Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness – Staff Review

It’s been ten years since a quirky game that fused farming with dating sim first appeared on the Super Nintendo. Since then, Harvest Moon has spawned countless games and appeared on just about every system. Island of Happiness for the Nintendo DS, which commemorates the series’ ten year history,  brings together a mix of tried and true elements  and a few new twists. It also represents a significant departure from the series by giving players very few resources at the outset with the result that the beginning of the game is somewhat more challenging than is traditional. This decision makes the game more interesting in the long run, but it may put off some players who are expecting the easy ride typical of Harvest Moon games. Also, as an added bonus to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Harvest Moon, Island of  Happiness offers players the choice of a male of female character (whereas typically the series releases a “girl” version of a given Harvest Moon game after the fact). That choice is a welcome addition.

Island of Happiness begins with a shipwreck. The player finds him — or her — self washed up on an uninhabited island along with a small group of castaways. And while this may sound like the beginning of a Lost in Blue game, events quickly take a more traditional turn. It appears that the island was once inhabited but has since been abandoned, with only a collection of derelict buildings and topple-down bridges left to hint at the thriving community that once peopled it. Conveniently enough, there’s an abandoned ranch that the player is left to take over. From there the story becomes more or less familiar: you must restore the ranch and in doing so attract more people to the island and transform it once more into a thriving community.  To do this you will have to plant crops, raise animals, mine, fish, befriend villagers, and perhaps court a spouse and raise a child. But it’s no small feat when you begin with nothing but a piddling sum of money, a few turnip seeds, and not even enough stamina to last you the day.

It just wouldn't be Harvest moon without happy cows
It just wouldn’t be Harvest moon without happy cows.

As with any Harvest Moon game, the story is quite sparse. The game does have several cutscenes for each of the player’s potential love interests and for rival pairings as well. These are always welcome  as they add a little extra to the story, though they are few and far between, and character dialogue can remain the same day after day for long stretches. What there is of the story, however, is well done, with a decent translation and characters who, while only just sketched out, have their own quirks and histories that are filled out little by little as players befriend them. Sometimes a few lines of dialogue can hint at a tantalizing backstory, which unfortunately is never fleshed out. Yet the fact that the writers have put such thought into each of the main characters is a nice touch and shows the attention to detail that went into the game’s creation.

The meat and bones of Harvest Moon games of course is farming and related activities such as fishing, mining, and raising livestock. Many of these activities are not immediately available in Island of Happiness. The first year of the game is the most dynamic since nearly everything in the game must be unlocked, either by reaching benchmarks, such as shipping a certain number of crops, building bridges to access other parts of the island, or by purchasing upgrades. The player begins with next to nothing. Stamina is very low and, initially, there’s little that can be done to restore energy. There is also a new addition in the form of the fullness meter. While stamina is restored by sleeping or eating, fullness is only restored by the latter, and there is precious little food at the outset. A depleted fullness meter will lead to players oversleeping. This may prove frustrating to players who, during the first spring, find themselves rising at noon, watering a few of their crops, and very quickly running out of stamina. Some players might even be tempted to give up early on, but those who persevere past the first season will find that the game becomes progressively easier.

Much of the first year of the game is focused on unlocking new areas and upgrading the ranch. New members of the main cast will appear as bridges are built, opening up new areas of the island. Subsidiary characters will also begin appearing, bringing with them the diner and cafe, which will allow the player to purchase food and thus restore their fullness and stamina meters. As new areas are unlocked, new characters and activities become available, in turn making gameplay more varied and interesting. Most players will find themselves striving to unlock new items and areas throughout the first year and into the second, and since many upgrades tend to be on the pricy side, they will have to work for it. This new system of incremental improvements makes upgrades feel much more worthwhile than in some past iterations of the series. In Island of Happiness, each improvement makes life on the island a little bit easier.

Once players gain access to the meadow, the villagers can begin holding festivals, some of which will give the player the opportunity to win “Wonderfuls,” the items used to upgrade tools. Each tool has a set number of open slots for Wonderfuls. In the first year, these will range from one to three, though tools with more slots can be purchased in succeeding years.  There are seven colours of Wonderfuls and each has a different effect when equipped on a tool. Effects include reducing stamina use, increasing yield, increasing the number of slots on a tool, etc. Wonderfuls can also be found at the bottom of the mine and can appear in the shop in winter. However, unless players look up information online detailing how to affect which Wonderfuls appear in festivals and how to get them to appear in winter, the player will be entirely at the mercy of chance. Since Wonderfuls play such an important role, it is unfortunate that the method of obtaining them is so obscure.

A similar problem exists with regard to farming. A new addition to Island of Happiness is the introduction of a complicated quality system for items. Island of Happiness adds, and at times suffers from, a complex ranking system for items. The quality of crops will vary greatly based on the amount of water and sunshine they receive compared to what they require. As a result, weather is more complex than in past games. Days with heavy rain will deliver double the water to your crops compared to days when it only drizzles. The same is true of very sunny days compared to moderately sunny ones. Since some crops require extra water or sunshine  and others less, the weather effects can either be beneficial, resulting in fast-growing, high-ranking crops or harmful, leading to slow crop growth or even killing crops that are over-watered by the elements and well-intentioned farmers. One of the subsidiary characters late in the game will mention that you needn’t water your crops everyday. This will seem puzzling to fans of past Harvest Moon games where “water your crops” was a mantra. Unfortunately, while the system does provide extra complexity and a degree of unpredictability, its complexities are never fully explained in the game nor in the instruction manual, again requiring players to look elsewhere  if they want a more detailed explanation.

Island of Happiness is entirely stylus controlled, and while it may seem awkward at first not to have the option to use regular controls, the touch screen controls work quite well and are easy to get used to. Menus are well designed overall. The controls work so well that it is rare for players to, for example, miss the shipping bin when tossing items into it — an old-school Harvest Moon problem, which thankfully has been eliminated in Island of Happiness. There are a couple of issues with the new system, however. Wonderfuls must be added to and removed from tools individually and players must confirm their decision, a process that can become tedious and unnecessarily time-consuming later in the game when players have many Wonderfuls and wish to switch them from one tool to another. A “remove all” feature would have been a godsend. Stacking is also a bothersome affair in Island of Happiness. An item’s rank — and thus its shipping value — is determined by its freshness, quality, and size, each of which are displayed in the form or a colour bar. Only items with exactly the same levels will stack automatically, which typically will only happen when harvesting crops. The rest of the time items will have to be stacked manually in which case the ranks are averaged out. The result is that players will spend a great deal of time rearranging items in their inventory, both due to limited inventory space, and to save time when tossing items into the shipping bin. The complexity of the ranking system is an interesting idea, but it becomes overly cumbersome. Neither of these issues is game-breaking, but they can be tedious at moments. That being the case, it is even more fortunate that the overall menu system and touch screen controls work as well as they do.

Like most everything in Island of Happiness, festivals must be unlocked.
Like most everything in Island of Happiness, festivals must be unlocked.

The visuals don’t push the envelope, but they are pleasant, with the changing of the seasons (so critical to the game) marked by a change in colour palette. Character portraits are also nicely drawn and add a degree of expressiveness lacking in the sprites. Music is pleasantly ambient and while it can’t stand on its own, it never becomes unpleasant. It does a good job of reflecting the seasons, with summer music having an air of business and winter’s theme being punctuated by sleigh bells. Ambient sounds, particularly the rolling of the waves by the seashore and the hooting of owls after nightfall, are a highlight.

Harvest Moon games are typically of prodigious length and Island of Happiness is no exception. Players who wish to get 100% completion, meaning bringing all the subsidiary characters to the island, will have to invest days and days of their life as it can only be accomplished by year four of the game. After a hundred hours of gameplay it’s easy for players to have only scratched the surface. As and added bonus, those with a competitive streak can also use the Wifi feature to upload their farming stats and participate in weekly and overall rankings. Be warned, though: the competition is pretty stiff.

Island of Happiness, while it does some things differently, remains a Harvest Moon game and as such is unlikely to change anyone’s mind about the series. Tending crops and building relationships will either seem relaxing or dull depending on whether or not one is a fan of simulation in general and Harvest Moon in particular. Island of Happiness may not win over unbelievers, but for fans of the series, it adds some new twists that keep the game fresh. In spite of a few rough spots, the game deserves praise for adding a hint of challenge in the series that makes one’s progress feel like a much greater achievement than it did in earlier entries.

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