Playing a game for review often means playing it quickly. When Story of Seasons: A Wonderful Life came out more than a month ago, I tried to do just that. I hustled through the first few weeks of this farming sim, trying to quickly reach milestones and expand my farm so that when it came time to write my review, I could be confident that I’d had the full experience. After just over a week of taking this approach, my frustration was growing, and I was ready to write something less than stellar. Why was it so hard to progress through this game? Why didn’t I feel like I was getting anywhere, as I churned through the days of my character’s life? I was feeling bored, and stuck, and despite pouring hours into ranching and befriending the townsfolk, I was hitting a wall. But as I moved into the second year of my character’s life, it finally hit me – I was the problem. This isn’t a game that’s meant to be churned through. This is a game that’s at its best when you take it slow and appreciate the smaller things in life, and the time spent with those around you.
Despite being a fan of the Harvest Moon series, I somehow managed to miss A Wonderful Life when it was initially released on the GameCube – but the premise is a familiar one as a fan of the series. You play a would-be farmer of your chosen gender (including non-binary for the first time!) who moves to the small town of Forgotten Valley to pursue their late father’s dreams of running a farm in the area. As they build up their farm, purchasing and breeding animals and tending to a variety of seasonal crops, they are also encouraged to get to know the other residents of the village – and perhaps even find someone to spend their life with.
As it turns out, the latter isn’t really a suggestion. The game has a strong focus on family legacies, the way we choose to spend our lives, and the influence it has on future generations. Just as you are following in your father’s footsteps, after the first year of getting accustomed to life on the farm, you are urged to choose a spouse, with whom you parent a child. There are a number of potential suitors living in Forgotten Valley, all of whom are available to pursue no matter what your gender. Whether you go for one of the guys like artistic fitness guru Gordy or broody farmer Matthew, or one of the girls like complicated newcomer Nami or sheltered musician Lumina, you’ll learn about each character’s existing relationships to their families, other townsfolk, and even to Forgotten Valley itself. Developing relationships with these characters, even those you choose not to pursue, is a rewarding use of your time – it’s just hard to do it in a purposeful manner.
Most of the game’s cutscenes will occur at seemingly random times, triggered by often unpredictable events. Walking into the local bar when the right combination of people are sitting down for a drink might prompt a cutscene that brings you closer to one of the people involved – or has the potential to negatively impact your relationship instead. Alternatively, you might re-enter your farmhouse after a day spent killing time, when something dramatic happens and half the village shows up at your door. I can’t express how many times I accidentally triggered cutscenes because I just happened to go into my farmhouse to sleep, then remembered I’d left my chickens outside, and so happened to be exiting my house between the hours the game wanted me to (but in no way indicated I should). It’s a fun metaphor for the randomness of life and how you have to roll with things as they come, but it’s also one of the reasons I suggest this game be played slowly – if you try to force events (without the help of a guide, obviously), you’ll drive yourself mad.
The gameplay loop itself is largely repetitive – nobody moves to Forgotten Valley to live a fast-paced life. You can spend your days talking to villagers and giving them gifts, fishing, tending crops, raising animals, selling your products at a pop-up shop, or digging for artifacts in the mines – none of which are particularly thrilling tasks on their own. There’s a pleasant mindlessness to going through the daily routine of watering your crops, feeding the animals, and letting them out to roam in the pastures as you collect their milk, eggs, or wool, but all of this only takes about two in-game hours. The rest of the day is yours to do with as you wish, and having the same conversation with villagers over and over while you wait for their cutscenes to randomly trigger is only fun for so long. The game seems weirdly aware of this, giving you the option to ‘visit other towns’, which basically just skips half the day for no discernible reward beyond killing time.
Though the series is becoming more diverse as a whole, A Wonderful Life is weirdly trapped in the past by its own premise. It’s progressive in that it allows same-sex relationships, the potential for your character to be non-binary, and a wardrobe with options that aren’t gender-locked. But at its heart, it’s a game built on ‘traditional’ values. Work all day, find a partner, have a kid, repeat the cycle. There’s no option to live your life childless – if you don’t propose to someone before the end of the first year, the game will choose someone for you. When I came close to proposing to my chosen partner, her family started talking to me about how I was supposed to take care of and provide for her and how they were passing her off to me as if she were an orphaned child in a 1970’s musical that I was adopting. For the series to truly adapt and become more progressive, it’s going to need to take a look at some of its core themes and find a way to make them feel less outdated – and I really hope they make these sorts of changes.
That said, it’s clear that those problems are relics of the original game – and this remake doesn’t stray too far from its roots. The graphics are sharper, but it still very much feels like a GameCube era game, often in ways that are equal parts endearing and a little disappointing. Story of Seasons: A Wonderful Life is a nice way to bring an old classic to a new audience, and though it includes some welcome modernisation, it also feels a little stuck in the past. But hey – maybe we could all use some of that. Maybe we need a game that reminds us that it’s okay to sometimes just be – to take in the scenery, spend time with friends, and enjoy our lives, without always needing to be working towards completing a task. In this wild world, we could all use a little break, and Story of Seasons: A Wonderful Life can offer just that.
Player 2 reviewed Story of Seasons: A Wonderful Life on Nintendo Switch with a code kindly provided by the publisher.