Friday, May 11, 2007

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.

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