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Coming back to Forget-me-Not Valley!

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    Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life Special Edition

    Rating: 3.0 – Fair

    Coming back to Forget-me-Not Valley!

    Ah, Harvest Moon. While most games were full of action and adventure back in the day, Harvest Moon came along and showed us that living a peaceful life as a farmer could be quite fun as well. As a kid, I absolutely fell in love with this farming simulator and followed the series ever since it came out on the Super Nintendo.

    One thing’s for sure though: the Harvest Moon series has changed a lot over time. While I’m reviewing "A Wonderful Life: Special Edition" (which is a PS2 port on the PS4), this game originally came out on the Gamecube back in 2003. So, if ou happened to miss out on the Gamecube and PS2 versions back in the day and want to know what to expect out of this PS2 to PS4 farming simulator, you are in the right place! Let’s get to it!

    Getting to know the Valley!

    Like many Harvest Moon games, A Wonderful Life beings with you inheriting the family farm from your Grandpa’s will after he dies. with your Grandpa’s best friend living nearby to show you the ropes of farm life. A simple premise for sure, but the story was actually one area that really impressed me with A Wonderful Life.

    The reason for that is that it… actually attempts to tell a story (Harvest Moon games prior to this are generally very, very light on their attempts at story-telling). Not only do you inherit and run a farm, but your character will actually age throught the game as the game runs through your character’s "life". For example: in the first year you are basically forced to marry one of three girls in town. From there you’ll have children and watch them grow year to year as you and your wife get older. The game lasts a total of six years before it ends.

    While that sounds pretty cool, there’s really not much to it besides the concept. Forget-Me-Not Valley is full of unique characters that each follow their own schedules and through the years they will age as well (which is neat to see year after year). One cool thing is that your child’s career can be influenced by who you hang out with (and the toys you buy him), but all of this "real-time" story stuff is really off by itself as very little of it actually affects the game play (your wife and son really don’t do anything for you, game play wise).

    Instead, the biggest draw here is the game’s characters. Granted, there’s not a ton (this is a pretty small town), but like I mentioned earlier they all have their own schedudles and you can give them gifts and become friends with each one of them. Doing so often results in them giving you new farm tools or vinyl records for your house. Many of them are very quirky as well, with special events you can see if you head to certain places at certain times.

    Still, there’s not a lot of "story" to be had here. Quircky characters, sure, but most of them fit into one stereotype or another and their daily habits aren’t that interesting. Once big thing I have to gripe about is that they really dropped the ball with the "festivals" in the game. They are just short, unintersting garbage and the developers should rightfully be ashamed of that. Talking about unintersting things, I’d also add that your "wonderful life" isn’t very intersting either, as it’s pretty much six years of farming, watching your kid (and villagers) age and, well… that’s pretty much it. All in all, the story here is filled with good concepts, but poorly executed.

    Realism over fun?
    (Game Play)

    Onto the game play! Farming is the name of the game and it’s definitel present here. You are given two fields to farm on with a third available for purchase later in the game. All of the fields vary in quaility, but you can plant anything anywhere. The game has four seasons as you may imagine and only certain crops can grow in certain seasons (so be careful of when you are planting things!).

    As far as crops go, there’s a fair selection here. Not a great selection though, as A Wonderful Life sticks to the basics, but there’s also a variety of trees you can plant as well. I’ll give the game a pass on this though, as later in the game you can cross-breed plants to come up with new crops that have their own seasonal requirements (and weird shapes). The process to do this though is super annoying and just bad game play design as you need to talk to someone and breed the crops one at a time (Who thought this was a good idea? More on bad game play desing in a bit…).

    Let’s talk about the animals now, as that’s the other side of making money on the farm. You have Cows, Sheep, Chickens, Goats and Ducks in this game (apart from your "pets": your Horse, Dog and optional Cat). For the most part these animals function like previous games with happiness levels tied to the quality of the product they give you, but Goats and Ducks are basically unlocked as you keep playing the game.

    One thing that really annoyed me was how they handeled cows in this game, and that’s because the cows basically only produce milk for about three seasons and then dry up. Want them to keep producing milk? Well then you have to get them pregnant. Want them to stay happy? Don’t get rid of the calf! Want that calf (that grows into a cow) to start producing milk? Whelp, you better get it pregnant as well!I see what they are doing here as they clearly wanted to add some realism to cow-raising, but from a game play standpoint (and a fun standpoint) this is just… a mess.

    There’s a couple of mini-games you can do around town, but not many. A grave-cleaning game, a milk-chugging game (I am the milk-chugging champ!) and a "claim the area" game that’s really hard to win. Very basic. In fact, that kind-of defines the game play as a whole: very basic. Basic with some bad game design here and there. I’ll also add that if you’ve played previous Harvest Moon games (Friends of Mineral Town came out around the same time), you would likely have been fairly disappointed with the variety of farming in A Wonderful Life.

    Working out the bugs…

    A Wonderful Life is definitely a product of its era, graphics-wise, and with this PS2 to PS4 port it definitely shows. The game is fully 3D of course but you can definitely see its age with the block-ish polygons used in the character designs. It’s not super-distracting if you played through that era, but it’s definitely noticable.

    Speaking of noticeable, another huge strike against this game has to be the occasional lag-spikes and graphical problems in general. For example, the camera here is just absolutely horrendous. You can control it to an extent and there’s even a first-person view you can use (althoug there’s not much of a reason to use it), but the camera hangs up on the landscape a ton and the rendering distance is just abysmal. The game also has this fog effect that’s super annoying as well. It’s a shame, as the original Gamecube version is much better graphically (and when they brought this over to the PS4, they didn’t even try to fix any of these problems).

    Other than that though, everything else graphics-wise is pretty solid. The character designs are definitely above-average I feel (again, these are fairly unique NPCs) and the seasonal changes affect Forget-me-Not Valley well enough. Animations are also quite solid. It’s just a shame they couldn’t be bothered to optimize (or work on) the technical aspects of the game when they brought it over to the PS2 (or PS4!).

    Those peaceful farm-life tunes.

    I’m fairly torn on the audio in A Wonderful Life. On one had it’s got some fantastic (and often times relaxing) tracks. If you want to hear some of the better tracks (in my opiniong), check out "Wandering", "Marine Jazz" (the bar theme) and "Song of the Gentle Breeze". The fact that you can change records in your home is also really cool (especially when you start wracking up the collection by befriending villagers).

    However, there’s some things I dislike here as well. For example, if you walk away from your farm, the music just stops. It’s like your farm is this magical space where you get music and everywhere else, well… you better like sound effects only! Generally though, if you go inside the houses around town each inhabitant (or family) has their own track just for their house. Ok then!

    I should also note that there’s no voice acting here, apart from grunts and work-sounds here and there. The soundtrack itself is solid in my opinion, but the fact that it’s so chopped up around town and only works when you’re around our farm may turn many people off.

    You live only once!

    Let’s talk about the game’s length and re-playability now. I’ll be honest: after two years of A Wonderful Life, you’ve pretty much seen everything it has to offer (apart from the aging mechanics and cut-scenes involving the "Harvest Goddess"). Farming and Animal Rearing doesn’t change that much it turns out. I mentioned the four seasons, but I didn’t mention that each season is only 10 days long. While this isn’t realistic at all (the developers used up all their realism on that cow milk!), it feels OK given the game’s length (six years) and the fact that each day lasts a comfortable amount of time. It does, however, tend to make crops feel a bit less important as you are basically using an entire season for one season’s harvest.

    Regarding actual re-playability, there’s not much here to make you want to go through A Wonderful Life again. You could marry someone else I suppose, but… why? Go play a different Harvest Moon game already (or Stardew Valley, which is probably a better choice…). There is one thing that drew me in however (and is the only reason I played this game for as long as I did): trophies! Indeed, this release is the first that has included trophies and, for the most part, this is a pretty good trophy list (although getting the cut-scenes to trigger in this game can definitely be a chore). So, for trophy hunters like me, that is definitely a plus, but it still doesn’t help the re-playability at all as those trophies should only take one play-through.

    Overall: 6/10

    In the end, while A Wonderful Life has some good ideas it feels like many of them just fall through. It also feels like the actual farming aspect of the game likely suffered because of it. There’s still some charm to be found in this title, but the bad game play designs, technical issues and the game’s age greatly diminish the experience as a whole. And yet… I still played through the game to the end. Perhaps I was driven by that Platinum Trophy, or my fondness of the series as a whole (something similar to Stockholm Syndrome?) but I’ll never forget my time with Forget-me-Not Valley despite knowing that there’s definitely much better Harvest Moon style games out there. Hopefully this review has helped you out in some way! Have fun and keep playing!

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