Harvestella Review: Plot Twist
I don't quite know what to make of Harvestella. Despite being billed as a farming RPG, Harvestella is nothing like Rune Factory, nor is it as farm-y as Stardew Valley. Still, it's not as much an RPG as its inspirations like Bravely Default. Yet its relationships are more complex, and its story more confident and ambitious than most RPGs in recent years. Superfluous farming and shallow battles aside, Harvestella is one of the most interesting games of 2022.
Square Enix showed little of Harvestella's story leading up to launch, and it's not hard to see why. Harvestella is a strange epic of the kind Square Enix hasn't created since the days of the original PlayStation, and similar to Xenogears and Vagrant Story, the story's strengths shine through when you don't know what awaits you around the next plot twist, let alone at the end. And it's entirely possible that, even after reaching the end, you might feel like you still don't really know what happened.
Harvestella has all the hallmarks of a retro classic – a grand, slightly obtuse story that stretches beyond the stars, seemingly random biblical references that finally make sense once you uncover the last mystery, and villains with ambiguous motives and an inclination to destroy all living creatures who aren't so different from the people you travel with.
The gist of what's happening, at least in the first few hours, is that you have no clue what's happening. Your character wakes up with no memory, a tired conceit in most cases, but one that makes sense here. They find themselves in a strange world during an even stranger period called Quietus, where death reigns, albeit only for a day.
The rest of the month passes as usual, though a series of odd RPG-style occurrences – agitated monsters, weirdness with the seasons, and similar developments – seem to suggest something is amiss in the world. The setup is initially a bit too simple and familiar, though Harvestella's true nature gradually makes itself visible.
There's a girl who also lost her memory and says she's from the future, with a diary that seemingly proves it, though she's not as fond of the Seaslights as everyone else for some reason. Human-like robots called Omen prowl the fields and strike fear into the hearts of many. The carrots look like rabbits, and there's a talking unicorn who really likes you.
Harvestella is weird, but it's not just odd for the sake of standing out or making a joke. There's a strong internal logic and, more importantly, a belief that its weirdness is actually quite normal, at least for the world of Harvestella, which lends a sense of believability and significance to even the most outlandish flourishes.
The same can't be said of Harvestella's farming component, which is almost the complete opposite and feels like an idea that has no firm purpose. I see why the development team thought the setup was perfect for a farm-sim game, though I don't think it was necessary. A Seaslight exists in each region of the land you find yourself in and helps regulate the seasons, making life possible for animals and plants alike.
The setup seems built for a farming game, even more so considering how much deeper and more intimate Harvestella's character stories feel when they unfold over days and months.
The problem from a farming perspective is that Harvestella isn't actually that concerned with farming beyond using it as a concept. The crop selection is limited, and after your first few months, you earn more money through completing quests than you do from shipping produce. Livestock is even more paltry, and you can't give any of your farm goods to friends as gifts. It's hard not to see the farming aspect as not quite a gimmick but certainly as a feature that deserved a bit more attention.
Harvestella's approach to battle is held back by similar constraints. It uses a job system, with new jobs unlocked as you befriend more party members, but the skills available and even the battles themselves never approach the depth and satisfaction of Square Enix's other job-based RPGs, like Bravely Default and Octopath Traveler. Combat is better than it is in Stardew Valley, but not as good as in Rune Factory.
Where Harvestella distinguishes itself from other simulation games and even most RPGs in the past five years or so is its character stories. Characters featured little in pre-launch overviews outside a brief blog post, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that their melancholy tales are so grounded and well-told that they almost upstage the main story.
Brakka, for example, is a member of the Seaslight Order, a sort of religious military that maintains the land's laws and beliefs. They join you as a party member, and as you grow closer, you learn more about their struggles with the Order – their conflicts with leadership, pressure to conform, and the potential danger of going against the Order to help you on your journey.
These moments unfold across character story quests. While these Persona-style relationships are hardly unique anymore, Harvestella takes them a step further and effectively integrates them into the main story instead of confining them and the developments to side sequences that never affect and rarely relate to the main story.
Harvestella Review — The Bottom Line
- Ambitious, well-realized story.
- Excellent supporting cast.
- Deftly weaves character stories with the main plot.
- Farming is a bit pointless.
- Battles are too simple.
- The overarching narrative point is a bit shallow.
Harvestella is a strange game, not least because it doesn't really fit into the genres Square Enix tried developing it in. The end result is a bit of a letdown in terms of an actual farming game or battle-focused RPG, but the complex story and the confidence Harvestella has in itself and its characters makes it worth experiencing nonetheless.
[Note: Square Enix provided the copy of Harvestella used for this review.]