Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon (Special Edition) Review
There are certain games that require a great deal of patience. Individuals interested in such titles typically turn to the strategy, simulation and sometimes role-playing genres, and they may also be interested in Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon Special Edition, the PS2 version of the PSP title that satisfied many a micromanagement lover. However, when we say the game requires "patience," we can't possibly stress that enough- this reviewer has more patience than your average critic - I can be a micromanagement maniac with something like Disgaea - and this is the first time in a while where I almost lost it. While days ticked by plenty fast enough, actually doing something seemed to take an absurd amount of time. This is the primary issue with Innocent Life, although it does have other things going for it. This game will probably appeal to fans of The Sims (and other titles of the same ilk), and if you can lose yourself in the process, Innocent Life might be worth your time. If not, it's going to be a long, drawn-out and ultimately tedious experience.
The graphics aren't of prime importance, of course, but they exhibit a cutesy, even adorable style. They're not heavily detailed, the visuals are often blurry and fuzzy, character detail is limited to old-school design, and your world never seems lush and vibrant (a major downfall), but that's okay. The graphics suit the purpose of the game, even if they're not exactly refined and polished. You won't care as much about the visuals because you'll be so involved in your daily tasks, and that's good news; the colorful graphics aren't great, so why fixate? See, it's like a little motto. The construction of this virtual world isn't bad, as it's both large and diverse, but we do spend far too much time in the Ruins. Because of this, it's easy to get bored with our surroundings. The key is to take solace in the little things, like the different vegetables and fruits you will grow, the quaintness of the small town, and the kooky originality of some of the characters. But if you go into this expecting next-gen graphics - which doesn't make any sense - you're gonna be disappointed. It's not the best-looking PS2 game, either, but hey, why should Harvest Moon be a visual masterpiece?
As you can see, we're prepared to make some exceptions when it comes to grading the graphics. However, we can do no such thing with the sound, as your farming adventure is strangely quiet far too often. There is no voice acting, sound effects are limited to a simple "sshhk" sound when tilling the soil and planting seeds, and the soundtrack is both repetitive and understated. Again, we're not exactly hoping for the kickin' rock tracks from Devil May Cry, but while the music is pleasant, it's overused to the point of insanity. It also would've helped if Natsume had implemented even the most rudimentary effects. For example, you will ride in a car and wander around, exploring your environment, but you almost never hear anything. Sure, a door opens hear and there, and you can hear footsteps (sometimes), but that's where it ends. For a game that centers on activity typically devoid of slam-bang sounds, we understand the inherent difficulty in generating appealing music and effects, but the very quiet nature of Innocent Life is a tad disturbing. We're outside, interacting with nature. Where are the birds chirping in the trees? And when we're in town, where's the normal hum of a populated area? Life, even if there are no aliens or rocket launchers, is chock full of sound. The developers apparently live in a plastic bubble or something.
The premise is relatively simple, if a bit bizarre: you aren't human; you are a robot, who has been "spawned" by the town doctor in the hopes that you will work the land. Specifically, you are to inhabit the Easter Ruins, which has been a dead area of the island for quite some time, and nobody has been able to restore its former glory. You look just like a human, and you have no special abilities a human wouldn't normally have, but you're the only one who can save the island...through farming. No, really. You have to bring life back to the dead Easter Ruins, and to do that, you have to till, plant, water, and harvest like a madman. Your whole life - your whole "Innocent Life" - revolves entirely around your ability to produce as much crop as humanly...er..."robot-ly"...possible. You will be able to purchase all kinds of seeds and other farming equipment, such as hammers to take out annoying rocks and boulders, and you can find certain items laying around that can help, too. For instance, you'll quickly notice some yellow moss growing around the water that will help to keep your soil moist for a longer period of time.
Your day will consist of tending your crops, and this includes traveling to Volcano Town to stock up on supplies, wandering around your own area to pluck apples (which you don't have to cultivate), and occasionally finding special jewels that will eventually unlock the hidden secrets of the Ruins. The story isn't too bad, but it tends to get in the way. You always have plenty to do on any given day, but there are a lot of characters who have a lot of unnecessary things to say. You'll quickly get to a point where you're going, "yeah, got it, now shut up and let me continue my work!" Your work takes up the majority of the gameplay time, but there are other obstacles to face. It doesn't help that certain people don't like the idea of tilling the earth around the Ruins - the Mayor being one of them - so it's not like your days will always be quiet and uneventful. We won't spoil the plot by going into detail, but we will say the pacing always seems irritating. When you're rushing around, trying to get things done before the sun sets, troublesome dialogue blocks your progress. And during the in-between times, everything suddenly feels very repetitive.
Only when you reach a certain point and the Ruins start to come to life do you really sink your teeth into the core of Innocent Life. The game gets better very quickly, but the big problem is that it takes a good deal of time to hit that transformation. And besides, even after you've started the ball rolling, much of your "growing" adventure feels slow, tedious, and uninteresting. Like we said earlier, you really have to be a certain type of gamer to appreciate what this title has to offer, but even if you are, that doesn't guarantee an enjoyable experience. The control is an issue throughout, just because you can only work the field in individual squares, which means you have to position your character correctly in order to till, seed, water, or harvest. Furthermore, you use the Triangle button to interact with an object, which means you can lift rocks and little bushes (ala Link) simply by walking up to them and pressing Triangle. However, that's the same button you press to use whatever you have equipped. This means you might be trying to pick up something, but unless you're in the exact right position, you'll just keep using your equipped item. This got really tiresome, really fast. Going back and forth between town isn't a quick trip, either, although you can always keep stuff in your inventory on the farm.
Technically, the game could almost be called a "sim" just because of the style of gameplay. But there's really nothing all that realistic about the growing process, and there's a reason the game is called A Futuristic Harvest Moon; there are plenty of imaginative and fantastical factors involved. This is neither a plus nor a negative, really; we just figured it should be mentioned. The simple bottom line is this- if you have the patience to open up a large portion of this game, you will reap the rewards of your time spent. On the other hand, only a select few will consider the first few hours "top-notch entertainment," just because the pacing is a constant irritant, and everything feels slow and restrained. There also isn't quite enough variety to the whole process; we would've expected to have more control over our immediate environment. There are plenty of different vegetables to sow and equipment to purchase and find, but they never really build on the basic foundation. You'll be doing roughly the same thing towards the end of the game as you were doing at the start, only with a few more bags of seeds and several nifty tools. For something to accurately be dubbed a "sim," there needs to be more to it.
In the end, Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon Special Edition is a somewhat solid yet flawed production that doesn't do enough to endear itself to fans of the niche genre. The control is iffy, the story seems to hinder more than help, too much of the gameplay seems written in stone, and the adventure just feels forced. However, there is plenty to do out there, and if you get sucked into the noble endeavor of restoring the Ruins, you may find yourself playing for quite a long time. Unfortunately, most gamers won't be able to make it past the first few hours, which is fine for a game like this, but it also doesn't fully embrace its target audience, either. It's certainly not the best Harvest Moon entry, that's for sure.
2/21/2008 Ben Dutka