Just before Square Enix released Harvestella in November, the game’s reputation took a big hit. Then, there was a recent and sudden shift in the reception of the game by players. But what’s behind these sudden changes in perception surrounding Harvestella?
I’ve played the game, participated in an interview with the developers, and have been able to observe the response to the game from players, so I’ve had the chance to see Harvestella from a variety of viewpoints. I’m also a farming sim otaku and generally don’t miss a game in the genre. Keeping all these different perspectives in mind, I want to give my own analysis of what happened behind the reception of Harvestella.
Not what one might expect from a farming sim
First, we have to start by discussing why the game had a poor reputation before it launched. And to do that, we need to think about what a farming sim is.
The farming simulation genre started with the Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons series. Square Enix describes Harvestella as a “life-simulation RPG” which also invokes the idea of the farming sim genre. But what do players expect from these kinds of games?
Firstly, players want these games to have role-playing elements where they can customize things like their clothes and appearance, and they want the world to feel lived in by its inhabitants. Next, players want to be able to enjoy a leisurely life with plant and crop raising systems. As a farming sim otaku, I feel these elements form the core of the genre.
The Harvestella demo that came out before the game launched was, for the most part, devoid of these elements. This is where the deviation from expectations began. I say for the most part because there were some farming sim staples in the demo, but not enough to meet the expectations of players.
To start, your character’s appearance is mostly set in stone. The gender options both look similar and there aren’t ways to customize your clothing, so it’s difficult to make the character feel uniquely yours. As for that lived-in feel mentioned earlier, while characters have their set routines, the game doesn’t have those occasional chance meetings that lead to new events and scenes, which is a system that doesn’t help the world feel alive.
It was also hard to enjoy living the slow life. That’s because time passed extremely fast in the demo including when moving around the map. If you spent any time wandering around, your time for the day would be over before you even had a chance to really do anything. Especially in the demo which capped the number of in-game days that could be played, there was no time to take things slow. Raising crops was also pretty simple, and plants wouldn’t wither even if they weren’t watered. You basically just plant and grow.
As explained above, if you went in expecting a farming sim with leisurely gameplay, you didn’t find it in the Harvestella demo. Because of that, players who played the demo began expressing their disappointment on social media. The disappointment was likely born from expectations of the game as a farming sim.
Harvestella was developed by Live Wire, a studio with many staff members who have worked on the Rune Factory series. The Rune Factory series is a spin-off of Harvest Moon, the genre originator, and each game firmly encapsulates the conventions of farming sims. Because of the staff involved, expectations were high for the game as a farming sim. That’s why players were expressing their disappointment at the game’s sparse farming elements.
The negative reception continued after launch
After hearing the discontent with the demo, the development team made some changes for the release of the game. First, they made time pass slower. With this, it became easier for players to enjoy the slow life. They also shortened loading times and improved the playability of combat. But even still, negative opinions were circulating around the game after it launched. That’s not much of a surprise, though. The sparse farming elements mentioned above were still fundamentally the same in the final game.
On top of that, while combat is done in real time, the action isn’t very involved. This was criticized as well by those who saw the promotional videos and were expecting more action RPG elements. Fans who bought the game expecting something along the lines of Rune Factory were left disappointed and gave the game poor reviews. Because of this, the game had a rating of “mixed” on Steam when it launched. Not the best way to get things started.
Looking at everything so far, it might seem like Harvestella is a low-quality game that doesn’t even provide the bare minimum. However, that’s not the case. It’s very likely that these sparse farming elements are just as the development team intended.
The antithesis of farming sims
When taking part in an interview with the development team after the demo was released, they talked about how fast time passed in the game by saying they didn’t want to make players have to do a lot of things in one day or think they had to do everything.
To support this idea, there basically aren’t any timed events. The crops don’t even wither (excluding the season of death). Players also have to return to their home to level up, so we can assume they wanted players to return often. Putting aside whether this is a system players like, the day cycle was made fast to prevent players from cramming a bunch of tasks into one day and rushing through them. Either that, or it was intentionally set to keep player from losing interest.
The development team also mentioned that action elements were intentionally left out of combat so those who aren’t skilled at action games can still play.
This is conjecture on my part, but the farming aspect of the game may have also been made simple to free players from routine work and the pressure of having to raise crops. From the start, the team said during our interview that they were challenging themselves to do things not done by other farming sims. In other words, also being the antithesis of farming sims.
However, being a farming sim comes with certain expectations. Not providing those genre staples to players is connected to the game’s poor reception both before and after launch. With that in mind, perhaps the response to the game isn’t unexpected.
An improving reception after launch
While user reviews for the game weren’t high at launch, they’ve been steadily improving. As of this writing (December 20), the game has a rating of 79% positive, or “Mostly Positive,” when checking under All Reviews on Steam. Under Recent Reviews, those figures improve to 86% positive and a rating of Very Positive. It’s a remarkable improvement when compared to how the game was rated around the time it launched. As for why it has seen such an improvement, it’s likely because players are evaluating Harvestella based on its own merits.
In other words, recognition that Harvestella isn’t a standard farming sim has become more widespread. The game’s charm lies in its cozy setting. It has a beautiful fantasy world, beautiful and intense music, and a story that carefully combines both fantasy and sci-fi. Perhaps the farming aspect of the game was made simple to keep players focused on the story and the world. It makes more sense if you think of it that way.
Harvestella isn’t a standard farming sim, but a story-driven RPG from Square Enix with a side of farming. Once that perception spread, the game began to meet players’ expectations which improved reviews.
The challenge in getting players to understand your game
When you think about it, Square Enix didn’t really push Harvestella’s similarities to Rune Factory before launch. However, considering the popularity of the genre and the name recognition of the developers, players were anticipating something similar to Rune Factory. Incidentally, we (the Japanese version of this website) also published articles about how Harvestella was being made by the staff behind Rune Factory. Considering how things turned out, these articles may have been misleading which is something we’ll have to keep in mind going forward.
Because of the gap between what the developers set out to do and what fans expected from a farming sim, the game’s reputation took a hit early on. After expectations for the game fell and players adjusted their idea of what to expect from Harvestella, players discovered the game’s true merits and its reputation improved.
When hearing this, you might think it’s a shame that they couldn’t properly set expectations for what Harvestella is. But if you think about what Square Enix should have done before launch, I don’t think that’s where the answer lies. If they officially stated the life simulation elements or farming elements are watered down, this might mean something to those who like farming sims, but I don’t think it would properly convey what they want to those unfamiliar with the genre.
Personally, I think it’s a really fun game for the new approach it takes to the genre. I felt like the coziness of the world was something we hadn’t seen before in a farming sim.
We’ll be keeping a close eye on Harvestella to see just how high ratings for the game climb and to see if it grows into a series going forward.
Translated by. Nick Mosier based on a script written for AUTOMATON JP’s YouTube video