If someone would have suggested that I'd enjoy a farming sim, I'd have popped that illusion with a cynical lift of an eyebrow and goggled at them. Me? Farming sim? As it were ... I popped Harvest Moon: Boy & Girl into my PlayStation Portable on Thanksgiving morning, and it was 3 a.m. the next day before I finally put it down. I didn't really need an excuse to avoid the Black Friday crowds, but it was a lovely rationalization. "No, I really can't. I have to finish this game I'm reviewing." In reality, I could have stayed up a couple hours more and gone out with my relatives as they rushed to the 6 a.m. sales. Instead, I woke up late and picked up my PSP again.
Harvest Moon is a Japanese title, and it's all about farming. You know, buy seeds, plant them, water them, harvest crops and sell them, rinse-repeat? Save enough money to buy livestock, feed them, raise them and sell them. Improve your farm buildings, mine the ores required to make farm equipment, learn to cook ... Rather pedantic you think? Except that it's utterly compelling to the anal-retentive, number-crunching, must-achieve-highest-efficiency type like me.
You have your constraints — time, energy and the quality of your farm implements — and you have goals. You have decisions to make. In the time you have, you can either forage in the wilds or grow crops. What's the best crop pattern to plant in? Which crops give you the best returns? Do you spend your time in crop rotation and animal husbandry and simply buy the lumber to improve your farm buildings, or do you spend some time every day chopping wood? Do you sell the egg or hatch it? Do you sell the grown and laying chicken and hatch another chick or sell an egg every day? If I were crazy enough, I'd run an Excel spreadsheet. Luckily, I'm not that far gone. [Ed. - yet.]
There are two games — and it's reflected in the title. You can play as a boy or a girl. As a girl, you were on a ship that sank, you've washed up on shore and the village has offered you the use of the old abandoned farmstead. Your goal is to live there, make a success of the farm and court a mate. Maybe the mysterious stranger who rescued you will show up? As a boy, you've come to take over your grandfather's farm — not that easy a task as the villagers have decided to give you three years to make a success of it. Oh, you're supposed to find a girlfriend, too. You had a playmate when you visited as a young child, but you cannot remember her name. Will you meet her again?
Time passes quickly here, and you won't have the time or energy to complete all your tasks in a day if you take too much on, and your farm isn't small. Apart from the house, there's a barn, a stable, a chicken coop, a pond, an apple tree and a water mill. Luckily enough, time stops when you enter buildings, so you can spend all the time you need feeding your chickens and picking up the eggs — which are annoyingly difficult to pick up — and talking to and brushing your animals. However, if you overtire yourself, you will wake up late the next day. Exhaust yourself, you may find yourself in the hospital ... and miss a day of work. There are "harvest" sprites that you could ask to help. They are little guys in colorful "Santa" costumes, and they are well ... a little scatterbrained and, although eager to help, aren't very good at the work, but it's a help. By the way ... they also have an all-season tea party in spring.
You also have a dog, and you're given a horse, which will be taken away if you don't give it enough attention. There are decisions to be made, certainly, as a brush costs 500g, and you could spend half the day quartering your farm hunting your horse down in order to talk to it and brush it. You don't only get to name all your animals; you have to name them, as that's the only way you can sell them. They age, and you can find out how much they like you, and liking you is a direct corollary to the quality of eggs, milk or wool they produce.
The graphics are simple and colorful textures, and the avatars can be described as "chibi-sprite-like." Cute is the word. Rewards are plentiful, which provides the hook. Your crops grow. Each type, rendered nicely. Turnips, tomatoes, corn, pineapples, different flowers — they are all there. Pick up your dog for a hug, and it wags its tail, and a balloon with a little heart shows. Talk to your cow, and the same little heart shows. When you brush the cow, it even gives a little wiggle, pleasure shows on its face and it moos. Happy cows give plentiful milk and do not wander out of the barn. If they do, they can be called with the cowbell.
Controls are quickly grasped as you have an action button — which is controlled by the implement you have in hand — and the menu system is actually very intuitive and graphically representative. The only criticism I have of the menu system is the repetitive conversation you must have each time you purchase an item instead of going directly to the purchasing menu, and then you have to go through the closing conversations as well. Yes, yes, I know your body isn't what it used to be, and you're only open between the hours of noon and 4 p.m. Yes, yes, I also know you are closed on Sundays. Can I go now? Loading times are short, graphics are cute and music and sound fall well into the "cute" category — thematically matching.
Variety is provided in weather events, such as snowstorms and hurricanes that can damage structures or keep you from leaving your house. Various festivals occur each season, and villagers may come by and ask a variety of tasks of you. Pick up and deliver an apple pie, deliver and sell eggs to the inn, bring produce to a cooking festival, etc. Many of the festivals also provide minigames, such as throwing tomatoes, betting on a horse race, participating in the dog race and swimming in the sea on opening day the first day in summer. My chicken is sooo going to win in the third year! I digress, but these are the perks that make this game such fun: The discoveries and the interactions between your character and the villagers and the choices and decisions you make. The farmhouse also has a TV that gives you news and weather reports, a fun program and tips from Farmer Fran — which can be very helpful. The manual gives you enough knowledge to get started, but the rest of the information is found in playing the game.
Progress is linear. You have to improve your chicken coop before you can improve your house — which gets you a fridge, a cabinet and a range! You have to improve your house before you can improve your barn, your barn before you can build a hothouse, and way before you get there, you will realize that this is a game of time and resource management. There are quirks that make life more challenging. Storms can prevent you from tending your crops and animals. Each shop in town has different opening times and closing days, and some people don't like to do business when it's raining.
You can't go courting in the evening hours as you'll find all doors locked. You have to discover the likes and dislikes of the villagers in order to get them to like you, and hey ... what's this? As a boy, you can court the girls of the village with flowers. Take the long way in and pick a few bunches. But as a girl, you have to give them the good stuff — eggs and vegetables that you can sell? Anyway ... now that it's not just money ... who do you decide to court? The one that's the cutest in your eyes, or the one easiest to court? The love meter — a little heart at the end of their dialogue — will show you how much they like you. They all start with black, and that eventually changes to red. How fast that happens will depend on how often you talk to them and how often you court them with gifts they enjoy or whether you remember their birthday. When they are ready for long-term commitment, you ask them to marry you. Whoo! Does the game end there? I don't know. I'm not there yet.
The two games are slightly different. Depending on your gender, the interactions with the villagers and the festivals differ. Other than that, the "farming" aspect of the game remains the same.
The bottom line: Don't let the idea of a farming sim put you off this title. The Harvest Moon universe has a huge following, and this title easily shows why. Harvest Moon: Boy & Girl is much more than a casual resource management game. Sim-light perhaps, it has a compelling storyline with enough discoveries, challenges and rewards to keep you going for many, many play hours. I think I'm definitely hooked.