PREVIEW: Story Of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Townby Caitlin Moore,
While downloading Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town, I realized something: I've never actually played a Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons game. I'm familiar with the concept, mostly because it would be impossible to pay even a modicum of attention to games and not have. I've also poured more hours into Stardew Valley – which I quickly realized is an indie version of the franchise – than I care to admit, because life is hard and scary right now and sometimes you really just need some pastoral escapism, know what I mean?
Not that my inexperience was a hindrance to enjoying the game. This is a series that, while it may build on and refine itself from installment to installment, ensures that every game stands on its own and is beginner-friendly. I didn't feel like I was missing any context for anything happening in the game, except perhaps knowing what was new and what was a long-standing legacy beyond the broadest strokes of running a farm and dating townsfolk. I made it through spring and summer, playing mostly while taking breaks from working on an article with a tight deadline, and found it to be a lovely way of relaxing and giving myself a break.
The first pleasant surprise came with the character creator. It wasn't as granular as some are, with no sliders or individual features, but the options were cute and I had fun deciding whether to give my character a “gentle” or “elite” face, and what hairstyle would go best with it. More importantly, nothing was gender-locked; in fact, the only indication of gender I had to choose came when Victor, the mayor, asked if I was a grandson or granddaughter.
The farming aspect is rather straightforward: you till the soil, plant seasonal crops, water them, and then harvest them. You raise animals for milk, wool, eggs, and other byproducts. You forage the land and explore the mines for natural resources that you can use to craft equipment. You maintain the land so it doesn't become overgrown with trees, weeds, or, in this game, puddles of water. It's repetitive, but in a relaxing sort of way, and you really do feel like you're making progress as you build up your house and expand your farm.
The new mechanic for PoOT (haha, poot) is Earth Sprites, nightmarish egg-shaped little creatures with goggling eyes and pouty lips that will gather resources and play minigames with you. I found myself not interacting with them much; my farm provided enough that I didn't have much need for what they gave me, and I didn't find the minigames particularly engaging. Also, they're ugly and I didn't like looking at them more than I had to.
The other half of the game lies outside my farm, in the titular Olive Town, a sleepy seaside hamlet hoping to boost their economy through tourism. You contribute by providing resources to build up the town's infrastructure, such as improved roads, street lamps, and benches, and donating treasures, fish, and photos of local wildlife to the museum. In exchange, you get a small honorarium and, more importantly than that, the love of the townsfolk.
Your relationship with the people of Olive Town is the game's real heart; that's what has given the brand the strength to carry on over all these years without getting lost in a sea of generic sim games. There are thirty-seven people you can interact with, ten of whom you can date and marry. They're all kind and decent, without any real hard edges or cruelty. You get little scenes with them based on your relationship, town development, or just the passage of time. You gain relationship points by talking to them once a day or giving them gifts, and their bios in the menu offer helpful hints about what kinds of gifts they like for an extra boost.
The daily conversations tend to be repetitive and a bit dull, just gossip about any upcoming or recent events. The scenes are more fun and display the characters' individual personalities, which have been essential in helping me determine who I want to pursue a relationship with. This is no dating sim designed to light your fire; the character designs are cute and cartoony and you have to put in some serious imagination to consider any of them genuinely attractive. I haven't made up my mind who to date yet; I'm between Iori, who hails from pseudo-Japan and loves fishing, and Laura, who works at the tourism booth and has a fiery personality. Although, given my choice, I'd much rather pursue Lars, the bike mechanic with guyliner and two-tone hair, or Beth, the shy museum researcher from out of town. Sure, they're already dating one another, but that just means we could all date each other at the same time.
There are only really two online features, both based around the tourism motif. One is that other people's characters will visit your town as tourists, which you can check at Laura's desk. There's not much to do with this; it's not like you can have meaningful interactions through them. The other is uploading pictures you took with the in-game camera as “postcards”, which function as user-generated loading screens. This can be pretty mixed; some players took beautiful pictures of the town and its citizens, while others zoomed in on the female villagers' chests and animal buttholes. It'll be interesting to see how the feature develops once there's a wider player base.
Now that I've written my article, I have to ask myself whether I'm planning to continue my game, and I think I will. There's still a lot to unlock and explore in Olive Town and the world beyond, and the game was an effective way to unwind while working on a stressful assignment.
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