Pioneers of Olive Town is the newest entry in the long running farm sim series that used to be called Harvest Moon in the west. It has been 25 years since the first game was released, and director Hikaru Nakano has stated that with this title, he wanted to move the series on and give new life to the concept. With us being a year on from Animal Crossing, players may be looking for a new place to relax and build a new virtual life in, but the new systems and brutally slow pace at the start of the game could put newcomers off. But ultimately, once you lean into the systems and realise that you can take all of this at your own pace without any detrimental effects, it’s a relaxing, cheery game.
And don’t confuse the series with the current Harvest Moon game, which is now a completely different set of games by a different developer for reasons thats are too long and boring to go into. Suffice to say, if you loved Harvest Moon pre 2014, this is the game that you want to be looking at as the latest iteration of the series.
Let’s start with the basic setup. You start the game as young person who has decided to move from the big city and revitalise your grandfathers old farm, which sits next to the sleepy Olive Town. On arrival, you are faced with a single overgrown area covered in trees, grass and rocks, along with a dilapidated chicken coop. You are greeted by the Mayor who is delighted you are taking over and is willing to teach you a thing or two. Olive Town has a problem you see, it’s a charming place on the coast that is suffering from a lack of tourists. For reasons that aren’t really made clear, if you spruce up your farm, the Mayor reckons more tourists will come to the town and the good times will roll.
So far so good, and once you complete the tutorial days, it’s then up to you as to how you want to spend your time. The first order of business is clearing your land so you can actually do something with it. Chopping down trees and smashing rocks take energy which depletes your heart meter, so there is only so much work you can do each day. And this is the first real problem with this game, the wilderness is incredibly aggressive. You can spend a day clearing your farm, but when the next day comes, new trees, rocks and puddles are back to be cleared. You will feel that you are fighting a losing battle, but luckily you can upgrade your tools to make this easier, and that brings is to the crafting system.
To upgrade tools and buildings, you need materials. And these are generally obtained by taking the raw materials and putting them into a machine called a Maker which will process them. So you take 3 pieces of wood, pop it in the Lumber Maker, and hey presto, 1 Lumber appears. But this takes 2 hours of game time and can only process one at a time. And there is a Maker for everything. You need to craft an Ingot Maker, Thread Maker, Cloth Maker, Yarn Maker, even a Mayonnaise Maker, the list is enormous. So what I was planning on being a lovely ordered farm of growing crops quickly turned into an industrial complex. Early one, you’ll be doing more chopping and mining than farming, and it gets a little frustrating, everything takes so long to do. The first expansion to your farm is across a broken bridge, you need 15 lumber to repair it. Thats a lot of busywork and 30 game hours of Maker time, which seems excessive.
You can have multiple makers of a specific type at once, and you also have ways of gathering basic materials with very little effort shortly after you get started, but you do end up needing a huge amount of these machines. It does look like this might be addressed in a later patch though, more on that later.
But what about the town itself? It’s filled with shops and restaurants and a cast of locals who you can get to know and build friendships with. 10 of the characters you can romance, 5 male and 5 female, and same sex marriage is available. But the slow start problem rears it’s head again here, the locals are so bland and boring at the start until you build up friendships by talking to them every day and giving them gifts. The conversations are all so lifeless and are usually related to a town event, so early one everyone will just say how much they are looking forward to the Egg Hunt, then for days after, they talk about how much fun it was. It’s frankly incredibly dull and the characters come across as bland copies of each other. This changes as time goes on, but as with farming, the slow start may put people off
These events vary in quality too, and I have to question some of the design decisions in the early game. For about a week, all the residents want to talk about how much fun the Egg Hunt is going to be, and I was actually looking forward to it. On the big day, I was told I could ask someone to hunt with me, but at this point none of my friendship levels were high enough. I then expected to be able to go on a search around town, looking for eggs, but no, the whole event is represented by a cutscene. And thats it. Some of the other events are little mini games, like racing your pets against others, but why did they make the first one you encounter non-interactive? Maybe it will be different next time round as I’ll be able to do it with another character, but I think it’s a curious choice to start with.
There is also a museum which will take photos of local animals and turn them into models, and will also take fish and treasures. Sound familiar? It’s a nice addition though, to scratch that collecting itch. In the Town Hall you will find quests from residents that can earn you some extra money as long as you have the required items to hand. From time to time the Mayor will pop up with an idea on how to improve the town, and he will post 3 requests for different resources. You only need to complete one of these to improve the town, and you usually have easy access to at least one of them, so it’s not too onerous a task.
So each game day, you have some decisions to make as to how to spend your time. Do you do some crop growing? Or are you going to do some resource gathering? That bridge to the next section needs building too, and then there will be a ton of stuff to clear out and repair. Or should you go and hang around town and up your friendships? I got quite overwhelmed with all of this at first before I just accepted that it didn’t matter. There are no hard deadlines in the game, you can do whatever you want to meet your particular goal. Don’t want to go chopping trees for wood to make lumber to repair the bridge? No problem, spend time raising crops, selling produce and paying someone to do the work. It’s entirely up to you. I’m not going to criticise a game too harshly when I put it on just to check something and lose 4 hours of my day pootling about on my farm.
Graphically, the game is bright and colourful, and the animal models are particularly endearing. There is some weird fading in and out effects used to see through obstacles but its generally easy to navigate and get around without making too many mistakes. But the frame rate is incredibly variable and the jerkiness can be annoying, in TV and handheld mode. Loading times are shocking, and the game can crash at certain points, say if you take the fishing rod out in the mine. The initial release was so badly received Japan that the developers released an apology promising changes. Some the bugs have been removed in a day one patch for the UK release, but there is still a long way to go. Marvelous has had to issue some advice on workarounds for situations that can cause a crash, and a list of things they want to change.
And this list includes some fundamental stuff. Adding and improving dialogue, revamping the maker system and changes to improve immersion. The game was obviously not ready for release, one of the weirdest quirks is when you have a meal in town. Whatever you order, even if its just a drink, you are shown eating the same multiple course meal. It just throws you out of the fantasy world a little, and it should have not made the final release.
Overall though, after a rocky start, I’m enjoying Pioneers of Olive town. With my faithful pet husky Scruff by my side, and Geoff the chicken producing top class eggs (I always call my first pet/friend in any game Geoff regardless of gender) along with Gladys the cow, I’m off to a good start. The core gameplay loop is relaxing and satisfying once you get past the first season and learn to just take your time, and with more changes to come, I can see myself tending to my farm for quite a while yet.