Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: November 4, 2022
Reviewed On: Switch
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Action-Adventure, Farming Simulator
Forays into the farming genre have been a prevalent practice in video games as of late, so an obvious question associated with such a trend is how does one title stand out over another? The Square Enix-developed Harvestella boldly approached the prospective inquiry as an experience simultaneously embracing action combat and crop management.
Of course, it’s far from the first title to do so, but the fact that Square Enix was creating it was enough to make it distinct. As a result, there was palpable anticipation following the game’s June 2022 announcement. Unfortunately, amidst addictive activities, Harvestella doesn’t cleanly stick the landing due to its lack of combative polish and presentation faults.
Harvstella follows a silent amnesiac protagonist whose default name is Ein. They awaken near the quaint Lethe Village, learning of the disturbing intermittent Season of Death, the Quietus. Crops wither, and people generally suffer during this occurrence. Another threat is Omens, armor-clad beings who some suspect are behind the seasonal havoc since they mysteriously investigate the Seaslight, four enormous crystals that govern the seasons. Amid this inconsistent peril, the protagonist and their new allies encounter a mystifying girl named Aria, who claims herself to be a time traveler. Then, after introductions and exposition, the two of you team up to investigate the many Seaslight, meeting countless characters all facing their own plights and gradually uncovering truths regarding their world.
Harvestella admittedly takes a good while to pick up. In fact, the first two chapters are solely dedicated to tutorials and introductory comments from the cast, with chapter three being where exploration and customization truly open up. Players will have to be patient during these starting hours, and that alone might not be up everyone’s alley. Still, the story does become relatively engaging later on, boasting concepts contrasting the fantasy aesthetic, such as the time travel sci-fi nature teased by Aria. Further, brief instances of bonding can occur with party members and significant NPCs, informing players of additional facets of their characterizations and backstories.
These bonding episodes tend to be varied in their contexts, such as delivering items for supposed medical reasons or simply hanging out with recently made friends. Most characters’ motivations and personalities come across well, painting an immersive world. Well, immersive to an extent, anyway. The voice acting in Harvestella was consistently jarring since, for some reason, party members are only voiced in exploration and combat, while story scenes are entirely unvoiced. It’s somewhat distracting since the title is incredibly story-heavy. Hence, the lack of total commitment toward this incorporation that would’ve breathed more life into the cast is more than questionable, especially when it’s already partially there.
Gameplay-wise, Harvestella is far more of a mixed bag. It can be roughly divided into two general components; farming and combat, though there are other parts in between. Farming works as you’d expect, with players able to tend to a field, plow tiles, plant seeds, and water crops. These crops bear fruit at varying times, dependent on their type, and serve multiple uses. For instance, they can be cooked into meals or shipped, eventually rewarding currency. Livestock can even be cared for once you can financially afford the process.
Farming is a swift practice, and its systems become slightly more involved the further one progresses, partially thanks to the faeries. These elemental creatures impart busywork onto you that is usually quite simple, such as harvesting a specific number of a crop or the like. Completing these tasks grants special rewards like making farming even more convenient, e.g., greater ranges for watering and harvesting. Additionally, there are even some devices players can craft and place on the farm, where inserting materials results in valuable items. On an offhanded note, the faeries are voiced while wandering at the farm, though they’re unvoiced in the cutscenes, like the party members.
As a relative beginner in the farming genre, I can’t say whether it will satisfy veterans. I’m willing to assume no because there’s a bunch more going on in this game that isn’t farming, thereby lessening its focus. Still, there’s a decent variety of actions to do in short bursts that make the process continually gratifying. Regrettably, the beginning hours don’t accurately depict how you can approach farming since there are expensive tools one can’t yet buy, and space is a constant concern. I believe that’s probably to be expected in the genre, though. Summatively, the farming never overstays its welcome while also managing to leave lasting effects imperative for in-game progress. Combat, on the other hand, is not quite as cut and dry, and it honestly somewhat ruined the experience for me.
Harvestella’s other half, so to speak, is its action combat, comprising a Job system that enhances its selection as additional new party members are encountered. Further, each Job has its own, albeit compact, tree, housing active skills and passive benefits amplifying their overall efficacy. As if that wasn’t enough, there is a simple upgrading mechanic for weapons in town, merely requiring currency and materials to perform. Conceptually, the combat has the right factors to be enjoyable, but in practice, it’s just not. Of course, it’s worth keeping in mind here that reception on something this broad will vary. Still, I’m fairly sure many will relate. Fighting in this game is an awkward, haphazard mess that fails to be the sum of its parts.
As for why, it’s mostly due to the stiff, clunky movement. This is more of an issue that has to be felt firsthand rather than believed from afar, but it quickly becomes evident. There’s a lack of fluidity with animations and an inability to cancel actions mid-combo, resulting in every battle encounter feeling like a mire. Oddly, dodging is not an automatic function and has to be unlocked in select Job trees. To be completely honest, some fights don’t even feel entirely action-based due to how leisurely everything plays out. The numerous Job options don’t adequately supplement this fault, either.
Moreover, even when accounting for the possibility that this specific combat approach was intentional, I often had to exhibit little thought or strategy about what to do because of how straightforward and swift it is to grow stronger. Save for a few exceptions in later scenarios; it’s all usually pretty mindless. Thankfully, it’s not all negative. There is mid-battle Job switching, albeit with cooldowns, to provide some potential shake-ups. Affinities are also present, though you don’t have to pay them much attention. These mechanics serve to lightly mitigate the combat’s shortcomings, but they aren’t enough to wholly instill enjoyability.
However, I will admit that the soundtrack managed to help me muster enough motivation to move onward in combat-related affairs. It’s legitimately some of Square’s best work; the composer, Go Shiina, deserves as much acclaim for their efforts here as possible. The action tracks are exemplary, bursting with frenetic motivation, while the town and field themes tend to be somber, fitting the title’s bleak world. In essence, the songs are the most steady stream of quality throughout this game.
The presentation is a facet some players will find fault with because Harvestella’s character model animations and certain environments simply don’t look even remotely close to fitting for the hardware, making some civilizations and naturalistic locales look devoid of life. This issue is exacerbated by how often and dependent town life is to the game, so it’s a collectively unfortunate result. These difficulties heavily contrast the absolutely stunning character portraits that I wish the game at least somewhat tried to mirror.
Other gameplay factors include side quests, of which there are plenty. A fair bit of them are decently dense, with sufficient dialogue to elevate the supplementary background cast, even if the towns feel relatively lifeless because of their miniature size and mirrored NPCs. Rewards are varied in utility as well, so they’re always worth looking out for. Fishing is a neat little past time, too, as effortless as it is. There’s no shortage of activities to partake in, meaning that everyone’s gameplay experiences will likely differ in spite of the linear dungeons and story progression.
One final element I’ve neglected to discuss is the passage of time, a standard in the farming simulation genre. Those unaccustomed to such a restriction may understandably perceive it as a turn-off, but honestly, I never found it to be a genuine bother. Dungeons have countless shortcuts you can construct to mitigate later backtracking, a particular item allows for warping directly back home, and several areas have fast travel points. Plenty of conveniences are made to alleviate any potential irritation with the time, so don’t be wary of that if it was one of your sticking points before purchasing.
I’m in a questionable spot with Harvestella. The vast majority of this review has been exceptionally positive, with praise delivered to the soundtrack, cast, farming, and more – my most significant areas of critique being rooted in the combat and presentation. While finding only two elements of the game to fall short drastically (aside from the missing voice acting) doesn’t seem too bad, the combat in Harvestella, for instance, is one of its primary ventures and is what players will spend extensive amounts of time on. Even the performance on Switch is passable, as there are only a few substantial frame drops in specific circumstances.
So, my scoring may seem at odds with what I’ve said, but that should also demonstrate just how lackluster and dull I found the combat system, coupled with the unpolished models and environments. Still, if you can get past its faults and perhaps enjoy it, Harvestella provides a memorable, varied JRPG experience that boasts standout characters, an intriguing narrative, and one of Square Enix’s best soundtracks in years.
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