Thursday, May 17, 2007

Living an Innocent Life

As I become more deeply engaged in the new 'Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon' game by Natsume, its charm continues to grow. It combines classical 'Harvest Moon' role-playing farming simulation with the traditional 'quest' aspects of RPGs. The primary focus is that of 'healing' the land and restoring the balance of the elements through farming and ranching, but there are dungeons to explore as well. There is no fighting in the game, unlike most RPGs, but there are maze dungeons and Chests containing treasures.

There is something very enchanting about the landscapes in this game as well as the process of 'breaking seals' and transforming barren wastelands into fertile farming ground. This game offers far more travel than most Harvest Moon games. One can explore deserts, plains, dunes and forests as well as caves.

The PSP is an incredible handheld gaming system but it offered few games to players who enjoyed depth and intricacy rather than simple slash-and-hack or driving simulation games. Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth was a magnificent, complex role-playing fighting game, but there never have been any games to match Harvest Moon.

When 'Innocent Life' was announced last year as a future release for the PSP, I was very excited. It measures up to all expectations.

For fans of Harvest Moon, every new game will be compared to all other Harvest Moon games that preceded it. In each case, there will be aspects of the new game that will delight, but often an aspect of an old game that was not included in the new one will be missed.

An example of this can be seen with respect to Ranching in Innocent Life. Harvest Moon DS offered almost too many activities with respect to animal care, but Innocent Life offers very few. As it is a 'futuristic Harvest Moon', the ranching system is automated for the most part. Eggs and milk appear daily automatically on a conveyor belt. Sheep go through a shearing machine en masse automatically every Friday at 5.30 p.m. One can 'pet' each Animal once each day, but that is the extent of interaction with poultry and livestock.

On the other hand, with the arrival of the 'Pink Mask Representative' and his outlandish goods, you can acquire a 'Mother's Touch' and 'Shiny Coat', items that allow you to interact more with your animals.

An option is unlocked with respect to the World Ranch Channel that allows you to 'gamble' on your poultry and livestock by purchasing animals who possess temporary 'Stars', raising their value on a limited time basis. Even so, one misses the ability to milk the cows and shear the sheep oneself.

The endless Touchglove activities in Harvest Moon DS did become rather annoying, especially because of the wear-and-tear to the DS Touchscreen. To be perfectly honest, the Ranching activities in Friends of Mineral Town remain the best in Harvest Moon games.

This is rather esoteric information, however, for any one who never played a Harvest Moon game before. For a newcomer to the series, Innocent Life may be one of the easier games to master, as it is more 'linear' than other Harvest Moon games. Events unfold in sequence and there are enough hints from other characters in the game to allow a beginner to understand what he/she should do next. In any event, my General Guide to the game should give any further information that may be required in any case.

Friday, May 11, 2007

An Innocent Life: In the Mushroom Forest

Here is a very small screenshot from 'Innocent Life' showing the robot protagonist in the Mushroom Forest. Mushrooms are one of the wild items that can be gathered to be shipped, but in this Harvest Moon game, one needs a special container called a 'Scale Pack' in order to be able to pick them. The Scale Pack measures the weight of the wild items as you collect them and prevents the individual from completely depriving the forest of all its natural resources. When you have collected as many of the items as can be spared ecologically speaking, the Scale Pack will refuse to accept any more.

An Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon

Having been fortunate enough to be given an advance 'hands-on' look at the forthcoming Harvest Moon game for the PSP, I have to say that Harvest Moon fans both young and old are going to be enchanted by it.

The graphics are marvelous for a start. The game is set on a volcanic island, so almost every vista includes breathtaking views of the water and sky. Sunsets are very dramatic. Weather and time always are important in Harvest Moon games. In this game, there are 'bells' that announce the time of day, rather like the old monastic system of 'the Hours'. (I have not been able to work out why the 'afternoon bell' is rung at 10.00 a.m. but perhaps that is simply one of those interesting Natsume errata that appear in the English versions of their games.)

The premise of An Innocent Life is similar to that of the old Italian fairytale of Pinocchio. In this case, the protagonist is a robot who looks (and acts) like a young boy. A scientist, Dr. Hope, has created him in the hope that he will be able to save the island from a predicted catastrophe. Automation has taken the place of real care and attention and the Island Spirits are angry at the neglect of Nature. If the robot boy can restore a farm to working condition and learn to love all living creatures as well as the land, it is possible that the eruption of the Volcano that threatens the Island can be averted.

At the start of the game, Dr. Hope tells the boy: 'Perhaps the most difficult things to understand are the human heart and the value of life... I'm sure after nurturing the plant and animal life on your farm, you'll grow to understand this.'

For the robot boy, the future holds the hope that, if he can learn how to be human, he will become a 'real boy'.

When he arrives at his new farm, he is told:
It was the spirits who sealed off these fields. You see, long ago the Easter People and the Volcano people fought a terrible war over control of this land. The behaviour of the humans angered the Spirits. And so they decided to seal off this fertile land. The Easter People then left the island, never to return. But the spirits did leave us one chance to make up for what we did. If some one could once again love this land and nurture life on it with his own hands, the seals would break. But the people in Volcano Town only care about autofarming. I'm afraid they've given up on this land... And I doubt thtat there is any one left in this day and age who still believes in the existence of the Spirits. But if something isn't done, sooner or later the anger of the spirits could destroy this entire island. Do you understand, Freyr? You are the only one who can save this island.'

After a tutorial that occupies the first week of your life on the Island, you begin to undertake your task in earnest. As in most Harvest Moon games, progress must be won through patience and sheer determination. You have no money at first, and you must grow and harvest crops to make enough money to purchase the basic tools that you require.

Much of the Island will be inaccessible to you at the beginning. It is only at the start of the second week that you even can leave your farm to visit the town! Even so, it is worth the wait... In the fourth week, you finally will be given a key that unlocks a Mine...

If you are patient and continue to persevere, in time you will be able to fish and camp out in other parts of the Island using a tent.

There really is something for every one in this game. Another new aspect of farming is the option to build a little 'railroad' on your farm in order to be able to harvest crops, place them in a special shipping container and then send them on their way down the tracks for shipment.

As always, friendship is as important as success in your farming ventures. You must maintain regular contact with all the other residents of the island if you wish to obtain important information and special items.

There is a wide variety of crops, fruits and wild items in 'Innocent Life'. Without becoming too specific, players of other Harvest Moon games should be delighted with the aspects of Innocent Life that are new to Harvest Moon. For example, flowers are not harvested in the same way as crops. You need to make contact with the 'Herbal Garden' and make an order to have your flowers cut and harvested by them when they are in full bloom. Crops can be interspersed in a field now rather than being regimented in 9 x 9 squares. You can 'design' your fields by growing a tulip next to a pansy and planting tall asparagus behind the short, flowering strawberry plants.

Mining has a new 'twist' to it as well. Special gems can be placed in 'sockets' on tools to augment their power or decrease the amount of energy required to use them. Other gems called 'Spirit Stones' must be found and placed on altars to unlock new locations.

For animal lovers, there are the usual opportunities to raise livestock and poultry but only when the area that could be used as a barn and pasture land is unlocked. As in other Harvest Moon games, one can have pets as well. In fact, there are a number of dogs and cats on the island. Before the end of the first season, one of the cats will have two kittens. Will one of the kittens become your first pet?

'Innocent Life' will be released in the U.S. on 15 May. It is a game that should appeal to young and old alike. The social philosophy it teaches is admirable, and the characters and animals are delightful. The landscapes are absolutely gorgeous and the buildings are intricate with details that can be explored for hours. I recommend this game to any one who loves Harvest Moon and any one who would like to be introduced to the genre of 'role-playing simulation game'. Set aside a few hours each day to live on a wonderful island and learn how to farm, mine, fish and even how to cook, arrange flowers and write haiku!

The PSP is an extraordinary system in many ways. It is a small, handheld version of the Playstation and can support incredible graphics and a variety of different uses. It uses a Memory 'card' or 'stick' and one can record music, pictures and even video clips as well as saving game files on it. The quality of the sound may not equal that of the IPod, but it certainly is more than adequate and it is rather marvelous to be able to play a game on the same system that one uses to listen to one's favourite music. Its disadvantages are its weight and its fragility. If dropped, it can be broken easily. One therefore should buy a padded case for it. Unlike the DS, which has its own 'case' with two screens that are protected when the case is shut, the PSP has a single screen without any protection whatsoever. With a decent case, however, one can be less afraid that it will meet with a fatal accident.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Milking a Cow in Harvest Moon DS

Here is an actual screen from Harvest Moon DS. Although it is taken from the original Japanese version of the game, the English version is very similar. The farmer (your character) is milking a cow in his field. He is wearing a device called the 'Touchglove' which allows him to use his stylus and Touchscreen to milk the cow, where otherwise he simply would use the action button with the Milker. When the Touchglove is used, the player actually 'milks' the cow by passing the stylus back and forth across the udders of the Cow. The speed with which this is done determines the amount of size of the milk that is obtained.

With the Touchglove, the player can pet his cow each day using the stylus and can wash it by using a Brush. Affection levels are increased when the Touchglove is employed.

Above the Touchscreen is a picture of the actual field on the farm. The player here has not done a very good job in clearing the field. Perhaps it is early in the game, but the tree stumps, rocks, boulders and weeds should be cleared away, the ground tilled and crops planted in their stead.

The house shown in the southeast corner of the top screen is not the player's farmhouse but the cabin belonging to Takakura, his father's old friend.

Harvest Moon DS

Having been a devoted fan of Harvest Moon for a few years, I was thrilled when Natsume created a Harvest Moon game for the new Nintendo DS system. For those who are not familiar with the DS, it is a revolutionary handheld system with two separate screens. The lower screen is a 'Touchscreen' that allows the player to use a stylus to input information and perform actions. A classical control pad with directional and action buttons is used as well.

Hand-held systems like the Game Boy, Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS are windows to miniature worlds that can be taken everywhere. They are small devices that fit in a pocket or handbag and yet the panoramic experience offered by some games is almost overwhelming in its details.

Harvest Moon probably is one of the most incredible, detailed 'worlds' ever created for video games. Natsume is a Japanese company and Harvest Moon does represent Japanese traditional values to some extent. Harvest Moon games are set in small villages and the player usually inherits or purchases a dilapidated farm and then proceeds to make friends with the other people living in the area and sometimes even is able to marry and have a child. In attempting to restore the farm to working condition, the player is able to augment his/her income through fishing and mining while raising crops and animals on the farm.

There are two primarily locations in Harvest Moon games: Forget-Me-Not Valley and Mineral Town. Characters in games set in Forget-Me-Not Valley may allude to Mineral Town from time to time and in the games set in Mineral Town, two characters from Forget-Me-Not Valley actually could visit periodically, but it is only in Harvest Moon for the DS that the two locations really come together in a significant fashion.

In Harvest Moon for the DS, one can order from businesses in Mineral Town by using the telephone and many characters from Mineral Town will visit the Valley on a weekly basis. One actually can court the eligible girls from Mineral Town in this game as well. For Harvest Moon fans, this game is the ultimate fantasy made real.

Apart from this connection, Harvest Moon DS endeavours to combine the best aspects of previous games set in either location. 'A Wonderful Life', a game set in
Forget-Me-Not Valley, allowed the player to create upgraded crops and to grow trees in addition. Moreover, in 'A Wonderful Life', characters aged as time passed. The child one had grew into adulthood as the years passed.

In Mineral Town, one could marry and have a child, but the child never advanced beyond toddler age. Years passed but characters remained the same. On the other hand, Mineral Town had incredibly complex mines and a system for upgrading tools that 'A Wonderful Life' lacked.

In Harvest Moon for the DS, there are four mines containing a multitude of items, rather like the mining system of Mineral Town, but the upgraded crops and trees from 'A Wonderful Life' can be created as well. When one marries and has a child, the child will grow and mature. The child actually can leave the house and form relationships with other villagers, unlike the child in Friends of Mineral Town.

For the individual who never experienced Harvest Moon, however, a basic description of the game may be in order here.

In Harvest Moon games, farming is the central focus. One must clear land, then plant seeds and water them regularly in order to produce a crop. Crops invariably are seasonal and one must be aware of the passage of time in order to be able to harvest crops before they die when the season changes. Animals can be raised, but must be fed and given attention and love if they are to prosper.

There are a number of different ways to travel through the Valley. One can walk, run or ride a horse. If one has been fortunate enough to acquire a 'teleport stone', one can move instantly from one location to another.

Making money is an important part of life in Harvest Moon but it is not as important as making friends. Friendships are maintained through regular contact and gift-giving. One must know one's friends, their likes and dislikes and remember their birthdays with a favourite gift.

Village festivals are an important part of the game. Special items and awards can be obtained only at Festivals.

Most Harvest Moon games are rather 'open-ended' in the sense that one does not 'win or lose' the game. One usually can proceed at one's own pace to achieve goals. It really provides a way to live another life, one that is far from urban pressures and contemporary problems. Technology tends to be quite limited in Harvest Moon. The lifestyle is that of a traditional village. Weather is an important concern, as it would be to any farmer or rancher. Making other people happy brings special rewards.

Harvest Moon games are extremely therapeutic. They allow one to attain worthy goals while being reminded of traditional virtues. Harvesting crops that one has grown and preparing nourishing and tasty meals with the fruit of one's labours is extremely satisfying. Witnessing the birth of an animal and nurturing it is another source of fulfillment. Cows are milked daily and sheep are sheared weekly. Chickens lay eggs daily. In Harvest Moon DS, provided that one has built a pond, one can raise Ducks for eggs as well.

For the individual who never played a Harvest Moon game, Harvest Moon DS will be an incredible adventure. For fans of Harvest Moon games, this game represents the ultimate Harvest Moon experience in many ways.

Nonetheless, all Harvest Moon games are worth exploring and for those who prefer a larger gaming system, there are games that were made for the GameCube and even the Playstation. These games will be discussed in separate posts.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Scene from Lost in Blue 2

Here is a wonderful scene from Lost in Blue. It shows the girl and boy characters in the 'Jungle' area.

Lost in Blue 2

If you ever imagined being stranded on a deserted island with a single companion of the opposite gender, you now will be able to live out that fantasy. No, this is not a 'reality show'. This is 'Lost in Blue 2', a game for the Nintendo DS system.

It is not the first time a game of this sort has been made. Lost in Blue 2 is the successor to the original Lost in Blue game, which itself was based on a game entitled 'Survival Kids'. As is often the case with games like this, Lost in Blue 2 has benefited from the problems encountered in the earlier games in the series and is more fun to play than the original Lost in Blue or Survival Kids.

In the original Lost in Blue game, one had to take the role of the boy in the first game and actually complete the game before one could play the role of the girl. Furthermore, the girl in the original was utterly hopeless. It was not entirely her fault. When the boy first found her stranded on the beach, he accidentally stepped on her eyeglasses, rendering her virtually blind. In that game, she was unable even to venture outside the cave unless she was holding the boy's hand. In Lost in Blue 2, the girl actually can be sent on errands alone: she can forage for food, firewood or water.

Unfortunately, although one can play either the boy or the girl from the very start in Lost in Blue 2, the girl still has inferior physical abilities and as a beginner, it is easier to play the part of the boy and only begin a new game with the girl once one has mastered the intricacies of the game.

The premise of the game is that, having been shipwrecked on a deserted island, one first must struggle simply to survive but ultimately, one actually must escape from the island in order to complete the game. One can build a great Treehouse and even have three separate homes in different parts of the island. One can hunt and fish, and learn to cook beautifully. The problem that drives one onward to escape finally is the fact that the island is the location of an active volcano. Progressively violent earthquakes force the characters to recognise the futility of any plan to make the island a permanent domicile. Alas, however comfortable and aesthetically pleasing a Treehouse with beds covered in furs might be, one never can feel secure there.

Fortunately, one does have plenty of time to enjoy the primitive life style that the island can offer. Moreover, there is a romantic aspect to the game, albeit understated. All is proper and morally unquestionable: the boy and the girl sleep in separate beds at all times. Even so, there are ways to court one's companion, and there are advances to be made romance.

Lost in Blue 2, like its predecessor, is extremely realistic in many respects. One of the most impressive aspects of the game is the manner in which one starts a fire. Using the L and R buttons, one actually must twirl a stick made from Twigs back and forth on a bed of Tree Bark. When a wisp of smoke can be seen, one then must blow repeatedly into the microphone in order to create a true fire. The fact that the firestick often will slip from your hands if you do not maintain the proper rhythm when twirling it, and the fact that the fire does not start immediately when you blow into the microphone only add to the realism of this task.

There are many other aspects of the game that use the Touchscreen in creative ways. When one uses a Spear to fish, the stylus actually becomes the Spear and one really must 'spear' the fish that appear in the water. When one 'searches' the ground, one must brush away sand, leaves or dirt using the stylus to uncover items. When cooking, one uses both stylus and microphone. When grilling food on a stone, one must flip each piece of food over with a circular motion, using the stylus. When steaming food, one must blow again into the microphone. When cutting food to make a salad, one must use the stylus as a knife and when boiling soup, the stylus becomes a spoon to stir the pot.

Hunger, thirst and fatigue are the ever-threatening enemies in this game, but one can encounter animal predators on this island as well. When one encounters any predator, one uses fists, spear or bow to defeat or kill it. When a large animal is killed, one will obtain meat, lard and fur. Fur is used to upholster furniture. Lard is used both in cooking and to make torches. Meat can be cooked immediately or smoked and made into 'jerky'.

Exploration of the island involves journeys through many diverse areas. There are four beaches to explore, each with its own characteristics. There are grasslands, grassy steppes, a Jungle, a Lake and a Swamp. Apart from the natural settings, there are man-made Ruins.

Essentially, one learns that every item has a purpose. Even leaves should be collected for use in mattresses and to cover the walls of Treehouses.

Building furniture uses the Touchscreen rather creatively as well. One must use the stylus alternately as a saw and in order to carve notches into wooden posts. One then must make certain that the pieces can be joined properly before one can hammer them into place. Sometimes one must turn a piece of wood from side to side and up or down a few times before the two pieces can be joined together. It can be rather a challenging puzzle on occasion.

For those who enjoy more detailed work and who are ardent about fishing, lures can be carved from wood using the stylus for the purpose of catching rare fish. As one might expect, different lures work on different types of fish. There are many varieties of fish to be caught in this game.

Individuals who tend to be impatient and who require intense action at all times will not respond positively to Lost in Blue 2. This game appeals to those who enjoy total immersion in another life. Existence in Life in Blue 2 requires repetition of the same tasks. Food and water must be gathered daily. The fire must be fed. Tools wear out in time and must be replaced. While performing these daily chores, one must continue to explore the island and perfect a means of escape.

Finding a boat is not really a problem. A lifeboat will wash ashore at some point, and one can choose to build a raft on the beach instead. Leaving the island, however, will not guarantee a successful escape. It is vital to have a means of communication with a potential rescuer as well as maps for navigation. Finding or obtaining these items takes time. Learning to survive in the most efficient fashion takes time as well. One must have patience and endurance in order to win this game!

Despite or because of this, the game actually does make the player feel that he/she is living a double life sometimes. When I have made another fire, defeated a wolf, collected 5 bottles of water for the oil drum and made a few Lunchboxes from meat caught in a small trap, I often feel exhausted. That surely is a good day's work! After that, however, I must make dinner in the 'real world'. All that cooking on the Cooking Stone will not give any sustenance in my 'other' life! Furthermore, it can be rather frustrating to have mastered the art of trapping and shooting a large animal only to realise that no one ever will appreciate my exploits apart from my 'virtual' companion on the island.

This game is very 'real'. Once I actually awoke in the middle of the night, wondering if I had asked my companion to smoke all the meat I had brought home. If I had placed it in the Smoker but not asked her to make smoked meat, the meat simply would rot away unnoticed... Another time, I awoke at night to the sound of violent rain on the roof and thought: 'Oh, that means all the vegetables and all my traps will have washed away. What a shame!' A moment later, I realised that the storm in THIS world would not affect the island in Lost in Blue 2.

If any one is limited physically in this reality, a game like Lost in Blue 2 gives one the freedom and mobility one longs to regain. For any one who is housebound or otherwise restricted, a game like this is can be a godsend. It is far better than any amount of psychological 'therapy' in easing the burden of frustration and helplessness that disabled individuals often experience. For those who are not limited physically in any way, Lost in Blue 2 offers an opportunity to experience a 'primitive' lifestyle, one where paperwork and bureaucracy is supplanted by simple survival skills.

Lost in Blue 2 is made by Konami for the Nintendo DS platform. It is a fairly recent release and should be available at most outlets. I have written a General Guide for Lost in Blue 2 that is published by IGN.