Monday, August 24, 2009

Frantic Farming, Harvest Moon Puzzle Sequel to Island of Happiness

'Frantic Farming', a new Harvest Moon puzzle game is due to be released by Natsume in North America shortly. It is a fast-paced harvesting puzzle game that features all the main characters from Island of Happiness. In fact, a player can unlock a dozen different playable characters after beginning the game either as Mark or as Chelsea.

In Story Mode, each puzzle is accompanied by a Chapter in a Story that is unique to the character, although all the Stories have a common foundation on Sunny Island.

The premise of the tale is Nature run amok, with ripening vegetables choking every part of the Island. Your task is twofold: to harvest the excess Crops and 'save' the Island by determining the cause and solving the problem.

On a philosophical level, the idea that too much prosperity can be as harmful as any famine or drought is interesting. For players who in Island of Happiness struggled mightily to harvest their Crops even at subsistence level in the first few seasons, the Cornucopia of ripe Crops from every season is a novel experience indeed.

The puzzles are set on a grid filled with tiny squares. There are Crops on each square in varying stages of growth. You enlist the services of a single Harvest Sprite to harvest the Crops on the grid in order to meet the requirements for each specific puzzle trial. Whenever the Sprite harvests a Crop, he then waters the area that surrounds the square. The number of squares that can be watered depends on different variables. Gold Crops as well as Big Crops are included in Frantic Farming.

There are a number of different Contest Modes, requiring different strategies in order to complete each Chapter of a character's Story. When you complete one character's 'Story', you unlock a new character.

What may surprise some players is the wealth of characterisation and amusing dialogues in the little Stories, although Harvest Moon veterans have learned to expect this sort of detail in any Harvest Moon game. Furthermore, the little Stories actually provide important information about the characters on occasion, such as their 'Most Favourite Gifts', making 'Frantic Farming' a cohesive part of the Harvest Moon universe. It is far more than a 'puzzle' game.

For those players who like the DS Touchscreen/stylus option, Frantic Farming offers opportunities to practice and perfect stylus use. Crop movements within the puzzle grid are entirely controlled by the stylus. It is not mindless action, by any means. Strategy considerations can be quite sophisticated. Each character has a 'Special Skill' that is unique. Knowing when and how to use this Special Skill can be vital. As in Chess, in order to excel, a player must think ahead, paying close attention to Crop types and their stages of growth.

In some respects, Frantic Farming is similar to Princess Debut, another excellent game by Natsume. Princess Debut had a very detailed Story, with variations based on your character's choice of partner. The Story in Princess Debut was punctuated by Ballroom dance trials. In order to succeed, one had to learn all the dances. Although Frantic Farming involves harvesting rather than dancing and offers a choice of playable characters rather than a choice of partners for a single playable character, the rhythm of both games has much in common.

I think that this game will appeal to a number of different groups of players. First and foremost, it should appeal to any Harvest Moon fan and especially those who are familiar with the cast of characters in Island of Happiness. For those who have not played Island of Happiness previously, Frantic Farming will provide an entertaining introduction to these characters and their social interactions.

Any player who likes puzzles will be interested in Frantic Farming even if he/she is unfamiliar with the Harvest Moon series. As previously indicated, the puzzles can be very challenging.

Fans of Princess Debut should enjoy Frantic Farming as well for the reasons I gave earlier.

Finally, Frantic Farming offers a wealth of Multiplayer options for those players who like to connect either via Wi Fi or DS to DS to match their skills with others. I was unable to explore this option as I had an advance copy of the game, but it promises to be great fun.

Here is the second of two little introductory videos I made about Frantic Farming: