How the Creators of Harvest Moon Are Keeping Up with 'Stardew Valley'

Can 'Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns,' the latest game from the original Harvest Moon creators, keep up with the indie farming sensation?

May 9 2017, 8:11pm

Header screenshot courtesy of Chucklefish.

I had been keeping an eye on Stardew Valley for years prior to its release, but when it finally came out it took me a few days to actually commit to the purchase. A few other independent games inspired by Bokujou Monogatari (the Japanese name for the series that was originally Harvest Moon in Europe and the Americas, which is now called Story of Seasons) had come out during Stardew Valley's development, and each one had failed to impress. It was enough to make me reconsider my enthusiasm. I couldn't tell if it was these specific games that weren't doing it for me, or if I was too much of a farm-sim snob to enjoy fan-made takes on the genre.

Eventually, curiosity got the better of me. And as it turned out, Stardew Valley is an amazing game that doesn't just borrow from the games that inspired it. It makes meaningful improvements, and integrates its own ideas about the genre. My biggest question going into it had been whether or not Stardew could truly live up to the BokuMono games it owed so much to, but it eventually left me asking the inverse. Could the next BokuMono game—this year's Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns—live up to Stardew?

By the time Stardew Valley came out, that next game was only a few months shy of release in Japan—far too late for the developers to learn any lessons from Stardew. But Trio of Towns doesn't feel like a step backwards compared to its indie cousin. I'd stop short of calling it a perfect chaser, but at the very least it feels like both games may have independently arrived at an important conclusion: Players crave purpose just as much as they crave progress.

All screenshots of Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns courtesy of XSeed Games

Purpose is key to keeping player momentum in any game, but especially games as self-directed as farming RPGs tend to be. For some players it's enough to have chores and events and define their own purpose day-to-day, but for others soft objectives and breaks in a set routine provide even more motivation. Little tasks and short-term goals fill stretches of idle time that otherwise risks feeling wasted, particularly on days when players exhaust their available stamina early or simply don't have much to do, as is often the case in winter.

Stardew Valley's smaller quests and daily tasks—like the simple errands that can be run for neighbours—give players something to keep busy even as they work towards larger goals, like restoring the Community Center, for instance. In Trio of Towns, players can do small jobs like chopping wood or delivering flowers for the residents of the three nearby towns, which provide a little pocket money, a little community goodwill, and don't require using up precious stamina that might be needed to complete any leftover farmwork.

Both Stardew Valley and Trio of Towns also offer concrete meters and milestones to measure progress against, compared to the more opaque goals that have been central to many BokuMono games in the past. In my earliest experiences with these games I couldn't tell if I was actually making progress or just spinning my wheels in an endless routine. At some point I accepted that feeling as normal.

But that opacity provides little encouragement to keep playing, a problem that Stardew Valley addresses with the process of restoring the community center. In Trio of Towns it comes down to ranks and requirements meted out in order to be considered a successful farmer, or to raise your fellowship with the nearby towns. A bit less organic, but the effect is the same; players gain a clear sense of their progress in the game, beyond the more abstract markers like the size of their house or the number of crops in their fields.

There are still some things that Stardew Valley caters to better than Trio of Towns, and vice versa. It seems like we'll be waiting a little while longer before any BokuMono title leaves room for relationships outside of rigid heteronormativity—the ability to dance with members of the same sex at the occasional seasonal festival is cold comfort until then.

For those who can forgive its perpetually outdated approach to romance, the more recent BokuMono games have at least made efforts to modernize and refresh the basic flow of play. Fieldwork has been massively streamlined and adjustments made to limit tedium without spoiling the balance of the game entirely. When a 3x3 plot can be watered or harvested with one button press instead of a dozen, or when a poorly placed field can be picked up and moved without disturbing anything planted within, players are far less likely to get bored by the game's core routine.

And while that routine is simplified, factors like crop color, size and so on still give hardcore players something to focus on. Tools also have multiple upgrade paths that make them more effective or reduce the stamina consumed from using them, so there's ample room to prioritize certain qualities in produce as much as in the watering can and the hoe that help grow them.

Many of these systems have roots in earlier BokuMono games, but their coalescence is well timed. Trio of Towns feel like a good entry point for players who discovered the genre through Stardew Valley but aren't sure where to go from there. For returning fans, it doesn't feel like any ground's been lost after the smart improvements made in Stardew. While both games still have their own unique touches, neither eclipses the other.

And frankly that may be the biggest compliment Stardew Valley could get from me. BokuMono games tend to flow into each other smoothly. Individual tweaks and additions aside, there's always a sense of familiarity in playing them. I always know what I'm getting into when I start a new one, even as aspects of them evolve. It makes them comforting without being dull, safe without being stagnant. Stardew Valley fits perfectly in the midst of that canon, which means it should be as much of a pleasure to move on from now as it will be to return to down the line.