Libra: Harvestella (Switch)
2022 had the potential to be one of the best years for fans of farming/life simulation RPGs. The highly-anticipated next installment in the Rune Factory series, Rune Factory 5, was up first in March. Although I still enjoyed my time with it – full thoughts can be found here – I found its lack of polish to be extremely disappointing after coming off its solid predecessor. Then out of nowhere, Harvestella was announced in June and set to be released in November. I was ecstatic, especially with it being something unexpected and different from Square Enix.
But I had concerns. Would Square Enix be able to pull it off? How would it fare in comparison to standards set by other games in the genre? Would it help offset the disappointment brought on by Rune Factory 5 earlier in the year, or would it only add insult to injury? The truth lies somewhere in between, at least based on my progress thus far.
Harvestella does not shy away from Square Enix’s roots, as the focal point of the narrative involves four elementally-aligned crystals, known as Seaslight, and their role in life itself. The balance of nature and the seasons rely on the harmony of the Seaslight. However, there is a brief period in between the changing of the seasons – Quietus, or the death season – that not only consumes crops, but also has unknown, potentially deadly effects on humanity. Unfortunately, the Quietus seems to demand more time with every passing season.
This combined with bizarre Seaslight activity has led many to fear the worst, including the silent protagonist of this tale. Rescued by an angelic creature, they ultimately find themselves at the mercy of a nearby village that offers room and board so long as they pull their own weight. Without another option, the amnesiac protagonist agrees only to soon discover that their role is far more important than they might have ever thought. Joined by a girl from the future, the two (along with others) decide to investigate why things are changing so drastically and what can, if anything, be done about it.
The premise is compelling, but I suppose I haven’t seen enough to determine whether it will hold water for long. I’ve visited three out of four Seaslights so far and each has introduced new characters and provided a decent enough story. They do feel like compartmentalized problems however, though the side quests have a bit of overlap between the areas. Speaking of side quests, I’m not the biggest fan of how much it focuses on the problems of children, and how they often come across as verbal geniuses despite their youth. That said, both children and adults do not hesitate when faced with the opportunity to throw themselves into danger. This is an RPG, after all.
It’s unfortunate that the previously mentioned problems trickle down to the game’s character update system that periodically sends the protagonist letters in the mail from various folks they meet along the way. While this is an acceptable means of communication for adults, it is a bit immersion breaking when all of the children write letters with perfect grammar and sentence structure. I also found the majority of dialogue choices for the protagonist to be completely unnecessary. Most of the time, the choices are so similar to one another that there’s no reason for them, and there are very few instances where there were drastic enough differences in responses to even care. Dialogue choices can certainly help flesh out the silent protagonist when done right, but that’s often not the case here.
Harvestella is a life simulation action RPG with farming mechanics. Each day, the protagonist wakes up and can more or less do whatever they’d like, whether it be progressing the narrative or side quests, tending to the farm, building relationships with friends, gathering and harvesting resources, or fighting against enemies. The clock is ticking however, and there’s only so much you can do before dawn sets on a new day. Most actions require stamina, which can be replenished through eating and also regenerated slowly over time if you don’t have an empty stomach.
Sprinting also consumes stamina – a large amount of it, in fact, and this ultimately leads you to having to eat far more food than you might expect. Maps are a bit too spacious in design, so it’s only natural to want to run as much as possible. Unfortunately, between running, attacking, and tending to the farm, you can deplete stamina reserves fairly quickly. This isn’t the end of the world since there’s seemingly no cooldown or limit to how much you can eat…but it just feels like poor design either way. Another resource to consider is time itself. Many actions will require additional time on top of the natural clock ticking away. It’s disadvantageous to stay up past midnight, so keeping travel, crafting, and structure repair times in check is definitely key.
Farming in Harvestella is pretty standard fare for the genre. There are a variety of crops that can be sown in your fields, some of which can only grow in specific seasons. Watering them daily will allow them to grow and ultimately be harvested when they’ve reached full maturation. The only key difference here compared to other games in the vein is the Quietus, which will wipe out the vast majority of any crops left over at the end of the season, regardless of whether they can be grown in the next season as well. There doesn’t seem to be any random natural disasters that can wipe crops out either, so I suppose the inclusion of the Quietus helps make up for that.
Harvestella also features animal raising and mounts for the world map, all of which will yield various perks and resources in exchange for deepening bonds and generally just taking care of them. There is no soil quality or crop crossbreeding to consider, at least at my current point in the game, so it’s definitely more straightforward than Rune Factory 5 and similar titles. You can improve the odds of growing quality crops farm-wide, however, by reaching a vast array of milestones with element-specific fairies the protagonist will come to befriend. These same fairies also reward you with new recipes and farming perks, such as an increased radius with the different farming tools at your disposal.
Overall, farming in Harvestella is solid, if a bit straightforward compared to some of its contemporaries. This is by no means a bad thing, but is something to consider should you be craving deep farming or crafting mechanics.
Combat and Jobs
Harvestella utilizes an action-based combat system that, sadly, feels a bit stiff in execution. While there are quite a few abilities the protagonist has at their disposal, most of them are locked behind a global cooldown that generally doesn’t allow for a lot of on-demand actions to be made. There are many different jobs the character can wield, with three being equippable and hot-swappable in combat at any time. This provides close to a dozen combat actions excluding evasive maneuvers and the standard attack, but most of them cannot be used if another action is already being used.
Rather than snappy, reactionary combat, you instead play the more methodical game of cat and mouse, hopping in and out of range to goad the enemy into using an action so that you can counter while their guard is down. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if the enemy’s attack range didn’t feel so off. Some jobs grant a dash maneuver that can help in evading attacks, but a lot of times you’ll still be within an enemy’s reach. And just forget about avoiding attacks with non-dashing jobs since running generally isn’t even enough to avoid them, and most enemies will reset their position if you try to kite them for too long.
The protagonist can have up to two other party members with them at any time. They’ll perform actions on their own, but only if the player attacks the enemy first. This can lead to instances where the party is surrounded, and the AI companions won’t immediately attack the next target despite the situation. That said, the party members are extremely beneficial in dealing with foes and soaking up some attacks, so long as you don’t drag out the kiting process to the enemy reset limit.
Then there’s the job progression system, which is pretty underwhelming in design. It uses a node-based system that allows you to generally make a few different choices at any given moment, but many of the nodes are uninteresting. Some of the first few abilities unlocked for most classes are the aforementioned dash, as well as a shortened cooldown for job swapping, both of which could have easily been baked-in to the system to make way for more compelling node choices. As it stands, the job progression system feels a little tacked on, almost like it felt necessary simply because Square Enix loves their job systems. I think the bones of everything here are fine, but the finer details – stiff, GCD-heavy combat and boring job node choices – leave much to be desired.
Dungeons and Side Quests
While I’ve been pretty negative on Harvestella thus far, it does do several things quite well, two of which are dungeons and side content…kind of.
Dungeons are cleverly designed, with multiple shortcuts that the player can open up in order to reach their depths easily during subsequent visits. And you’ll be visiting previous dungeons a lot for both side quests and resource gathering (mainly for weapon upgrades and crafting). As mentioned earlier, the side quests usually have decent stories attached to them, even though they have a tendency to drag on at times.
But what is most important is the rewards, and Harvestella is not stingy with providing ample goodies for completing these tasks. Moreover, cooked goods can be turned in at most city’s taverns for A LOT of money and the occasional new recipe. Some might feel that the side quests rewards are too good though, making them almost feel mandatory. Regardless, I’d personally rather the side quest rewards be overly generous rather than a complete waste of time like they can be in other games.
Presentation, Performance, and Sound
When it comes to the overall presentation, Harvestella has both highs and lows. What it has going for it is a nice art style and well-designed characters (save for the protagonist’s own laughable amount of customization). Texture quality generally tends to be high, sometimes even impressive, but only once everything is properly loaded. Character portraits during dialogue sequences are also really appealing and highly emotive, and some of the town designs – notably Shatolla – are aesthetically pleasing. The soundtrack is also really good, and many of the tunes continue to play out in my head even after I’m away from my Switch. Unfortunately, that’s where the niceties end, as Harvestella has a few flaws under the hood.
There are a lot of loading screens, albeit short ones, to sit through. But the reality is that they should have been longer since the dynamic texturing hardly ever keeps up, especially in docked mode. You are often greeted with low-res, muddy textures for several seconds whenever loading in a new area. Objects in the distance and vistas in general can also be hit or miss – Xenoblade has really spoiled us here.
Animations across the board are also rather stiff, with head nods and shakes generally snapping into position rather than flowing naturally. Most of the characters have lifeless faces regardless of what may be going on, but at least we have emotive portraits! The most heinous issue when it comes to visual design, though, is the sheer amount of houses with carbon-copied interiors. Not only are a lot identical in structure, but they also place objects in doodads in virtually the same places. This comes across as extremely lazy design.
Harvestella has issues. While many of them are minor, they are difficult to overlook collectively and are ultimately ill-befitting of a full-priced Square Enix RPG. Things might have been different if the game was offered at a lower price point, but that’s simply not the case. Although I’ve still enjoyed my time with Harvestella overall and will likely continue to do so, potential buyers should be aware that it feels unpolished in its current form, and is certainly not the Rune Factory savior I was hoping for. Perhaps more time with it – and maybe a patch or two – will sway me into a more positive light, though. For now, I’d suggest proceeding with caution.