Ever wondered what life would be like if it was winter all the time? What plants would we be able to grow? How would we be able to cope with the lack of sunlight and rain? (Sounds like just another day in England to me - Ed)? Well, in Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley we get to find out, as we explore a land where spring, summer and autumn have been absent for some time…
For those unfamiliar with the series, the Harvest Moon games are a blend of role playing, farming and friendship simulation. In The Lost Valley, things get off in a semi-familiar way, as after deciding on your name and gender, you find yourself caught in a snowstorm on your way to visit the mysterious Lost Valley. An unexpected voice sounds out, convincing you to take shelter in a nearby cabin, where inside you spot a rather comfy looking bed - the perfect place for a quick kip in the middle of a snowstorm. Before too long, you're blissfully asleep, where in your dreams, you're visited by a mysterious blue-haired woman, who asks for your help…
It's soon revealed that the valley has been experiencing extreme winter weather for some time now, and your help is needed to break the never ending cold and restore the other seasons to the land. By talking to the various characters wandering around the valley and completing their requests, you'll not only develop a strong bond with each individual (something that's key to the "friendship" aspect of Harvest Moon), but you'll also uncover vital information that'll come in handy on your quest.
As with previous games that share the "Harvest Moon" title, there's a strong focus on farming here. You have the opportunity to name and raise cows, sheep, chickens, a dog and a horse. The cows, sheep and horse all share a barn together, and the chickens stay in a coop, while the dog keeps you company in your cabin (aww). You can collect produce from your animals: milk from the cows, wool from the sheep and eggs from the chickens, each varying in quality depending on how much they all like you! To gain their trust and obtain the best quality produce, you have to befriend your animals - which is one of our favourite parts of the game. For chickens, all it takes to get on their good side is to pick them up (which counts as hugging them), while your four legged friends prefer to be talked to (no, really!), or being given a nice old brush down. Of course, you need to be careful not to forget to feed them, too - otherwise you'll soon end up in their bad books!
Of course, there's more to being a farmer than just stroking fluffy animals all day, and Harvest Moon has those with greener fingers covered too. There are a variety of fruit, veg and flowers that you can grow in the valley, and it's up to you to decide where best to plant each one. Certain seeds thrive in specific conditions, whether they grow best in a certain type of soil (each patch of soil is rated in terms of quality, from dry soil to swampy soil), are a bit partial to fertilizer, or prefer to be planted at a certain height (some will prefer to be grown low down and others up high)… Which brings us on to soil placement! A new addition for The Lost Valley, you can now dig up squares of dirt and store them away, until you have need for them. This allows you to construct areas of various heights for growing your crops, or to build paths leading to hard to reach areas in the valley, which is a rather exciting twist!
As you progress in the game you discover that the woman with the blue hair who visited you in your dreams is the Harvest Goddess, a magical being who looks over and protects the land. Together with her helpers, the Harvest Sprites, it's up to you to work together to solve the season crisis. Each of the Sprites is eager to help you with your tasks: once a day they can perform a specific service for you, either helping your crops grow, helping your flowers grow, watering your plants, or moving your animals in and out of the barn - so it's worth making use of them.
Similar to the last game, Harvest Moon: A New Beginning, Lost Valley also includes the ability to make your own buildings, like barns, coops, bridges and water wells, letting you customise your world however you see fit. This time, in order to build things, you'll need to call on the help of an eccentric inventor. After selecting a building, your inventor friend will tell you what you need to gather to build them (usually a collection of ores and wood) - and once you've got enough, you can pay him to make what he calls an "insta-building". This is stored away in your Mary Poppins-esque bag until you're ready to place it somewhere in the valley. You can also redecorate your cabin by asking him to make wallpaper, flooring and curtains! The option to make your cabin bigger will eventually become available, and the installation of a kitchen is a must!
Mining is also a big part of this game. As well as certain ores being necessary for making buildings, a lot of the requests from specific characters involve hammering away in the mines for shiny rocks. Some may ask for raw ores, whilst others may require them to be refined - handily, there's a blacksmith who visits the valley regularly who can do this for you. We soon realised just how important the game's new soil-moving-path-making system is, too, as we found ourselves needing to get in all of the mines, only for the entrances to all be either below ground, or up high sticking out of a mountain top! Although time consuming, we had a lot of fun deciding on the design of our dirt staircases.
Another new feature for The Lost Valley is the ability to cook dishes - something we had a lot of fun doing once we had our kitchen installed. To begin with, all you can make is strawberry jam, but you'll soon find yourself collecting more and more recipes - which is good, as there's no room for culinary experiments here. Unless you've unlocked the specific recipe for each dish, you won't be able to cook it by mixing things together at random. As you'd probably expect, most of this is tied to the villagers' quests, as you're asked to make certain dishes, which in turn unlock the recipes needed to complete other characters' requests.
The trees in the valley can all be cut down too (well, not all at once - unless you really hate trees), and the wood you collect from them can be used to either build things, or complete requests from those who may be a bit short of lumber themselves - and are apparently too weedy to chop down their own trees! For those of you worried about the negative effects of deforestation, you can breathe a sigh of relief here too, as you can buy saplings to replace the trees you've just slaughtered with your axe. You even have the option to plant different types of trees, some baring fruit such as apples and oranges. Just think of all that jam and marmalade, delicious!
There are a few other nice twists and touches here, too. Whilst exploring our cabin, we discovered a book that tells you how much the animals and the other characters like you - which is pretty handy! It's actually surprisingly useful to know who you need to make more of an effort with, and who you're getting on fine with, as some requests won't be available until the characters like you more. It also stores important information about the characters you've met, such as their occupation and when their birthdays are. Talking to someone on their birthday is a great way of improving your friendship with them - I mean, who doesn't like being wished Happy Birthday??
One of the other big changes is that now, how you win people over has changed ever so slightly. Whereas before you could buy your way into being friends with just about anyone (the more gifts you give them, the more they liked you), this time around, the characters all seem to be satisfied with a simple friendly conversation instead! Completing requests also makes them like you more, especially if you stop by for a chat on their aforementioned birthday. The only issue is that each character also has a specific time and day they'll be visiting the valley, which also affects where they'll be, so finding them can be a little tricky. Luckily, the residents of the valley have an odd, but useful habit for telling you exactly which days they're usually around the first time you meet them - so it's well worth making a note for future reference. After a while, it becomes clear who the potential spouses in the game are, as you'll trigger scenes when you start to get friendlier - before you know it, they'll be expressing their fondness towards you in a slightly awkward yet touching cutscene. Once you've built up enough of a friendship and completed the necessary requirements, such as having a bigger house, you can choose one to get married to, and even have a child!
As time goes by, the characters who wander around the valley decide to liven things up a bit by introducing some festivals. A great way to get everyone to meet up and spend time together, the festivals either require you to enter competitions, such as the Fishing Tournament and the Cooking Festival, or are simply a reason to spend some quality time with your new friends (and even that special someone who you might decide on marrying one day), such as New Year's Day or The Starry Night Festival.
To give the game more of a structure, and a feeling of purpose, many of the tasks you undergo in this game are tied to achievements, each of which has a certain number of ranks for you to work your way through. Some go as far as rank 6, whilst others have an extra "S" rank, which will take some dedication! All of the achievements are linked to the day to day activities you find yourself doing, such as fishing, collecting produce and making friends. There's even an achievement for playing the game for a total of 200 hours, which seems a bit daunting at first, but we can see ourselves reaching it one day, as we often find ourselves lost in games like this for hours on end... Your progress with each of the achievements can be checked up on in another book on the bookshelf in your cabin. Every now and again we like to take a peek to remind ourselves how we're doing.
Perhaps importantly, there's no time limit on completing the main quest in the game, so if you're enjoying the winter weather, or having fun exploring and experimenting with your crops, then you're free to take your time, and play it your own way. Without the somewhat naggy real time clock found in games like Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon is a relaxing game that you can sink some time into whenever you feel like chilling out and taking it slow, or even just turn it on for half an hour to give your crops a water and your animals a feed. And no matter when you come back to it, you can always turn to your handy quest log for a quick reminder of where you were, and what you were doing.
In all, Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley is a game that encourages you to make your own decisions and do things your own way. With its own original flare with the option of making friends and starting a family, or teaching players about the importance of the regular care and attention required to raise both plants and animals, it's definitely worth getting lost in the valley. Before too long, it might even feel like home!