"Harvest in the Heartland is surprisingly fun for the first few hours, and hardcore Harvest Moon nuts may want to give it a look just out of curiosity, to see how an American developer approaches what has until now been an exclusively Japanese genre."
I was skeptical, to say the least. At first, all I knew about John Deere: Harvest in the Heartland was that it was essentially a licensed knockoff of Harvest Moon. I was curious to see another developer's take on the farming simulation genre, but at the same time, I imagined it would be really difficult to capture both the basics and the subtleties of something as complex as Harvest Moon. A successful clone would either require an experienced developer, a years-long development period, or a major scaling back of Harvest Moon's more intricate features.
When I started up Harvest in the Heartland, I saw that its developer was Black Lantern Studios. The name sounded familiar. What did they do, again? I did some research, and...oh no, they did Elf Bowling 1 & 2? And Balls of Fury?! Well, there went my hopes for a particularly talented developer, and I had a suspicion that they didn't spend years working on this thing, either.
Luckily, Harvest in the Heartland keeps its goals reasonable, and ends up being charming in its simplicity. Sure, you won't make friends with any townspeople in the game, and you're never allowed to win a nerdy girl's love by giving her bugs every day, but in terms of straight-up farming, Harvest in the Heartland takes an interesting, streamlined approach that is alternately enjoyable and frustrating.
If you're a Harvest Moon fan, you'll appreciate some of the gameplay refinements in Harvest in the Heartland. The crop management system is particularly interesting. Instead of buying individual bags of seeds as you would in Harvest Moon, Harvest in the Heartland has you buy plots of land dedicated to growing a specific crop. Growing the crop then simply involves tilling the land, then spreading seeds via a generic seed bag that plants the appropriate crops in every plot.
As is the case with Harvest Moon, tilling, planting, and harvesting are somewhat tedious at first, but they become easier when you earn enough money to buy -- can you guess? -- official John Deere-licensed farm equipment. Preparing the land for planting becomes a breeze when you're tearing around your farm in a tractor, and the process of harvesting crops (previously by yanking them up one-by-one) is made much easier with an automatic harvester. Having to buy and use licensed machinery seems strange at first, but seeing as how the equipment is genuinely useful, you might be willing to forgive the pervasive in-game advertisements.
Despite the overall competence of the design, however, the game's many technical issues will likely frustrate. Much of Harvest in the Heartland isn't coded very well, so you'll often see objects, buildings, and crops blink in and out of existence as you run around town and your farm. This annoyance gradually becomes worse the more you play, as the more crops and animals you introduce into the game's world, the slower it will go, until gameplay is eventually reduced to a slow chug. It places unfortunate and unnecessary limits on your farm operations, and in the end, this glitchiness makes the game much less appealing than it otherwise would be.
Then there's the load times. Oh man, those load times. If you're a Harvest Moon fan, imagine hitting a load screen every time you accessed your inventory. It's much worse in the context of Harvest in the Heartland's gameplay, though. Often, you'll see an individual square of land on your farm that is infested with bugs, so you'll need to spray pesticide on it. So you press X. After a brief transition, you select the pesticide -- which itself is a chore, since the inventory screen is the only section of the game that requires the use of a stylus -- and you hit the confirm button.
Instantly, the music stops. A loading screen appears, and gameplay is interrupted for five seconds or more. Then, play resumes -- with the music returning to the beginning of the current track -- and you spray your pesticide. After that, you'll want to put the pesticide away, so you press X again. Loading. You then select a different item. Loading. Fifteen or so seconds after beginning the process, you're back to normal gameplay.
The basic process of switching items is made a hassle thanks to the game requiring you to use the touch screen, and gameplay flow is broken up with a long stretch dead time in the meanwhile. It's an inexcusable issue, considering Harvest in the Heartland's simplistic graphics and the rarity of load times in most Nintendo DS games, and it comes across as a problem that would simply not exist if the game were designed by a more experienced developer.
Harvest in the Heartland's lack of ambition in areas outside of farming is also really disappointing. It's impressive that Black Lantern could nail so many of Harvest Moon's addictive qualities in designing an easy and interesting farming system, but after growing crops and raising livestock for a few seasons, you'll want to do something else. That is, something else that doesn't involve saving a ridiculous amount of money so that you can buy an official John Deere statue for your farm, or a collection of other ornamental objects that serve no practical purpose whatsoever.
The minigames do little to alleviate your eventual boredom. All are so simplistic that they're barely worth playing once -- the sheep-shearing game takes all of five seconds to complete, and cow-milking is a Simon-styled memory game that challenges you to remember a sequence of only four steps. The egg-catching game is at least worth playing for the money it generates, but as far as I can tell, the pig-wrestling game is impossible to win, and I tried several times.
You won't find any of the depth you may crave in the townspeople, either -- all of them exist solely to sell you land, buildings, and merchandise. In the end, all you're left with is a simplistic take on Harvest Moon's farming elements that eventually becomes bogged down and less fun, thanks to a variety of technical issues.
Still, Harvest in the Heartland is surprisingly fun for the first few hours, and hardcore Harvest Moon nuts may want to give it a look just out of curiosity, to see how an American developer approaches what has until now been an exclusively Japanese genre. If you're looking for a game you'll be playing for months on end, though, you're better off sticking with either Harvest Moon DS, Friends of Mineral Town for the GBA, or the excellent Rune Factory, which provides the most fun and addictive take on the Harvest Moon formula that the series has seen in years. Harvest in the Heartland can't realistically compete in the face of a series that has seen so many new additions and refinements over its ten-year lifespan, but it makes for a briefly interesting curiosity nonetheless.
Freelance review by Danny Cowan (December 29, 2007)
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