These days, it feels like games are very generally cast into either the ‘Indie’ or ‘AAA’ categories, regardless of genre. Square Enix has been a major publisher that’s notably been pushing back against this dichotomy by putting out several games that are smaller in scope than something like Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, but have much higher production values than a budget indie game. Titles like The Diofield Chronicle or the Voice of Cards trilogy have filled this niche well, and now Square is doing it again with Harvestella. Billed by many as the company’s attempt at the Rune Factory formula, this farm sim and action-RPG hybrid does a solid job of merging two very different genres into a cohesive experience. It’s far from perfect, but this feels like a very solid foundation that will hopefully be built upon in the future.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Harvestella takes place in a world ruled over by four giant crystals called “Seaslights” that govern the passing of the four seasons. Some undisclosed amount of time before the narrative begins, the Seaslights begin to act strangely and introduce a new, one-day season that the residents come to call “Quietus” or the season of death. During Quietus, an evil 'death dust' fills the air and anything living that ventures outside will die upon contact with the dust. Well, except your conveniently amnesiac character, who wakes up on the ground outside in a village during Quietus. After somehow surviving, the locals let you stay in a ‘shed’ on the edge of town while you recover your memory, and you soon start to try your hand at farming. Eventually, you then get caught up in a grand quest to investigate the Seaslights’ disturbance and hopefully learn more about where you came from.

It’s not exactly an innovative story—right after your character is introduced, you meet another character who also has amnesia—but it does take some interesting twists and overall feels satisfying to get caught up in. Importantly, it goes beyond the standard “grandpa died and left you his farm” kind of storytelling you get in the average farm sim. It doesn’t necessarily get in the way of your farming, especially given that there are actual story reasons for you to keep planting and harvesting, and it helps to give the cast more of a collective goal than simply existing in the same sleepy village together. Having a ‘save the world from destruction' plot does sometimes feel at odds with the more deliberate, relaxed pace of a farm sim, but we felt that it worked well in the long run.

Gameplay in Harvestella strikes an interesting balance between its two genre components; it doesn’t do either of them better than many ‘pure’ farm sim or action-RPG titles, yet its unique method of merging the two produces something that’s remarkably satisfying anyway. On the farm sim side of the gameplay loop, all the expected elements are here. Each season lasts for 30 calendar days and the clock is always ticking, which pushes you to prioritize chores and tasks you want to accomplish each day. You have to be diligent in hoeing, watering, and regularly reseeding your fields to get the most out of them, while the crops you can plant change by the season. Later on, you also unlock the ability to house livestock on your farm, netting you important animal goods like milk and eggs as long as you remember to feed and love your animals.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

To keep you on task and give you an idea of how you should be progressing once things start to open up more beyond the opening hours, you’re given access to a book that contains dozens of small objectives like harvesting a specific number of a given crop or cooking certain dishes. Knock out enough of these, and you’ll trigger another reward that ups your farming ability in some way, such as letting you hoe more sections of a field at once or raising the level of your farm to increase the chances of high-quality crops growing. Though we would’ve appreciated the ability to target rewards better—if there’s a specific tool you’d like to upgrade, you have to simply wait until the game decides to make it the next available reward—we still enjoyed that feeling of making constant progress every day regardless of what we were doing. It’s nice to be extrinsically rewarded for doing the things you would already be doing around the farm, and each upgrade feels like it meaningfully improves your efficiency.

All farm sim elements are present and correct, then, but we feel Harvestella is a little unambitious in how it implements this half of the core gameplay loop. The farming gameplay is satisfying, sure, but it’s quite simple. And while Harvestella doesn’t feel like it’s missing anything you’d expect from a farm sim, it also doesn’t really throw anything else into the mix to take more advantage of the potential of its heavier focus on RPG elements. Given how the farming fits into the bigger picture, we ultimately felt that this simpler take was justified, but those of you who were hoping Harvestella would focus more strongly on the harvesting may be rather disappointed. It’s certainly good in this regard, but not great.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

The other half of the gameplay design follows a more traditional action-RPG setup, which it does a decent (if unspectacular) job of executing. Your party will travel between many towns—each with their own unique quest chains, NPCs, food dishes, and crops—on their adventure and eventually end up diving into a dungeon or two just beyond the city limits. These dungeons take quite a bit after the labyrinths featured in the Etrian Odyssey series, as you slowly draw out your map, create helpful shortcuts to expedite return trips, analyze and avoid the pathways of high-level FEAR enemies, and participate in brief decision events that potentially help or harm your party. It’s rare that you can tackle the whole of a dungeon in a single in-game day, so you’ll become relatively familiar with the kinds of treasures and enemies you can find in one as you make slow progress over the course of a few days.

Combat is real-time and follows basic hack-‘n’-slash rules while encouraging party cooperation and usage of all the tools at your disposal. Enemies each have weaknesses to various element or attack types and your character has up to three equipped jobs at a time that they can swap between to give them options. Your party members will just do their thing regardless, while you have an array of active skills you can use to exploit weaknesses and put down enemies swiftly. Though every job feels like it ultimately relies a little too heavily on button mashing, we appreciated how each one was given its own feel. The Assault Savant class, for example, relies on its ability to rapidly switch the elemental effect of your basic attack, while the Mage class focuses more on slow and long-distance attacks that pack quite a punch. It’s not a combat system that’ll give the likes of Ys or Bayonetta a run for their money, but it does a better job than Rune Factory at making combat fun. Our main complaint here is that defensive options are slim; some classes eventually unlock a near-useless quick dash, but some kind of block would’ve gone a long way here.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Things get a little more involved when you get to the boss fights, where you can ‘break’ your foes by hitting them repeatedly with one of their elemental weaknesses. In the break state, your enemy will take more damage for a limited time and they can even be double broken if you manage to stack up another of their weaknesses before the first break gauge fully depletes. If you’ve sufficiently raised your closeness with the active members of your party, you can even use this double break window as an opportunity to trigger a flashy team attack that really brings the pain. Though it would’ve been nice if this added mechanical depth in boss fights extended to typical trash mob fights, we also understand that there’s a big difference between the two. Most groups of normal enemies go down in a matter of seconds and aren’t meant to hold you up for long on your expeditions, while bosses usually take a few minutes (and maybe a few retries…) before they submit.

Successfully putting down enemies will accrue experience that is added to your character when they go to bed at the end of the day, while winning battles will also gain you Job Points that you can then invest in the skill trees for each job. These aren’t too complicated, nor do they take all that long to finish, but each tree still satisfies by offering you new attacks and helpful stat boosts that will make that class that much more useful when you switch to it in battle. We would’ve liked to have seen these skill trees fleshed out a bit more so you could better define your character, but given that combat is a relatively small part of the overall experience, it makes sense that the skill trees were kept simple.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

When you aren’t busy out saving the world or sweating in your fields, you’ll probably be spending most of your time interacting with the social side of the towns. Here, you can pick up side quests that are mechanically quite simple—typical fetch quest stuff—but are made much more interesting in how they’re each given meaningful little stories that take steps to flesh out the town they take place in. One early line of side quests, for example, builds on the subplot of a group of three little kids struggling to come to terms with one of them moving away because of a parent’s new job. Another focuses on a runaway boy developing a close connection with a robot because he feels he doesn’t get enough attention at home. Stories like this may not have much bearing on the main plot, but they do a great job of adding texture to each place you visit and give each side quest more meaning than being a simple one-off chore you’re handed by a nameless NPC.

Eventually, side quests are also opened up for your various party members and some named NPCs, and progressing these will not only deepen the character’s backstory, but it’ll also raise your closeness with them. Not only does this allow you to eventually ask them to come live with you as your partner, but each step of ‘closeness’ will unlock small passive stat boosts that benefit the party in battle. We appreciated the kind of synergy present in this, as you’re given compelling reasons on both the gameplay and story fronts to do these quests when you can.

As for its presentation, Harvestella features strong art direction, though the execution sometimes feels like it’s being held back by the hardware. There’s a certain otherworldly charm to the soaring crystal structures looming in the distance and we quite enjoyed how each dungeon is given different colour palettes and thematic value. Whether you’re rooting around a plain old green forest, a village positively soaked in cherry blossom petals, or the overgrown urban ruins of a modern-day city, there’s lots of variety to be found in the locales. Special mention also needs to be made for the art in the character portraits during dialogue, each character is hand-drawn in striking detail that we wish was more evident in the rest of the visuals. It’s clear that the developers had a very distinctive kind of look in mind as they built Harvestella, and while you get a good sense of that vision in the final product, it does feel like it’s being held back by the Switch hardware.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

The main problem lies with the resolution, which simply feels too low in either docked or handheld — something likely to be a non-issue in the PC version. While the UI and menus seem to run at a higher resolution, all the environments and character models have quite fuzzy and soft edges to them; it’s somewhat how we imagine the world looks to Velma when she loses her glasses in an episode of Scooby Doo. Couple this with awkward character animations and intermittent frame rate hiccups, and Harvestella feels like a game that could’ve either used more optimization time or would be better suited to being played on stronger hardware. Some consideration is due that Harvestella was designed from the very beginning as a ‘AA’ game that would be lower budget and more limited in scope than Square’s bigger projects, but it’s still tough to deny that there are some parts of Harvestella that look like a 3DS game, and not in a good way.

Luckily, the sound design fares a little better than the visuals, as it sets a generally relaxing and cozy tone that feels perfect for the overall pace that Harvestella moves at. Acoustic guitars, woodwinds, and pianos are all par for the course with the soundtrack here, and while things kick up a notch when you get into battles, we would still describe this soundtrack as being pretty chill. There is some voice acting present, although it’s never featured in actual dialogue sequences and only awkwardly plays at random when you’re out in the field. We’re not quite sure why Square would go to the effort of recording voices if it planned for such half-hearted implementation, but at least it helps to add a little more variety to the soundscape.

Conclusion

Harvestella could be described as one of the best 'good' games you’ll play this year. Its performance issues and rather simplistic mechanics hold it back from being great, but its quest design, dungeon exploration, and successful fusion of very distinct gameplay mechanics make it quite compelling all the same. That launch day $60 price tag feels a little high for what’s on offer here, but this is absolutely a title that we’d recommend farm sim fans buy when the inevitable sales start to crop up. Harvestella may not be a challenger to Stardew Valley’s crown, but it does enough to distinguish itself as a worthwhile experience anyway.