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Harvest Moon: Animal Parade Wii is an uncomfortable mix of the idyllic and the depressing let down by a very slow start.
Small agricultural communities have been under pressure for decades in the first world, as factory farming and cheap imports cannibalise their business, and the shift to industrial, then post-industrial models has concentrated economic activity on urban areas.
I'm fairly certain that Harvest Moon: Animal Parade isn't intended to be a hard-hitting commentary on the predicament of the rural poor, but it feels like it.
Animal Parade starts as you might expect. Your character rides on the back of a cart to her new farm, and the driver of the cart sets out the basic premise that, well, you're moving into a new farm.
Your character also has a little floating sprite companion who spouts exposition and tips, because that
happened in Zelda one time is a useful thing to have.
There's not much to do on the farm, initially. The barn and coop are empty, and all you have is a handful of turnip seeds. There's a few tutorial books to read in your house, but sooner or later I needed to head into town.
Harmonica Town (there's a musical motif running through the entire game) is one of those picturesque quasi-mediterranean seaside towns so beloved of anime and games - think of the towns in Hayao Miyazaki's films, or the beach level in Mario Kart: Double Dash.
While it looks idyllic, Harmonica Town is in a bit of an economic downturn, and everyone you meet has a good moan about how they haven't got enough resources and business has been poor.
The Mayor insists you meet everyone in town, and everyone you meet seems to hold you out as their last hope for reviving the town. It's all a bit grim as the list of maudlin demands stack up. Animal Crossing's Tom Nook may have been a money-grabbing slave-driver, but at least he wasn't such a downer about it.
Mira is exceptionally attractive to men because of her sad expressions when she thinks about her late husband.
This mood-dampener reached a weird nadir when I was asked to counsel widow, Mira, who we're told is exceptionally attractive to men because of her sad expressions when she thinks about her late husband.
I was asked to help comfort Mira by the trainee priest at the local church. Although the architecture of the church seems Christian, the people of Harmonica Town seem to be pagan, with talk of a goddess tree to appease before crops can improve. There's a certain Wicker Man element to this set-up, one that sadly never seems to pay off.
A few hours in, I was tentatively getting to grips with the world of Harvest Moon and the requirements of very basic farming. I had my first cow, who I named Derek (yes, I know cows are girls), a few turnips to water, and began to get into the rhythm of farm life. I had even, in spite of the game's attempts to the contrary, worked out which of the shops and farms sold the goods I needed to, say, grow grass for cow fodder.
I still wasn't having fun, though. Harvest Moon: Animal Parade is, beneath the surface cuteness, an extremely unfriendly game, one that asks a lot and rewards little. When you get a new item your character does a little dance, but there's none of the joyous, positive feedback that allows Animal Crossing to sink its hooks into you. There's a lot of chores, and few pleasures.
Even the simple stuff feels like hard work. The map isn't huge, but traversing it on foot really drags, especially with black loading screens between different sections of the town. The only save point is at the farm, so I needed to slog all the way back before I could leave the game and do anything else.
Attempts at cuteness are charmless, generic, and occasionally a bit creepy.
Some really basic tutorials are only available by going to the farmhouse and wading through books, while even then some important facts aren't intuitive or very clearly explained. There's no obvious way of tracking the tiresome fetch quests characters send you on, requiring back-tracking to their location to check if you forget something.
Fortunately, while animals need daily feeding, crops need daily watering, and local businesses have strict opening hours, characters will happily stand on a rain-lashed bridge for days on end waiting for you to bring them some milk and a strawberry, so there's no hurry.
Harvest Moon: Animal Parade has a solid core of resource management, once you eventually get to it, but offers little for the tedious efforts required to get started. It's attempts at cuteness are charmless, generic, and occasionally a bit creepy.
I'm fairly sure that farming can be a miserable grind a lot of the time. I just can't imagine that the makers of this game intended to so closely simulate that misery.
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