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I'm not much of a gamer. I've always liked Mario games, harking back to my days as a six-year old with the awesome playing power of a NES, but I'm not one of those people who is into all the latest offerings on all the latest consoles (hence my writing a review on a game that's two years old!).
My boyfriend thought he was being helpful by buying me this game. At the time, he was into some PC game, and, feeling guilty by the fact that I was spending most of my time staring at his back, he presented me with 'Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life' for the Gamecube. Being the argumentative type, I demanded to know what on earth he was thinking, buying me a computer game about farming?! Unimpressed by his attempt at romanticism, I started playing this game with a nonchalant attitude. I struggled to maintain this attitude, when, after about an hour, I was hooked.
You guide a little man around his farm, tending to crops, milking cows and collecting eggs. Sounds a bit weird, I know (I've given up trying to sell it to my colleagues at work) but there's so much more to it than that. You live in a little farming village where there are a whole host of bizarre characters who you have to talk to regularly and ply with gifts of flowers and, if you're feeling flush, some of your hard-earned crops, to win their respect. Throughout the game, these people play varying degrees of importance within your life, and later have an influence over your child's personality and life choices.
Yes, you heard me right. A child. What's a farm without a family? In the first 'year' (a year comprises of the four seasons, each of which contains ten days. A day lasts for about half an hour of playing time) you're encouraged to find a wife. There's a choice of three women in the village, one of which you must have happily trotted off with by the end of the first year - Muffy, Celia or Nami. Each girl prefers different flowers and gifts, and, naturally, has a different personality - Muffy's a tarty barmaid, Celia's the quiet bookish one, and Nami's cool as ice - so it can be difficult to get the one you want. For some reason I keep ending up with Celia - I don't know if the game follows any differently if you marry one of the other two, but the fact that it could is another one of the playability factors. It reminds me of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books I would read as a child - your choices within the game effect how the rest of the game pans out.
As the game progresses, more buildings and animals become available to you. You're encouraged by Takakura, who is supposedly some wise old farmhand but has a vocabulary made up of about six phrases, to buy a food processing room. Here you can use your cows' milk to produce cheese and butter, which fetches a higher price at market. You also get an opportunity to create hybrid crops by giving two seeds to a scary, Little Shop Of Horrors-esque plant in Takakura's house.
A lot of factors in this game can be quite educational. For example, you can't just milk your cow at any old time. It can only give milk inthe year after giving birth. So, if you want your farm to keep selling milk (which you do, otherwise you're pretty much screwed) you have to keep impregnating your cows. You can do this by buying a bull, or giving the cow 'Miracle Potion'. No, I've never heard of it called that, either. Buying a bull is not recommended, because you have no control over when the cow becomes pregnant, and could therefore end up with no milk production. The 'miracle potion' option is rather amusing, like one of those references that goes way over a child's head, but the adults in the room will secretly giggle at. Takakura turns up with a borrowed bull, and you stand outside the shed like a worried father while he gets them to do their business. Ever heard a cow being impregated?
One of the main complaints I have with the game are that certain jobs can be time-consuming. You have to water your crops twice every day, and later in the game when you have the opportunity to grow a large harvest, by the time you've finished it's nearly time to start watering from the beginning again. This takes ages in game-time. Some cut-scenes in the game, although they don't use up your valuable in-game time, are too long in real time. For instance, there's a fat man called Van (I know, I laughed too) who opens up a stall in the village every few days. By the time you've played this game for a day or two, you know what Van does and you know when he's there, but he feels the need to announce his arrival with an annoying cut-scene every time he turns up, with crys of "Come and buy lots of great things!" To add insult to injury, his great things are not that great after all.
Secondly, the characters' speech within the game is very limited. Like Takakura, the villagers have a set vocabulary of a few phrases, which become irritating when you're trying to find out about something. The worst of all is your loving wife. Bear in mind that I've never married Muffy or Nami - maybe they have more interesting things to say than "It was so much colder last spring", with a stupid smile plastered across their faces. God, she's annoying. I tried hitting her with a sickle, but the game-makers obviously don't condone domestic abuse.
Without wanting to sound like a feminist, it would also be nice to have the choice of playing as a woman instead of a man. I quite fancy the marriage-chasing scenario from the girl's perspective. And who are they to say it's the man's place to toil the fields, while his little wifey sits in the house saying "I'm finished with housework for today". What housework?? You don't do ANYTHING!!!
Overall, an enjoyable and addictive game. It has a lot of playing time - I haven't actually finished it yet, but an online FAQ I read says there are ten years in total. Each year consists of forty days which take about thirty minutes each, so I imagine it could have lasting appeal, especially as you could feasibly start all over again to try different choices throughout the game. And lads - if you're looking for something for your missus to do while you're too busy to pay her any attention, give this a try. It worked for my man, and he hasn't let me forget it...