering and harvesting your crops, the game offers plenty of other activities. You can focus your energy on fishing, animal husbandry, archeology, cooking, or even cross-breeding your crops, and each of these activities is like a unique subgame in and of itself. Or, you can just spend an afternoon hanging out in the local bar, having drinks and chatting with the locals.
Social interaction with the other residents in Forget-Me-Not Valley, the area where A Wonderful Life takes place, is vital to the experience, as you'll need to court one of the three available girls in the area to keep things going. Each has a very unique personality, and each will respond differently to your advances. Which one you end up winning as your bride will impact the personality of your child, as well as various aspects of your farm. The romantic portions of the game are surprisingly well realized, and you'll find yourself really stressing over which girl to pursue.
If you're already invested in the Harvest Moon series, you likely own a copy of Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town for the Game Boy Advance. Anticipating this, Natsume has included GBA connectivity in A Wonderful Life, and if you connect the two games, you'll be able to travel from Forget-Me-Not Valley to Mineral Town and interact with the people there. It's little more than a pleasant aside, though fans who have already put in work in Mineral Town will appreciate it.
What really makes the Harvest Moon experience so engrossing is its almost obsessive-compulsive level of detail. Just take the weather, as an example. There's a dynamic weather system in place, and if you face toward the ocean when it's about to rain, you can actually watch storm fronts come and go. The game puts you through the four seasons, though at a highly accelerated rate. The different seasons will impact what you can actually do on the farm, and certain types of fruits and vegetables will grow only during certain seasons. You won't want to let your animals outside to graze when it's raining, which means you'll need to make sure they have plenty of fodder in their troughs, but the upside is that you won't need to individually water all your plants by hand. The game is absolutely brimming with touches just like this.
One could spend pages describing all the different activities you can take part in and events that will occur as you play A Wonderful Life, but we'll leave that to the FAQ writers. Suffice it to say that the game manages to keep the day-to-day routine of farm life interesting for a long, long time. There's probably an optimal way to get peak performance out of your farming, but you can't really say that there's a "right" way to play A Wonderful Life. Like with The Sims and Animal Crossing, or in a greater thematic stretch, Grand Theft Auto, you can take from the game what you want, without any real terrible consequence.
The whole Harvest Moon series has a visual style that's best described as quaint, but A Wonderful Life makes it look genuinely great. The inhabitants of Forget-Me-Not Valley are nearly perfect 3D interpretations of the cute 2D sprites that the series began with on the SNES so many years ago. The valley is rich with detail, and going from the beach up to the waterfall will take you across a nice variety of environments. The game makes excellent use of real-time lighting effects, which look kind of pixelated on close inspection, but the fact that virtually everything casts a shadow--people, animals, trees, buildings--gives the world a very dynamic look and makes the fidelity issue forgivable. There are a fair number of graphical elements in A Wonderful Life that don't look so good up close, but it all works really well when you just take in the big picture. Generally speaking, what the game lacks in technical prowess, it makes up for with a unique and endearing sensibility and plenty of care.
The sound of Harvest Moon is something you could easily just let fade into the background, because most of the sound effects are cute and a little pedestrian. There's some craft there, though, and if you pay attention, you'll notice lots of subtle ambient sounds that help establish the game's rural feel. Some simple, upbeat tunes also help fill in the background, and the music you hear will change dynamically based on where you are in the valley. You can even change the music that plays around your farm by slapping another record on the turntable in your house, though most of the music you can choose from has a similarly breezy, upbeat theme to it.
It's a little bit more structured, but fans of low-key, open-ended games like The Sims or Animal Crossing will likely find a lot of what they liked in those games in Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life. Established Harvest Moon fans already know what they're getting into here and probably could have guessed that A Wonderful Life is a fun and potentially addictive game that, if you let it, will gladly consume any free time you choose to give it.