Developed by Victor Interactive Software and published by Natsume in 2003. A Wonderful Life was the future of the Harvest Moon series, but while the reviews were positive the game polarized the fan base. Harvest Moon A Wonderful Life was the oddball game in the long-standing HM series that tried to achieve so much, but was instead hollow and disappointing. Yet, AWL ended up having great scores on Metacritic on both professional and user reviews. How is it that AWL managed to split the audience in halves and still meet moderate success?
Harvest Moon A Wonderful Life was an attempt at making a mature HM game which dealt with topics such as child rearing and a withering town. The story begins with a young man taking over his recently deceased father’s farm. Takakura who used to work with the player character’s father convinced him to take on his legacy and move to Forget-Me-Not Valley and the PC agreed. It was at this point the game begins and you’re instructed to grow crops, raise cattle, and eventually start a family. You’re given the choice of 3 candidates with some pretty serious baggage and you can’t refuse to get hitched or else the game is over. A Wonderful Life has a way of railroading the game which almost went against the spirit of freedom in most Harvest Moon games in this regard.
However, those weren’t the only changes against the open spirited HM series in AWL. The other changes included reducing the amount of time you could play in each season from 30 to 10 days, changing the time system, child-rearing being a primary focus of the game, life/death being a serious thematic, and worst of all no holiday/events! To say that A Wonderful Life was a huge departure from the other games in the series is an understatement.
A Wonderful Life placed a large emphasis placed on farm improvements which broke the game and almost destroyed any semblance of difficulty. An example of this would be the seed maker which is given to you for free by the scientist in the game. Once you obtained this seed maker you could use it to get the seeds from the fruits in your orchard and sell these at a higher price than the fruits themselves. You maximized the profits and used those to buy every farm upgrade within the second chapter in AWL and the game was finished, there was almost nothing else to strive for in the game.
This is what broke my heart the worst because I was truly looking forward to AWL. I wanted to experience the difficulties that would be brought upon by having to raise a family and a farm. But, instead I ended up stumbling into a game breaking mistake the developers overlooked which took away all the challenge in it. All I had to do was now sleep the day away and let the animals graze outside because due to the automatic dairy machine, manually doing so was not even necessary.
The trees no longer need watering after growing to their full size and with my 3 orchards that meant I didn’t even have to worry about my harvest. There were simply too many ways to make an easy game even less difficult and that removed any incentive to play. Yet, this is where some players would say “why didn’t you play it for the story?” and that is a fair question.
While I did want to see what the story was going to bring, something in the back of my head told me that it was going to end with the main character dying. As morbid as it sounds I didn’t want to see my character die and the whole family aspect of it was so superficial. Your kid will grow up to be whatever you “encouraged” him to become. While this sounds deep on paper on gameplay it simply consisted of becoming friends with the aging populace of Forget-Me-Not Valley.
I didn’t find an appeal in it, the wife kept getting older and even she wasn’t that big of a deal in-game aside from being necessary to move forward (she can leave you and take the child with her if you screw up badly). Talking to all the villagers in the valley eventually gets boring and there are very limited events in-game, some of which repeat themselves (like the resident bum stealing your products). You could go explore the ruins, but there aren’t multiple levels like in the other Harvest Moon games so you’re stuck with one set of blocks per day. While you could increase the content by connecting to Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town it was simply not enough to justify buying the game.
Often times while playing I would find myself just riding the horse around town for no reason other than to pass the time. Forget-Me-Not Valley was dead, almost nothing was going on in there and the village felt empty. Almost everyone who worked in the village had to commute to work by crossing the invisible wall at the edge of town and even the beach was simply eye candy. I tried my best to like this game, but I couldn’t do anything about it.
Harvest Moon A Wonderful Life will always be the oddball of a series which has a fantasy counterpart and even a puzzle game or even Save The Homeland which was… different. Perhaps Victor Interactive Software was going through some growing pains while trying to figure out what would lead the series into the next generation. But, Harvest Moon as a whole decided to go back to its old roots after this game which means that they realized it wasn’t as popular. Yet, I can’t help, but think that perhaps the consoles these days could handle a game like this much better and have the town feel alive instead of hollow. A Wonderful Life might not have been so wonderful, but it is a deep game which deals with some very serious topics which might be discussed in a future article.