No friend of mine
Story of Seasons: Friends of Mineral Town is the Switch surprise that nobody was expecting – a 3D remake of the 2003 Game Boy Advance classic, Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town that promised to be a fun, reimagined experience for farmers old and new.
Having mostly played the Harvest Moon puzzle games, I was keen to sink my teeth into a fuller representation of the legendary farm sim series. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to play this game in a post-Stardew Valley world without constantly comparing it to Stardew Valley. I’m even thinking about Stardew Vallery right now. And while Harvest Moon remains the granddaddy of its genre, Story of Seasons: Friends of Mineral Town is proof that with every new addition to the series, we stray further from the harvest goddess’ light.
If you think Animal Crossing is a capitalist nightmare, Mineral Town is an extractionary marathon, ready to milk your sanity down to the last drop. Time moves at a sadistic clip. You have to buy your own knife and pot to cook, and 15 hours into the game, I still haven’t found any workable recipes. Every business in the town has wildly different operating days and hours, which requires more planning than necessary to do simple things. Mining the caves isn’t an exciting challenge – it’s a dull exercise in masochism. There’s a self-indulgent option to build a Town Villa, which the game low-key mocks in a Library text; there are similar snippets of satire in the game, but the writing misses the mark.
There’s also a weird layer of Stepford Wives-style conformity, thanks to the presence of the church, pastor Carter, and police officer Harris, who patrols a town of barely over a dozen people. There are an excessive number of community events, like Cluck Cluck Clash, a chicken fight in which you enter one of your own chickens. In fact, during the first chunk of the game, you’ll get invited to events that you can’t even participate in yet, because you don’t have the right requirements. Is it weird that I said no to the church event? Are they judging me? Who knows! Did I mention that Harris is the mayor’s son? Read the room, Harvest Moon.
There are also nature sprites who help you do your chores. Stardew Valley at least gave you farm technology like sprinklers to alleviate some guilt – you didn’t have to rely on guileless magical beings for all of the manual labour. One admittedly nice feature here is that you can assign sprites to different tasks, but they’re only really effective if you spend time training them. Another small blessing is the home cabinet – upgrading your house will take building materials straight from the cabinet, so you don’t have to cart around lumber and stone. But in the face of the bigger picture, these are conveniences I can live without.
One of my main issues with the game is its abject lack of juiciness, a polarizing game design term for sensory feedback from interacting with the game world. This is a critical component of farm sims simply because of the sheer repetition of tasks involved. It could be the satisfying thwack of an axe hitting a tree, or a controller rumble when you catch a fish – tiny, invisible things that amplify the interactivity of your surroundings.
What’s less than a line?
In embracing a generic 3D style, SoS: Friends of Mineral Town has effectively smoothed out the juiciness and rich, gritty play-feel of farming. Its bland new aesthetic has a knock-on effect on how the rest of the world works and responds to your actions, and it’s especially noticeable in a labour-intensive farm setting. You don’t get to plant your own trees, or place your own furniture. Removing your ability to customize item placement is a blow to the illusion of tactility. There’s also the cursed pedometer – a gift from Mayor Thomas at the start of the game – which hauls real-world tech and behavioural baggage into an escapist experience you’re supposed to enjoy.
To its credit, SoS: Friends of Mineral Town does haul itself into the 21st century by allowing same-sex relationships and girl children. But the characters are largely one-dimensional, with tired, limited dialogue that undermines the game’s function as a social simulator. Wives are still portrayed as shrewish gossips who gather in the plaza, and a lot of the men are largely interchangeable (Zack could easily be Dudley, and vice versa). I’m resigned to marrying Gray because I accidentally figured out what he liked early on in the game.
There are days when it’s too windy to even go outside, which is when the game repopulates your freshly-cleaned plot of land with a ton of rocks and weeds and stumps, because farm life is cruel. If the developers wanted to hammer home the fact that solo farming is a Sisyphean crawl towards depression and serious orthopaedic conditions, the message just isn’t landing. Like many other life simulators, Story of Seasons: Friends of Mineral Town will probably benefit from sunk cost fallacy (if you make it past the first 20 hours, why not another 20?), but if you want a farm sim to wholeheartedly commit to, seek your pleasure elsewhere.
[Reviewed on Nintendo Switch]