At first glance a "farm simulator" may seem like an incredibly mundane concept, poorly suited to the world of videogames. Harvest Moon however, manages to not only make farming interesting, but exciting as well. Finding enough time in the day to tend to your farm, head into town, explore the countryside and chat with your sweetheart is a challenge in itself, a problem compounded by the fact that shops are only open on certain days and during certain hours. The Winery for example, is only open between 9 and 12 in the morning, while the Clinic is closed on Wednesdays. Forget to plan ahead and you could end up wasting an entire day.
Fortunately, the game is paced very well, giving you plenty of time to accustom yourself to farm life and the trials and tribulations that come with it. Although you're free to continue long after your three-year limit is up, the villagers will evaluate your performance after the allotted time elapses and decide whether or not you've lived up to your promise. Each season: spring, summer, fall and winter bring with them new crops, challenges and festivals to attend.
Your first year on the farm is relatively hard. Clearing the land, tilling the soil, planting crops, and watering them is a time consuming affair, mostly due to your basic and ineffective tools. As time goes by, however, you'll be able to level up your implements, allowing you to do things more efficiently, such as watering an entire 9x9 square of crops in one go. Of course, because you now have sheep, cows and chickens to look after, your days are just as busy as ever.
The 2D sprites, tile-based environments, and basic animation found in Harvest Moon provide little for gamers to get excited about, yet the simple graphics complement the rustic, slow-paced nature of the title perfectly. The sound too is less than stellar. All in-game chat is text-based with no voice-overs at all. Basic it may be, everything sounds authentic enough, be it the rooster crowing in the morning or the sound of rain pouring down on the fields. Gameplay is really what Harvest Moon: Back to Nature is all about, and it's in this department where the game shines.
Watching everything fall into place as a result of your hard work is a beautiful thing indeed. The simple pleasure of seeing your first crops sprout up or an extension to your house being finished is what keeps you glued to your seat. As the years pass by, the game keeps things interesting by allowing you to grow crops in a hothouse, expand your livestock barns, and learn to cook recipes. In fact, certain recipes (and the utensils needed to cook them) can only be obtained by watching your television set on certain days.
Enjoyable as it may be, farming is but one aspect of life in the village. Gaining the favor of the woman of your dreams is no easy task. Each eligible woman in the village has a heart indicator showing how much they like you. Starting out, the heart is black (they don't hate you, but they're not really partial to you either), but by giving them gifts, surprising them with meals cooked in your kitchen, and remembering their birthdays, they'll begin to warm up to you. Once the heart indicator turns red, you can propose to your sweetheart... unless of course you have a fear of commitment.
Most games attempt to keep things fresh by offering new ideas and challenges. Here, routine is not only encouraged, but it's an integral part of playing the game. Waking up, checking the weather report, feeding the animals, tending the fields and going into town make up the bulk of your duties. Perform them well, and the fruits of your labor will soon show. Despite its simplistic appearance, Harvest Moon: Back to Nature is an engaging, always entertaining title overflowing with charm. A few minor problems (annoying load times being one) aside, this is an experience not to be missed.
Graphics: Though much of the world is made up of 2D sprites, houses and the like are constructed of polygons. Nothing that really impresses, but it suits the style of the game just fine.
Sound: A handful of music tracks change only with each season, but they're good enough not to get repetitive, not to the point of annoyance anyway. Sound effects do their job admirably.
Enjoyment: With a game that looks and sounds like this, gameplay is really all there is to keep you coming back. Thankfully, the gameplay is top-notch. Running a farm has never been this much fun.
Replay Value: Completing the three years will take you a fair number of hours, though you could really play this game for months.
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