I came to farming sims through the very first Harvest Moon game. I picked it up as a virtual console title on the Wii, having vaguely heard that it was supposed to be pretty solid despite the subject matter being fully outside my normal areas of interest. It was a cold winter break and spending my days tending to my virtual crops and romancing the town’s eligible villagers was a great way to enjoy the many days inside between holiday gatherings. When I finished with Harvest Moon I wanted to see what else the series had to offer, so I quickly preordered the next upcoming game in the series, which at the time was Tree of Tranquility. This was the beginning of my relationship with the farming sim, a genre that I still have a soft spot for despite the many times I have been ultimately disappointed.
One of my most notable disappointments came with the first game in which the original owners of the Harvest Moon brand had to – as a result of circumstances I still don’t fully understand nor care to research – change the name of the series to Story of Seasons. When I originally played Story of Seasons it felt nothing about the series was moving forward. I was still farming in the same familiar ways and performing the same side activities as ever. In particular, I had the distinct feeling that all of those activities seemed to be taking longer than normal to lead to meaningful results. Relationships felt like they built very slowly, new features took awhile to unlock, and even the simple act of walking to town felt like a serious drag. Later on when I played Stardew Valley, it would become clear just how much a game in this style could accomplish if it was willing to do new things. Stardew’s richer mining experience, light RPG mechanics in the form of skill growths, and the ability to craft useful items for the farm all added a lot to the experience, and did so in a way that throws you into the action with little fanfare or tutorialization.
So when Nintendo declared that Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town would be free to play for a few days via the Game Trials service, I expected to be picking up yet another farming game that failed to meet the new standard set by Stardew. Still, I wanted to approach the game with an open mind and to give it a fighting chance. I ended up playing Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town for about one month of in-game time during the duration of the game trial. Today I’ll be discussing my impressions based on my experiences during that time.
As is tradition with modern iterations of the farming sim you begin your journey with character creation. Choosing the design of your farmer involves setting their facial expression, hair style and color, skin and eye color (including an option for heterochromia), voice, stance, and starting outfit. The character creator is middling in terms of robustness. For example, players of color will have a couple different options for dark skin tones but there are no options for natural hair. You can choose your outfit, hair, stance, and voice totally independent of gender, but the game still only has male and female options once the gender choice comes around. These are steps in the right direction but there is still progress to be made.
You’ll also as part of starting the game choose the difficulty level that you want to use. There are two options in the game: normal and seedling. Normal is the “dev-intended” difficulty while seedling mode adds a number of bonuses to expedite your experience such as improved stamina, faster relationships, better prices, and quicker skill leveling. Because I knew I’d only be playing this game for a brief period of time, seedling mode seemed like a smart choice so I could experience as much as possible before the trial ended. What I found was that for me, as a player who has frequently complained about the snail pacing of earlier Story of Seasons games, seedling mode better matches the pacing that feels comfortable and fun for me.
Once you set your difficulty and design your character, you are introduced to the mayor of Olive Town who will quickly hand over a bunch of your tools and give you a day to learn to use them by clearing enough of your land to start farming the next day. While the tutorial here is definitely longer than Stardew, a game that just tosses you in and hopes you know what you’re doing, it is much quicker than other games in the Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons vein. You’ll get all the basic tools you need within a couple of days and after that you can get on with your life and progress the game normally. Explanations of the game’s tools or new concepts show up as single windows with an image and a block of text. If you get the idea you can quickly just mash through when engaging a new element; it’s easy enough to skip any lesson that none of it feels intrusive for veterans.
Now we get to the meat and potatoes: the mechanics. In Pioneers of Olive Town you produce money for your farm by shipping produce, animal products, or materials you’ve gathered or crafted through your other activities. Seeds can only be planted on tilled land and must be watered daily, with different vegetables growing at different rates and only in particular seasons. While you don’t start with animals on your farm, you do start with a dilapidated barn and coop which you can restore using materials you gather on the farm. Once restored, you even get your first chicken and cow for free, as they are wandering wild on your property and can easily be tamed once you have the appropriate facility. Animal products and produce all have star ratings from 0 to 10 which indicate the quality and increase the value of the item itself or, more likely, the things you make from it.
Compared to previous entries in the series, maintaining your farm is a bigger task in Olive Town. Trees grow relatively quickly and new saplings are popping up all the time. New rocks and weeds regularly appear as well, and when it rains puddles of water collect that need to be drained with a bucket. All of these activities produce necessary materials for crafting. Wood can be hewn into lumber, ore into ingots, grass woven into thread that can then be made into yarn or cloth and colored with dye, even scooping up water with your bucket produces clay that can then be fired into bricks and mortar. Most of these transformations are facilitated through makers that can be crafted from your crafting menu and are unlocked by leveling up your various farm skills. Crafting is such a big part of this game that on my farm, the segment for the makers was just as large in area as the segment for crops currently growing.
Compared to other farming sims I have played, Pioneers of Olive Town has some nice quality of life touches that I really appreciate. Any action you can take has a clear meter showing how difficult it is going to be for you to get it done. When you hit a rock and a third of the meter goes away you know that breaking that rock will be realistic – when you hit a rock and a tiny sliver disappears, it quickly conveys that you’ll need better gear or a higher skill to deal with the problem. When you misclick while placing seeds or pouring water from the watering can the game doesn’t burn the resource so you can quickly reposition and get back to the action. The world is a manageable size and trips into town are quick, allowing you to run to the store in a brief window or to make multiple trips back and forth without consuming your entire day. Additionally, even when shops are closed you can still enter the building, which can be helpful for making sure you get to talk to the characters who live in those locations if you don’t find them out and about. None of these are necessarily huge features but it all works together to help streamline the experience and respect your time.
I can’t speak much to the game’s overall story due to the limited amount of time I have spent with it, but Pioneers of Olive Town is primarily interested in growing tourism to the community. Olive Town is a port town and you can regularly see tourists exploring the place after arriving by boat. You receive objectives from the mayor at the town hall’s bulletin board, and delivering the required materials progresses the story and sometimes unlocks new features like shops. While other townsfolk can give you optional objectives for additional rewards, the objectives for the mayor often have three different conditions so you can choose which one works best for you based on the materials you have. It’s simple and unintrusive similar to completing the community center goals in Stardew Valley or paying your debts in Animal Crossing.
No Story of Seasons narrative would be complete without a touch of the supernatural, and in Pioneers of Olive Town the supernatural comes from little round creatures called Earth Sprites. You’ll see a bunch of them well before you are given an explanation for what they are, as they manifest while you are farming and a little counter slowly ticks upward. After you’ve collected a few, you’ll be taken to their village and can begin to assign them to tasks like harvesting wood or stone. The more sprites you have on a task the more materials they gather, and they also earn you sprite coins that you can spend at a special shop on particular items you may want. These are generally materials, flowers, or an already-harvested crop, making this a quick way to grab something you might need for a recipe or to finish off a crafting bundle. The number of materials you can realistically get from this is pretty unimpressive, but the mechanic is unintrusive so you can just visit the village occasionally after getting a decent influx of sprites and not worry about it too much otherwise.
A big part of the story in these games comes from the relationships you develop with the other residents. Olive Town has a pretty standard cast as far as farming sims go with diversity at roughly one step greater than Stardew – the town is mostly white but there are Black, Latine, and Asian families who live there in addition to the tourists who come in from other places. As you increase heart levels with the residents you unlock scenes you can view in town. These scenes are probably the most intrusive story element in the game, and if you’re progressing all of your relationships at roughly the same pace then the week or so of heart level events you’ll be subjected to as everyone reaches the next rank all at once can be a bit aggravating when you are just trying to go to the store. The characters generally are nothing to write home about, falling into predictable archetypes like “the mayor’s layabout son,” “the mom who organizes the weekly ladies’ night,” and of course “quirky rich guy obsessed with gourmet food.” Keep in mind though that I only experienced roughly one heart level per character – there’s a chance they become more nuanced and interesting as the game goes on.
Finally, let’s dig into some of the game’s side activities. Pioneers of Olive Town didn’t just take cues from Stardew – there’s a bit of Animal Crossing in the game too courtesy of the museum. Fish and treasures collected during your daily activities can be donated to the museum and then cast as models that you can use to decorate your house. The museum also evaluates “timeworn objects” you find in the mines, revealing their true identity as…usually just a normal piece of ore, honestly. You can also take photographs of the wild animals you meet and donate them here too, but I didn’t really mess with the camera feature of the game so I can’t speak much to that element.
Mining isn’t as mechanically complex as Stardew Valley but if you’re primarily experienced with Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons then this popular side activity should seem pretty familiar. There are multiple mines with each one having multiple floors to explore. Floors are loaded with different types of rocks to break as well as the occasional ore vein or treasure spot which give better rewards. Some floors have stairs already revealed while others hide the stairs beneath one of the stones. The types of materials you can mine get rarer the deeper down you go. There are also “baddies,” moles who erupt from the ground beneath your feet and reduce your stamina a bit if they hit you. A quick bonk on the head with the hammer gets rid of them for the current floor.
And of course we can’t forget fishing, gaming’s most popular minigame. You can fish in any substantial body of water and because Olive Town is a port town, you’ve got plenty of options. You cast your line and wait for a little alert which informs you that a fish has bitten the line. Once you hit the button to confirm that you’re ready to catch, the reeling minigame begins. The fish moves through three different stages in a prescribed order. In the blue stage fish are the easiest to catch and cost the least stamina to reel. In the red stage, the fish is actively fighting and will cost you tons of stamina for essentially accomplishing nothing. There is also a middling white stage where average progress is made at an average stamina cost. You learn quickly in this game that the blue stage is the only one worth reeling on and so fishing is primarily a waiting game where you wait for the fish to be the right color and then reel until it changes, repeating this process until you’ve caught the fish. Fish can be sold for quick cash or cooked into recipes to restore your energy.
I expected to try out Pioneers of Olive Town and play another game that was clearly outclassed by Stardew Valley. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by a game that doesn’t quite surpass what other farming sims are bringing to the table but at least catches up to them in a way that is fun and refined. The quality of life features make it easy to keep the focus on the process of growing your crops and gathering materials to make a variety of different items to ship, with few interruptions outside of the heart events from other townsfolk. Price of course is an important factor – if you’re strapped for cash and have to make a choice I think that Stardew has a lot more value per dollar at less than half the cost of Pioneers of Olive Town. But if you’re a big fan of the genre and you’re looking for an experience that isn’t necessarily new and fresh, but reliable and well-executed, then this Story of Seasons title should be a good match for you.