Every once in a while a game comes along that makes one say, "Hey, this game's controls are totally lame. The graphics are even worse, which is just as well because there is so much gratuitous violence. I'm not engrossed at all." Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life, which is looking like it will be the most polished in the series, may or may not be one of those games.
The game begins familiarly enough. The player assumes the role of a 15 year-old "unmotivated hack" who has never considered farming as an occupation. Then one day his family takes him to Forget-Me-Not Valley, and he decides it is his duty to revive his grandfather's farm. His story will span at least 30 years in game time (about 40 hours), and will be divided in six chapters based on stages of life.
The life-simulation aspect of the Harvest Moon series comes out in full force in this title, to the point that farming almost takes second fiddle. Among the 40 NPCs in the game, there are a certain number of women to date and eventually marry, after an appropriate courtship of winning her favor. Not long after that, a little bundle of joy will arrive. That's been standard in HM for a while now, but the twist in AWL is that the bundle of joy grows up and becomes a bundle of stress for mommy and daddy. Yes, junior can learn to walk and talk, and his development is influenced by the player's choice of mother. Once they're old enough, the kids are able to help out on the farm, until they decide that this provincial lifestyle is getting' them down and they move to the city to become Nu-Metal roadies. Or maybe that's only in Harvest Moon: The Real Life. At any rate, the children are a source for many of the game's bonus events, but the player character remains the center of attention.
Then there's the farming. The standard process remains the same, and as always, there are fields to be cleared and seeds to be sown. But Natsume tries to keep it fresh by adding new livestock; namely, turtles, owls, goats, and ducks. In addition, Chihuahuas are available as pets. AWL also gives the player more control over the crops by introducing hybrids, which presumably involves a little genetic tinkering between two crops to produce a new one. Of course, all the mini-games like fishing and cooking aren't going anywhere either, so the RPGamer has a very busy plate. Luckily, the days are longer in real time, giving the player time to complete tasks that don't involve stamina anyway.
The controls are similarly player-friendly. The interface is as streamlined as it has ever been, and most actions come under the jurisdiction of one button. In the top right-hand corner of the screen, the player can find a Zelda-like controller legend, but some may find this simply an annoyance. The camera can be fully rotated, and there is even a first-person mode available, for those who prefer to pull their beets "up close."
While none of this is all that new to Harvest Moon veterans, A Wonderful Life's graphics are sure to catch their eye. Simply said, this game's visuals can walk with the best on the GameCube. The graphics are realistically fleshed out in 3D, yet they are still influenced by a typically Harvest Moon style and color scheme. But there is thought as well as skill in these visuals. Details such as the facial expressions on the characters are nicely executed, and the seasonal variances are an excellent touch. The townsfolk change their attire to fit the season, and the trees change their color. Nature has perhaps never been so finely represented in a video game. Beyond a bit of pop-up, and some flat-looking backgrounds, everything runs smoothly.
A Wonderful Life often foregoes music in favor of clear, ambient sound effects, like water running or dogs barking. When there is music, it is often "down homey" in a digital kind of way. It would be nice to hear some actual acoustic guitars and fiddles - may as well milk it for what it's worth.
It isn't clear whether or not those 40 hours include any of Harvest Moon's traditional post-story farming time, but it has been said that the game will have multiple endings. One way to increase playing time is to link up with the Game Boy Advance's Friends of Mineral Town and partake in some of the events in said toen. Whatever the player does, however, it's bound to be an unparalleled Harvest Moon experience.