Harvest Moon: Two Towns (3DS) / B004XIQPAO
I've been a Harvest Moon fan since the first game came out on the SNES. Some of the latest installments have been a little disappointing, like the ones which take out the marriage and courtship aspect. But Tale of Two Towns perfectly recaptures the magic of Harvest Moon by beautifully balancing farming with the social aspects (which are my favorite parts of the franchise).
Two Towns starts off with two "rival" villages, and it's up to the player to patch things up. One town (Bluebell) is livestock-oriented and with the standard Harvest Moon European country village flair; the other town (Konohana) is crop-oriented and has a beautiful Eastern style, with paper lanterns hanging from the eaves. The player picks a village (though the player can change villages later, if desired) to live and work in and focuses on rebuilding relationships between the villagers.
The beauty of this setup is that it balances a high replay value (two villages = two playthroughs) without cutting off content from the player. Bluebell players can still farm crops, they just have smaller fields to work with (or have to commute to Konohana to grow crops there at the "extra" farm; this works well with crops that don't need daily watering). Similarly, Konohana players can still raise animals; they just have a smaller farm. This balancing act works really well when you consider that earlier HM games made it pretty much impossible to tend to a full barn AND a full field at once. (Leading to exploits like time not passing indoors, or having to hire farmhands to help, or having to work all night long, etc.)
This installment also does a great job of playing up the social aspect and cooking aspect: there are 4 cooking festivals per season (so 16 total per year) plus various livestock contests, pet contests, dating holidays, etc. All of this is optional, but since a major game goal is to build relationships between the towns, it's valuable for the player to attend and/or participate since participation builds the "heart meter" between the towns. (The Harvest Goddess helpfully keeps a running track.) All this works towards making you feel like you're achieving something between two communities, and not just building up your finances.
Other neat things about this Harvest Moon:
1. Villager (and Bachelor / Bachelorette) hearts are visible through a "flower number" that frames their dialogue box, so you don't have to hunt for diaries.
2. Mountain exploration (including herb gathering and fishing) feel like integral parts of the game.
3. Livestock is easier to herd than in many previous HM games, making outside feeding not only viable but desirable (since time spent outdoors increases livestock happiness). And the pets in the game (you can own up to 6) will automatically herd your livestock in and out of the barn for you, once their heart levels are high enough.
4. Crops can be planted in plowed rows, which means that one row only has to be watered and/or fertilized once. No more tedious watering each and every square.
5. A "request" system has been implemented which lets you bring requested items to villagers for heart increase, money, and item rewards. This is hugely fun and addictive.
6. Though the two villages are separated by a mountain, it is more than easy to visit both villages in a day. (And indeed I visit them both nearly every day as part of my play-style.) You can also spend the night in the opposite village if you need to start your morning there for whatever reason.
7. The available dating partners (boys for girl players to date and girls for boy players to date; I am disappointed to see HM still has not apparently implemented same sex relationship options) are all interesting and fun people to get to know; I appreciate the series' tradition of making well-rounded characters to interact with.
8. Item management is both easier and harder to manage than before. "Easier" because dropped items don't disappear immediately (which means you can't accidentally drop stuff and lose it forever, thank goodness) (though they will disappear overnight, so remember to pick up your pet toys before bed); "harder" because some items *will* still rot in your cart storage over time, plus you have a finite amount of space (in contrast to the Unlimited Refrigerator in Back to Nature). This adds an interesting inventory management angle to the game--you can't pack rat everything, so you *will* have to decide what to use, what to give away, and what to sell.
9. There's an online/friend play system which I haven't used, but which lets you plant crops for others to harvest in a special "online sharing" area (near the Harvest Goddess' spring) and (in turn) harvest crops from their shared area. This seems like a thing I would have enjoyed as a kid, even though I probably wouldn't use it now.
10. I don't always like how games implement the DS touchscreen, but this one handles it very well in my opinion. The touchscreen is largely for inventory management, but you *can* manage your inventory without touching the screen--in other words, using the stylus in this case is optional, and you could also use the D-pad and buttons to move things from your inventory to storage and/or the shipping bin. The touchscreen also shows farmer details (like outfits and requests), and there's a "petting" mini-game with the animals which is completely optional. Almost everything the touchscreen does, therefore, is optional, which is how I like it.
To sum up: This is probably my favorite Harvest Moon game since Back to Nature (for the PS1, and which I still hold to be the best in the series). I highly recommend it, especially if you're a player who goes in for the community / festival / dating aspects of these games.
On a final note: I note a lot of people having bug issues with this game freezing. I bought a used copy of the game (so I can't vouch for how clean the cartridge is), and have played it on a 2DS (note well: 2DS, not 3DS) for weeks. The 2DS is still at the basic factory settings; I won't update the software until it becomes necessary for some reason. With that said, I have *NOT* experienced the game freezing. Not even once. So take that for what it's worth: my copy of the game has worked fine on a factory-settings 2DS.
~ Ana Mardoll