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Monday, November 21, 2022

Farm Sim Mechanics (and Gender) Degraded HARVESTELLA

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - All I've played of HARVESTELLA is its demo, but at least I finished it!

I'm back, folks. Apparently, y'all were worried about me because, even though articles were getting published to the site (because I wrote and scheduled them!), since I wasn't responding to comments, I must've been ill or something. Well, no. In fact, if you looked at the text blurb next to the comments form, I anticipated my lack of responsiveness during my unannounced vacation, and wrote, “Expect a reply between 1 minute to 24 hours starting November 20, 2022.” For a lot of that time, I thought about HARVESTELLA, the life simulation RPG from SQUARE ENIX.

With a big harvest festival coming up in the United States of America (you people call it Thanksgiving), I decided that I'd write about my experience with HARVESTELLA. Sure, Lheticus Videre and Witch Princess have both shared their HARVESTELLA thoughts already, but I feel inspired to provide my own thoughts. For one, unlike them, I actually finished the demo before writing about it. And for two, I have a very clear point of view on it. This heading should summarise it:

How Farming Mechanics Make HARVESTELLA Worse


HARVESTELLA gives you a whole plot of land and expects you to farm for income and items. As far as I could experience in the demo, farming involves growing crops and will also include raising animals (which provide other kinds of items), which are standard activities in other farm simulation games. How do the farming mechanics fit into the RPG part of HARVESTELLA? What are the gameplay implications? I believe it profoundly affects HARVESTELLA, and for the worse.

HARVESTELLA Doctor Creis not a farmer barely lift tools
Hey, Cres, we're both equally as scrawny.
I'm an amnesiac RPG protagonist. You think I can lift the tools myself?


HARVESTELLA features third-person dungeon exploration and real-time action RPG combat. However, unlike many other action RPGs, your character's mobility options and attack cooldown times are so limited and lengthy that it almost plays like a turn-based RPG. The job system ability trees provide hints that combat in the full game becomes easier with new abilities upon levelling up, but the combat quick-dash you get during the demo is still pretty limited. Being a turn-based RPG means that you will take damage from the monsters and bosses unless you try to play extremely optimally and patiently. I'll get to why the damage is important in a moment, but first, let me explain the cost to play optimally.

HARVESTELLA The Passing of Time passes automatically tutorial
TIME.


In typical farm sim fashion, time passes. For every eight or so seconds of real time that passes, 10 minutes pass in-game. Once it gets late enough, you'll suffer a stat reduction and reduced action economy... and if it gets too late, you'll be forced to bed with a monetary penalty. HARVESTELLA is also the kind of game where even if you're standing idly and not touching the controller, time will still pass. That means you're under very tight pressure... constantly. For the demo specifically, it would end after 15 days, so it's Pikmin-esque pressure to get things done because your game will end otherwise. I don't know what kind of time pressure to do certain things before certain days are in the full game, but since the storyline tries to manufacture urgency and seasonality, perhaps that pressure exists. I've never understood how farm sim fans can talk about how relaxing those games are while time is a constant problem you need to face. That's overwhelmingly unfortunate. In other JRPGs, you aren't punished for taking your time. In those other games, there might be a day and night cycle, even, where they want you to explore at night without having to be forced to sleep then. But it'll be day soon enough, and that day won't be very different than the last day. It'll repeat instead of being something perhaps forever missable. That's less the case in HARVESTELLA.

HARVESTELLA milk ingredient description Lethe General Store
A woolum is based off a goat, not a cow.
I didn't see any cow-esque creatures in the demo. Major miss by SQUARE ENIX.


Why would you need money and resources? Because you're almost forced to take damage, and you'll need to heal and recover stamina. And if you try to avoid damage, you'll be taking way more time to go through fights, and that's also a limited resource. If the night ends before you're done with a fight, you'll lose. This might make exploring dungeons take several days. Or you'll just skip fights altogether because there isn't THAT much incentive to fight. The battle system isn't very fun with its limitations, after all, and that's all to make items (obtained from farming) feel useful. You can and will also pick up some healing items in the environment or be given them in the story, without having to farm or craft/cook them, though these will be lower-quality. They might still suffice for your purposes, and you can carry quite a number of healing items in any case.

To reiterate, the combat/RPG part of the game is hampered in order for the farming part to feel useful to the player and have their inclusion feel justified, but the farming mechanics just make the RPG part feel far less fun than an equivalent JRPG without those mechanics. (Other RPGs have no problem connecting you with money without a farm sim added on.) If you take Witch Princess's article as representative of how farm sim fans feel about HARVESTELLA, then even if you see the simulation aspects as an attempt to get casual fans to buy the game that wouldn't normally get an RPG, HARVESTELLA ain't even appealing to those casual gamers and they'd rather play a full-fledged game in that genre. And there are lots of options for those!


HARVESTELLA press kit updates to main game from demo Nintendo Switch
These sound nice (and were a day one update), but...


HARVESTELLA released on November 4, 2022. The Switch demo came out around September 14, 2022. While the changes above may be simple parameter changes that are relatively easy to code in, they, by design, have MAJOR implications on the design of the game. How thoroughly was SQUARE ENIX able to play-test the impact of the changes from users’ demo feedback? I'm worried that they couldn't have put in enough time to do so. For example, it took almost a year between when SQUARE ENIX released demos of, say, TRIANGLE STRATEGY that took user feedback into account to get to the final version. And since the demo of HARVESTELLA does transfer to the final version of the game, but the final version is changing so much in player experience... it doesn't give me confidence. And since they're not changing the demo, we can't really experience the adjustments for ourselves without buying the game. Sorry, I'm not going to take their word for it. That's what the demo was for!

At the very end of the demo, they do reveal that there is something resembling relationship-building, and it's tied to story progression. That leads me to another part of the game that bothered me the entire time I played it. It's not based on gameplay, and yet...

The Gender Situation is Messed Up


This wasn't really supposed to be its own section, but... I don't think it's related to farming. It is fairly messed up, however, and bothered me the entire time I played HARVESTELLA. Lheticus Videre already pointed out that there are three “gender” options that all lead to the exact same eight character model choices. Here's a video:



There are two physical builds/outfits (and four skin/hair colour options each) there, despite the three gender options of Male, Female, and Non-binary. One isn't inherently more masculine than the other. They're both androgynous... though I feel like they both lean towards feminine expression. It got to the point that even though I selected male as my gender, I still considered my player character to be a woman.

HARVESTELLA male pronouns he his Cres weakened state experienced hallucinations
...Who are you talking about?


Eventually, HARVESTELLA's dialogue (and it did this rather sparingly) actually referred to my playable character with he/his male pronouns. I, uh, had to stare at the above scene depicted in the screenshot for quite a while as I thought I missed something in the storyline of a male character who might have experienced hallucinations. Eventually, I realised that, yes, my playable character is actually a male and that Doctor Cres was talking about me.

HARVESTELLA Aria girl inside Omen armor Cres
Are YOU sure that this is a girl? Did you ASSUME her pronouns?!


Every other character gets to have a clear and distinct expression of gender identity but me. Aria, the redhead girl in the screenshot above sleeping on the bed, instantly gets to be identified as a girl (and looks like one!) even though she never verbally articulated her pronouns because she's too busy being unconscious. But the player character lacks this luxury. It really takes me out of the game. ...Like, it literally did.

By the way, I don't have a problem with offering a non-binary option—my impression is that instead of male or female pronouns, the characters would refer to you as “they” in conversation. I don't believe that offering a non-binary option HAS to lead to these bad player character designs. Just offer different options depending on what you pick, or offer a wider selection of options!



Ludwig isn't a fan of farming simulation games, though he is going to give a real one (Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town on the Game Boy Advance) a chance sometime in the near future, simply because he got it during his vacation. It's not a high-priority play activity for him, however.

9 comments :

  1. As someone who HAS begun playing the full game, in fact I just finished Chapter 3 not too long ago...yeah I can see where the demo can give lots of people the wrong impression. One thing I feel it's important to note that while each individual day passes quickly, there does not appear to be any kind of overall time limit, like in Stardew Valley where you got an ending after 2 years. You can have setbacks and lose time, but there aren't really consequences for doing so beyond the short-term.

    Also, where you compared the combat to a turn-based RPG, I'd compare the farming aspect to real-time strategy. Time management, learning how to optimize as you go along, is important and that is once again a legitimate reason to be turned off of the game. You're encouraged to think, okay, if I plant these crops and establish these machines, I can have these resources later.

    One thing the demo stopped cold before really being able to get into at all is the importance of crops that can be harvested repeatedly. They're VITAL for money when most of what you're planting takes more than 2 days to harvest. But with repeatable crops, most of them, once fully grown, can be harvested every 1-2 days even if it takes much longer than that for them to get to the point where they're producing at all. It's unfortunate that the "cucumble" seems to be an exception to this rule, since it was one of the only crops accessible in the demo that could have, you know, DEMOnstrated this.

    TLDR: There's a TON more to this game than the demo shows and it's a real shame.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm... actually surprised that you stuck with what you said you'd do and actually went and bought and played the full HARVESTELLA!

      Delete
    2. Well, I did. And I'm enjoying it. A LOT. More than Pokemon Violet, actually.

      Delete
    3. Heh. Well, things being better than Pokémon Violet ain't a surprise.

      Delete
  2. Gosh, with all these Harvestella reviews you're gonna have to add a Harvestella button to the top of the website. Maybe even I'll have to play the demo. Shame you didn't enjoy it as much as Lviticus Videre, but taking LV's words (excluding the condemnable pun) into account maybe there's something in the full game you can appreciate.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is the last one! (Unless Mr. Videre writes another guest article about the final version of the game.)

      Delete
    2. ...Why are you suddenly spelling my name with a V? That's not how it's spelled. <_<

      Delete
    3. I think he wanted to force a condemnable pun.

      Delete
    4. Whoops, sorry my bad! With my speed reading i must've mixed it up with the book from the bible, Leviticus.

      Also, I would never make a pun without warning, puns kill.

      Delete

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