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February 2023


Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: Nov. 4, 2022


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Switch Review - 'Harvestella'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Dec. 5, 2022 @ 12:30 a.m. PST

Through the changing seasons, explore an imaginative world, tend your crops, make new friends, face enemies in dynamic combat, and unravel the mystery of the season of death, Quietus.

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As all good JRPGs do, Harvestella starts with an amnesiac protagonist awakening in a strange village. The village is located in the light of giant, glowing crystals called Sealights, which grant them the energy to keep the town running and healthy. Of course, no sooner does your character awaken than the Sealights emit a strange glow and meteors fall from the sky. Inside one of the fallen meteors is a woman named Aria, who claims to have come from the future to save the world. Together, you and Aria investigate the Sealights and figure out what has caused the phenomenon. You also work to repay the village by running an abandoned farm that serves as your home base. Saving the world is important, but those turnips aren't going to grow themselves.

Harvestella's plot is kind of wacky. It starts with your amnesiac protagonist being guided by a mysterious woman and introduces magical crystals, faeries, time travelers, robots, and a talking unicorn. As you progress, the encounters become stranger, and it's almost surreal how naturally the protagonist accepts that a random orphanage teacher is a legendary assassin or dragons have nested in what seem to be transported ruins from a future laboratory. The plot twists can be occasionally difficult to keep track of. I'm not sure it's a good plot, but it's interesting and the characters are likable and fun.

It's pretty much impossible to discuss Harvestella without bringing up Rune Factory because they're extremely similar games. They both take the structure of Story of Seasons and add JRPG mechanics. Rune Factory is more of a 60-40 split between farming and RPG, and Harvestella is more of a 40-60 split. The farming and crafting mechanics are extremely familiar, but they're not as in-depth or complex as in Rune Factory. In exchange, the game has a heavier emphasis on the storyline and dungeon-crawling. Surprisingly, Harvestella scratches the Rune Factory itch rather nicely, but there are a fair number of areas where Harvestella doesn't come out ahead.

If you've ever played a Story of Seasons title, you have an extremely good idea of Harvestella's farming. You begin with a single overgrown farm and a handful of seeds, and you slowly build up the farm. The core mechanics are basically identical, and I was able to jump in and play without a tutorial, armed only with my knowledge of SoS. As in those games, farming is straightforward: get seeds, plant seeds, water them daily, and harvest for profits. As in Olive Town, some machines can enhance your crops to sell for more. Thankfully, you don't need dozens of each machine to be effective. You can upgrade tools such as a hoe, hammer and watering device to be more efficient, and eventually, you unlock additional biomes and crops to make more profit.

Harvestella emphasizes growing a variety of crops rather than a single cash crop. A big part of that is that cooking is one of the best ways to boost your finances and character. Each town has its own tavern, which requests a variety of different dishes, each of which usually requires a mix of different crops and processed materials. Create these cooked dishes gets you a shocking amount of money and provides special items and new recipes that make your life easier.

Early in the game, you unlock Fairy Orders, which are requests from elemental-coded fairies. The orders function sort of like achievements and ask you to complete a variety of tasks, but completing them is how you unlock upgrades for your farm and tools. This heavily rewards you for diversity, as some objectives ask you to grow a certain number of pretty much every crop.

Beyond that, farming is straightforward. Crops grow in specific seasons and are only good for one season; at the end of a season, there is a single day of Quietus that kills any living plants still on the farm, regardless of whether they would survive across seasons. Farm soil can be upgraded for an increased chance of harvesting a "gold" quality crop, which is worth more when sold. Some crops last multiple pickings, while others are one-and-done. You can get farm animals (effectively functioning as cows and chickens) and need to make sure they have plenty of feed. It's all pretty much textbook Story of Seasons, which isn't a complaint.

On the other hand, combat is different. Players control the protagonist, who can move or attack — and that's about it. Customization comes from unlocking jobs, which you do by meeting characters who have those jobs; your protagonist learns and levels up. Each job has multiple skills that can be used in combat, and each skill has unique attributes and elemental affinities but requires a cooldown between uses. Mages can use ice and lightning spells, while Mechanists have a giant pile bunker to smash enemies. Your protagonist can equip three different jobs at once and swap between them, but once you swap away from a job, there is a cooldown before you can swap again. Each job's cooldowns are separate, so you want to shift between each job on the fly to keep your strong attacks coming. You also unlock passive skills, such as the ability to dodge or increased damage under certain conditions. You also gain party members who fight as AI alongside you, and they're usually tied to your unlocked jobs.

For most of the combat in Harvestella, you hit enemies with strong attacks and are done. Where it changes is with strong enemies, such as bosses or minibosses, who have a Break gauge. Hitting them with a certain type of element will build the Break meter for that specific element (as long as they are weak to it). If you build up the meter enough, the enemy enters a Break state and takes more damage. You can force the enemy into Break multiple times by using different elements; this increases the damage they take and unlocks special cinematic attacks from your party members for huge damage. Thus, combat is about figuring out how to deal consistent and quick elemental damage to reduce enemy HP.

It's simple but fairly engaging, as it rewards being aggressive and swapping combat between jobs. It's easy to break enemies early on, but as the game progresses, they start getting tougher. You might have to dance through a swarm of AoE puddles or chase an enemy who constantly flees to reduce their break gauge. This lends boss fights an enjoyable feel as you puzzle out the exact mechanics. It means that a boss fight can go very quickly and feel awesome, but if you're doing it wrong, it can drag on, and you risk running out of healing items. Some bosses even have unavoidable attacks that add a "soft" time limit to the fights, where you must be efficient in dealing damage to make sure it isn't a drain on your resources.

My main problem with combat is that it feels stiff. Character movement is slow, dodges have few to no invincibility frames, and many attacks have long windup times. At first, I really hated it until I reached the first boss fight and understood what the development team was aiming for. There is supposed to be a cost to using skills to prevent you from spamming them, and it ensures that you use the skill at the correct time. This only shines during boss fights; regular enemy fights feel boring and somewhat awkward. I like Harvestella boss fights more than Rune Factory's, but in comparison, I think Rune Factory's moment-to-moment combat feels better. I can easily see the combat being a turnoff for people, especially before you have a full set of jobs to swap and customize.

Dungeons are interesting. None of them are particularly long, but they each have gimmicks to keep them interesting. Borrowing from Etrian Odyssey, each dungeon has FEAR: special enemies that appear on the minimap. FEAR are much stronger than your characters and have distinct attributes. If you get too close, they will chase or attack you, and you'll need to escape. Dungeons love to put FEAR in the way and force you to figure out ways past them. One of my favorites is a dungeon full of breakable floors that throw you into a nest of FEARs if you fall, forcing you to frantically scramble for an exit before you're overwhelmed. Once you get strong enough, you can return and kill FEARs to earn powerful items.

Dungeons are not designed to be done in a single runthrough. Instead, you unlock shortcuts and teleport stones as you progress, so you can retreat and return another day. Some shortcuts are always accessible, while others require specialized repair items or tools to activate. It's pretty satisfying to delve as deep into the dungeons and return with a backpack full of rare loot and items, only to go back stronger the next time. Many items can be used to craft new gear for the farm or upgrade weapons, and it's also surprisingly common for enemies to drop seeds and cooking ingredients. It adds a nice back-and-forth pull to the RPG and farm aspects.

Harvestella does a good job of mixing the JRPG and farming elements. It doesn't hit the mark quite as well as Rune Factory, but it's a very close second. It has a much slower start, and for a while I didn't think I was going to enjoy the game, but once I started getting more tools and more challenges, it became pleasantly addictive. It's a simpler game than Story of Seasons, but that makes it an excellent "veg out and listen to a podcast" game, where you spend hours doing side-quests or changing the layout of your farm for maximum effectiveness. The heavier plot focus makes it feel less relaxing — but not enough that I felt bothered by spending a week doing nothing except growing new crops and cooking.

One area where Harvestella blows Rune Factory out of the water is in visuals. It's a fantastic example of how good art design can go a long way. On paper, the graphics are basic, with lots of simple character models and a low resolution, even in docked mode. However, the actual design of the areas is fantastic. Each one is a bright, colorful and distinctive area that is a delight to look at. It doesn't matter if it's a ruined city high in the sky or a village beach atop giant seashells; Harvestella looks beautiful. I found myself genuinely excited about each new area I was going to visit because the backgrounds looked so strikingly beautiful. The music is also quite good, with a lot of pleasantly atmospheric tunes that set the mood nicely. There isn't much in the way of voice acting, but that's a minor complaint at best.

Harvestella isn't going to remove Rune Factory from existence, but it has a lot of potential as a strong competitor. This first (and hopefully not only) outing has an extremely strong basis and manages to hit a lot of the high marks of JRPG-style farming simulation, while having enough of its own personality to avoid feeling like a clone. Only the overly stiff combat and general simplicity of the game hold it back from being as good as its obvious inspirations. It's so close to being great that it's easy to imagine a sequel hitting all of the marks. There's a lot to like here if you can get past the slow start, and by the time I finished the game, I felt almost as satisfied as I was with Rune Factory 5. Harvestella is absolutely worth a look if you're a fan of the Rune Factory franchise and want to see a different developer's take on the concept.

Score: 7.5/10

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