The developers behind the cult-favorite Harvest Moon games have a knack for making endearing and enjoyable gameplay experiences out of the more mundane and peaceful activities of daily life. Instead of farming and animal husbandry, the River King series revolves around the trials, tribulations, and simple joys of fishing. River King: A Wonderful Journey is the series' first foray onto the PlayStation 2, and while there's plenty of fish to catch and tasks to complete, some design and gameplay issues keep the game's appeal limited.
You'll be able to choose from one of four playable characters in a family of would-be fishing phenoms. There's the father, who once battled with the mighty River King but was never able to reel in that legendary fish; the mother, who seeks to improve her culinary skills; the sister, who vows to catch the River King for her beau; and the brother, who wants to fulfill his father's dream of fishing stardom. There are slight differences in each character, such as the amount of money you start with or the type of bait you possess, but aside from those minor tweaks, there's really no functional distinction once you get started. After a short introductory sequence, you're pushed out the door into the village to explore your surroundings.
The game is divided into a number of different regions, such as streams, mountains, rapids, and so on, each with its own ecosystem and native varieties of fish. You'll gradually open the paths to new zones via certain quests that you can pick up by talking to one of the many non-player characters that are scattered throughout the villages and countryside. There are a number of stores in town, each of which lets you do something different--one store lets you sell your catch in return for funds, one sells you fishing equipment and bait, one sells you cooking recipes, and one, an inn, lets you rest. You won't get much direction when you start out, though soon enough you'll stumble across someone or other with a task for you to complete (which can naturally only be completed through the awesome power of fishing).
For a game that bases itself entirely around fishing, you might expect the fishing system to be pretty robust, but that's not the case here. There are three main types of fishing: bait fishing, which relies on water currents to highlight your tasty bait; lure fishing, which requires you to entice the fish slightly; and fly fishing, where you maximize long casts. Once you've found a promising area--you can see the silhouettes of fish through the water--it's a simple matter of making your cast and hoping you get a strike. When you've hooked the fish, you can then hold down the X button to reel it in, being careful not to fight the fish and break your line. Once you've mastered that, that's it. All fish, from the smallest guppy to the largest trout, will yield easily to the same technique. Catching fish earns you experience points that increase your max hit points, but your HP only goes down if your line breaks or if you need to swim or row to a new fishing spot. While it's relaxing and all, it would've been nice if the fishing itself had a bit more skill involved.
The simplistic fishing gameplay would go over a little better if there were at least a large variety of things to do, and it's true that the many characters scattered throughout the game have quests for you to accomplish. However, once you accept a quest from a given character, you're locked in. You often can't leave the quest and try to pick up another. While the majority of tasks tend to be simple to complete, the fact that you can only take on an extremely limited number at a time serves to throttle some of the game's otherwise open feel.
In fact, you get throttled at several points. While you start out with a simple bamboo pole (the father has better equipment), a float, and a few pieces of bait, you'll quickly discover that you need to upgrade your equipment to reach the best fish. To upgrade you'll need money, and the only way to make money is to sell your catch, and the only way to catch fish is with bait. While you can spend some of your hard-earned money on bait, you also have the option of retrieving it from the surrounding wilds, painstakingly, by sheer luck. There's a menu option you can select to examine the ground around you. Maybe you'll find a worm, or an insect, but most of the time you'll find nothing. You can purchase even more items that purport to make finding bait easier, but even with these items, rustling up bait is accomplished through spamming the "examine" option and hoping for the best. Even after you get a bunch of bait, the amount of fish you can catch and hold is determined by the size of the basket you have with you. Want a bigger basket? You have to buy one with the money from catching more fish--you get the drift. Especially in the early-goings, you'll be spending a lot of time shuttling a limited catch back and forth in an effort to slowly raise money for your various necessities.
Aside from the fishing quests and such, you're able to cook fish and enter in cooking competitions, but there's no real skill involved here, either--if you have the ingredients, you select a recipe and then select cook. There's no sound, animation, or images of aromatic food--just a curt text message informing you if you succeeded or failed in making the dish, which takes a bit of the romance out of it. Probably the best addition to the game is the adorable little animals that randomly assault you to ask trivia questions. You have a chance to meet guinea pigs, rabbits, horses, and other critters along your way, and if you answer their animal-related trivia correctly, you can score free bait. Answer incorrectly, and they may steal one of your fish. What a guinea pig wants with your salmon is a question you may not wish to ponder too carefully, however.
Visually, the game is wholly underwhelming. There's a certain cuteness to the character models that doesn't quite balance out the overall lack of animation and detail. The NPCs you meet are clones of the same few models over and over again, and only a few of them are named. In a bizarre twist, characters that are obviously children are labeled as generic "man" and "woman" when they speak. The fish have a good amount of detail, and it's obvious that attention was paid to the modeling of different varieties, but even they seem a bit out of place in the dull atmosphere. To make matters worse, the shadows of fish you use to determine where you cast your line have this infuriating habit of either simply disappearing or getting wedged up against the shore where they can't move out and you can't catch them.
The environments are pretty bland, and there isn't even a change of theme music as you move between areas that look similar and have essentially the same buildings and NPCs. There's very little music in the game at all, as the sound is mostly taken up by a variety of water noises, from trickling streams to rushing waterfalls to the calming lap of waves at a lake. The biggest detraction to the sound package is probably your footfalls, though, as every time you take a step your character makes an abominable squeaking noise. There are only a few surfaces where this noise doesn't apply, and you'll be rapidly seeking them out in a futile effort to avoid squeaking yourself insane.
The game comes for a budget price, but it shows in the budget presentation and general lack of gameplay depth. While you can definitely sink a lot of time into running around and doing all the quests, entering all the fishing and cooking contests, and catching every single variety of fish, whether or not you actually derive enjoyment from these activities depends heavily on your tolerance for a highly simplified and feature-free experience. As a rare example of the fishing-RPG genre, the game can be worth a look for the novelty alone (and the super-cute guinea pigs), but even if you're nuts about fishing, River King wears out pretty quickly.