Don't let the sickeningly cute cover fool you, this game is sickeningly cute.
Natsume's Harvest Moon series has always been a pet favorite of mine. Natsume's effort to emulate life in such a productive and vegetative way is great. The problem with it is that it's a good, powerful, simple, and formulaic setup. The more you deviate from that simplicity, the further you stride from the strength. It is that biggest pitfall that cripples Island of Happiness.
Anyone who's played any Harvest Moon game previously knows how it works. The protagonist a blue-clad farmer who's been given a plot of land to cultivate, plant, and harvest bountiful amounts of crops.
This game has the protagonist (who can be male or female, for the sake of this review is male) ship-wrecked on an abandoned island with another family from the boat. This family has a father, an old farmer, a mother, a housewife, a son and daughter. The premise is the family wants to settle down on this island, and encourage new settlers to build the community around them. It's the farmer's job to encourage commerce and invite settlers by forcibly starting the economy of the island. This is problematic because it's such a far-fetched story, and really tries to make the player suspect a hefty amount of disbelief.
The gameplay centers around the farming elements, and is the game's strongest and weakest points. It has a pretty intricate farming system that is never adequately explained in-game, but capable of being lucked into often enough. The premise is simple, but the actual formula for growing crops efficiently is too confusing for how little control the player has over the elements. This is also the first Harvest Moon that did not have a coop or barn built in, so you need to rely entirely on the crop system until you can amass enough money and material to even begin using livestock.
The game also adds a "fullness" meter, which requires the player to eat regularly in order to stay well-fed. This is a new addition, rendered painful by the fact that the protagonist will not have many choices for food but self-grown, which can take weeks at a time.
These elements are all worsened by the touch-only interface, which uses the D-Pad (or face buttons if for South Paws) to activate the tools. The one-touch tools are nice, but are still a little hard to steer when you can only move your character by poking the direction you want him to turn, walk, or run. This is made worse if you have to use any alternative styluses, or want to play one-handed (while holding a drink, for example).
Though your progress commands the shape of the
island, there's no 'subtlety' slider to manipulate.
Those nit-picks aside, this Harvest Moon plays much like the several others, offering a strong variety of characters to woo, win over, and ultimately marry one of several young women (or men if you pick female) on the island. The interpersonal nature of the system is warm and approachable, if not somewhat shallow in execution.
The farming element is still bustling, requiring the player to really capitalize on available time, to make constant running to and fro to make every day worth it in the long run.
The reward for long and much toiling effort produces a definite and concrete sense of accomplishment. Because the game's time stretches for so long, the player is doubtlessly in store for a great feeling of "I did it" by the later end of the game. Good planning and hard work are certain to reward the protagonist with bountiful amounts of money, at least enough for the next big step in a farmer's life.
Graphically, the game can be summed up in a passing glance on the cover. The cute visuals and highly stylistic art make this game bright, cheery, and mostly comfortable on the eyes. The scenery is much prettier than the previous Nintendo-based Harvest Moon titles, and this one treats the player to a graphical work worth the DS's hardware. The characters themselves are expressed via hand-drawn cutouts, and are very expressive with their delivery of dialogue. Though the low-level 3D on the DS will make the in-game characters and animations feel rigid at best, and blocky at worst. Thankfully, this is hardly noticeable over time, and doesn't really detract from the immersion.
The sound and music are all the familiar gauntlet for a handheld Harvest Moon title, which means cartoonish hop sound effects, over-exaggerated sounds when tools are used, and repetitive and MIDI-esque background music. This makes the game's seasonal jingles to be mostly uninteresting on first listen, and painfully unchanging with the passing of days and years. Combined with a class "noise on text-character appearing" dialogue to make it a somewhat uncomfortable ride on the ears, but nothing enough to really complain about unless music was one of your drawing points.
All in all, Island of Happiness did something very few Harvest Moons have yet done, and tried something completely new. With revamped graphics, crop-system, and new stamina and hunger layout, the game pushes envelopes where the series has previously played it's cards so close to its chest that sequels were almost indistinguishable from remakes.
Bottom Line: Although "new" for a Harvest Moon title, the shot in the dark certainly missed it's mark, subtracting a lot of the charm in favor of unnecessary complication.
Recommendation: Don't bother. There are countless other Harvest Moon titles to sink your teeth into, and this one is just confusing enough to make it harder on the player than is at-all necessary.