The popularity of farming simulators has increased in recent years. This is probably due to games like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing becoming successful all over the world. At first, I struggled to understand why doing manual labor on a virtual farm was appealing, but the more I dove into the vibrant world of the Harvest Moon games, the more of a fanatic I became.
There is a certain charm in taking care of cute animals and being needed by the residents of a rural town. That’s why, after 15 years of tweaks and additions to the popular formula, I am still excited to get my hands on games like Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town.
Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town is the next title from the popular series and features life simulation mechanics where you not only take care of your own farm but also help build-up the town you just moved into. It was developed by Marvelous Interactive and published by XSeed Games and will be released on March 23rd, 2021, for the Nintendo Switch.
The Switch version was played for this review.
“Moo”ving Story? Nah.
The premise for most of the Story of Seasons games tends to be pretty basic, and Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town doesn’t really mess with that formula. Off the bat you are introduced to your customized character, a city slicker that has decided to move to the town their grandfather helped build. The expectation is that you’ll take over his farm and start your own life there.
Besides honing your farming skills, you are also pushed into assisting with the development of Olive Town by the town’s Mayor, Victor. This is in part due to Olive Town’s inability to attract tourists, and the villagers’ desire to change that. Throw in some harvest sprite shenanigans and you pretty much have this game’s story.
Now, despite their repetitive narratives, these games have never had an issue enticing me in the past. This is mostly due to the many in-game events and lively characters that you’re introduced to as you progress along. Building relationships with the townspeople has always been important both for gameplay reasons, and because it brings the town to life and immerses you further into the world you’re trying to help shape.
Unfortunately, Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town falls short in this department, leaving it a bland mess all around. After playing the past titles, I was both surprised (in a bad way) and disappointed with the quality of the events and the interactions with the townsfolk. Most heart events (the name of story-progression interactions between your character and the townspeople) lasted less than a minute and the dialogue was lifeless and dull. Even the love events, which were one of my favorite milestones, were lackluster and left a bad taste in my mouth. In fact, when I finally became my crush’s girlfriend I had to check the progression page to make sure this was indeed a romance event, as the dialogue was flat and uninspired.
This particular flaw is evident not just during events, but pretty much any time you talk to one of the townsfolk. Their dialogue is stagnant and rarely changes no matter how many times you talk to them, and even when your heart levels increase, they pretty much say the same things. This also includes your love interest. I incorporated talking to every villager every day into my gameplay routine to quickly raise their heart points, a task that began to feel like a pointless chore the more I realized their behavior wasn’t going to change regardless of what I did.
Perhaps that is an apt description for what playing this game felt like. A pointless chore. Due to the basicness of the story and the blandness of the characters, there was no enjoyment to be found in progressing. I simply powered through my boredom for the sake of this review, unlike the past titles where I spent 8-10 hours a day glued to my console striving for progress.
XSeed has promised updates to fix the dialogue and other issues with the game (a minor one was released during the time I worked on this review) but given that I haven’t seen those changes implemented at the time of writing, I don’t know how much of an impact that will have.
To end this part on a positive note, I will say that the character designs this time around are quite diverse. There are some Japanese themes but Olive Town is also home to a Hispanic family, as well as a few dark-skinned characters, which I love!
If you’ve ever played a farming simulator, you know that properly managing your time is your biggest responsibility. Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town is no exception, and while freely choosing the activities you’ll be taking on during your day-to-day is certainly the bulk of the gameplay, there are some additional factors introduced in this installment that will dictate how you spend your time.
For example, crafting in Pioneers of Olive Town is done using “Makers” (specific machines meant for making cloth, lumber, etc) and the amount of time it takes for an item to be completed varies, so you may find yourself running back to your farm a lot if you want to maximize how many pieces of lumber you want in a day. I have to be honest and say that I found this unnecessary addition to the franchise annoying. Olive Town is pretty big and the NPCs are spread apart, so having to run back to my farm to check on my Makers cut into a lot of my playtime. The system’s flaws are further compounded by the fact that you are limited on the amount of Makers you can have on your farm at a time, making the crafting process super slow, especially the further you advance into the game.
The other activities aren’t quite as demanding as crafting, and there are quite a few to choose from. You can plant crops, dig in the mines, fish, take photos of the wildlife for the town’s museum, explore some interesting maps (looking at you volcano), walk your dog, hunt for treasure, and a myriad of other things.
However, despite it seeming like I had all these options, I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I wanted any real progression I should only be doing certain things. The truth is that if you want to complete the missions given to you by either the townsfolk or the mayor, you have no choice but to spend your days collecting certain materials and crafting. This also applies to important personal milestones like upgrading from the tent you start off with to a brick and mortar house filled with benefits like a kitchen or a bath.
There were probably a few in-game days where I did nothing but chop wood or pick up grass. It all began to feel more necessary than fun. But while Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town does introduce some of the franchise’s most tedious mechanics, there are also some useful ones.
For starters, in past installments, you were normally given a chicken or a cow by a townsperson, but in Pioneers of Olive Town you can start off your animal collection without spending money by taming the wild animals that appear on your farm. Taming animals is only possible if you’ve fixed up locations they’ll be living in, which start off as being run-down until you either pay or gather the materials to fix them, but it was nice to save the additional cost on the starter animals, especially because breeding is a bit more complex this time around (you can’t breed unless you’re at a particular skill level which you raise by interacting with your animals, so unless you spend money it can take a while).
A few other things that I was happy about were small quality of life changes like not needing to be in a set place to trigger an event with a townsperson (being in the general vicinity worked fine) and getting notifications for things like my child’s first steps. It was especially relieving when I got my character’s scooter fixed as it saved me a ton of time moving around.
“Baa”d Load Times…
It’s been a while since I felt like I was spending more time on a game’s loading screen than I did in the actual game, and I can’t say it’s a feeling I missed. Pioneers of Olive Town suffers from terrible load times, an issue that XSeed has begun patching (it’s helped a little), but constantly glares at you in the face as you’re pretty much met with a loading screen every time you enter a building.
The game does look and sound decent, but it’s by no means impressive. There are no standout tracks and my only compliment for the environment is that it’s colorful. All I could think of when playing the game was how confusing it was that a Wii game that came out in 2008 (Harvest Moon: Animal Parade) is still the best-looking game in the franchise.
There were also certain factors that made it clear that Marvelous did not put their best foot forward when developing Pioneers of Olive Town. A prime example of this being their decision to reuse the same graphics when characters were having a meal. The dialogue would rave about the soup you were tasting, but your character would be forking up a fish dish? Even the ps2 Harvest Moon games put effort into reflecting the items you were eating. It was jarring, to say the least, not to mention immersion-breaking (something XSeed also plans to patch).
To make things worse, the game also has random moments of freezing depending on what you’re doing (sometimes you don’t even have to be doing anything at all besides trying to load into an area.) XSeed actually fixed this particular issue as part of their recent updates, but not before it soured my gameplay experience.
To say that Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town disappointed me is an understatement. I have been playing these games since I was young, and while I don’t expect all of them to be hits, I certainly didn’t expect this level of regression either.
There are certain mechanics whose flaws are impossible to ignore (looking at you, Makers) and the fact that you get no emotional engagement or payback from interacting with the townspeople just makes it harder to sit through. There were some minor quality of life fixes that made playing a little easier than in past titles, and the diversity of the cast is great, but these factors are definitely outweighed by all of the game’s other flaws.
It is worth noting that it sounds like XSeed will be patching the aforementioned issues, but I’m not sure how much I would get out of it after investing so much time into the current build. It feels like a big ask to start over just to enjoy what should have been done correctly the first time.
As a fan of the Story of Seasons franchise and a long-time player of farming/life simulators, I would not recommend this title to fans right now, but maybe in the future with more additions and fixes it’ll be worthwhile.
Review copy provided by XSeed Games for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of XSeed Games.