If you’re a fan of Natsume’s long-running farm sim series Harvest Moon, you really don’t need to read this review of Island of Happiness for the Nintendo DS, you just need to know is it’s more Harvest Moon, but better. Go. Shoo. Raise thine chickens and be happy. For those of you who have yet to drink this particular kind of Kool-Aid, let me share with you the joys of farming and quite possibly rob you of huge swaths of your free time.
As the game opens, you’ve taken to the sea in search of adventure and a brand new home, both of which smack you in the face when you hit rough waters and find yourself washed up on the shore of a small island. A few of your fellow passengers have landed with you, and swiftly get to making this new land their home – volunteering you to be the local rancher in the process. The upside is you get the largest parcel of land on the island – the downside is that it’s your responsibility to make enough money to restore all of the roads and bridges that the island will need to attract new residents and truly thrive.
You won’t have to live off coconuts and seagulls, though; the island is equipped with a dock and has a fairly regular influx of visitors who bring the supplies such as seeds, feed, and livestock that you’ll need to make your farm grow. Finding the time and the stamina to turn your empty patch of land into a profitable ranch is the really tricky part. Everything you do on your farm, from shearing sheep to filling your water can, saps a bit of energy from your stamina and fullness meters. You’ll pass out if either meter runs dry, forced to abandon your duties and take to your bed until the following morning.
Each year is divided into four, thirty-day seasons. Time marches forward whenever you’re outdoors; a full day will probably take you 10-20 minutes of real time to complete, depending on how early you decide to go to bed. Until you have plenty of produce-creating livestock and upgraded tools, your days on the island will tend to fall into a backbreaking routine of watering, chopping, and gathering, all the while keeping a careful eye on your growing bank account. If that sounds suspiciously like grinding, that’s because it is. Oh, it’s hidden behind adorable baby chicks and oh-so-cute Harvest Sprites, but the bald truth is that Island of Happiness, and indeed every Harvest Moon, is a grindathon, but instead of killing countless rats to earn enough XP to reach the next level, you’re harvesting corn and shearing sheep to earn enough money to pay for the next house or tool upgrade.
And yet it’s more satisfying than the typical gaming grind because you can easily see the results of your many, many labors. The time you spend brushing and petting your cow to make sure it stays happy manifests as higher-quality, more valuable milk. Two weeks of watering brings in a bumper crop of profitable carrots. A season spent chopping wood saves you a bundle on the next expansion to your house.
Satisfying cause-and-effect relationships aside, Island of Happiness is definitely not a game for the impatient. It will take many hours of play before you can afford even the cheapest upgrades to the island, especially if you’re saving up to buy chickens, sheep, or improvements to your house. You don’t so much plan your next move as you plan your next season or year. A quick dip in your bathtub, for example, will renew your stamina and increase the amount of work you can do in a day, but before you can buy the pricey tub, you have to upgrade your house, which ain’t exactly cheap. Getting a tub, therefore, requires careful planning of crops, estimation of profits, and allocation of wood resources that can be a year or more in the making.
All work and no play makes you a dull farmer, but you can always nip into town for a quick visit with the locals. Unfortunately, they don’t really have very much to say. Barring certain special situations or events, your neighbors only say two or three things, which they will repeat over and over again, like so many nattering parrots. You’ll also encounter a handful of potential romantic partners, both bachelors and bachelorettes. Pitch just the right kind of woo, and eventually you’ll be able to get married and have little mini-farmers of your very own, but like everything else in the game, it takes a lot of time and effort to make a love connection.
I realize that I’ve made Island of Happiness sound like a complete chore — and it is – but it’s a chore you’ll genuinely enjoy and find very difficult to put down. You’ll gain great satisfaction from seeing your ranch prosper and grow, as it gradually expands to include fruit trees, rice paddies, and even a machine for making mayonnaise. New characters will come to the island as you repair roads and remove path-blocking boulders, bringing with them new items and opportunities. Island of Happiness requires both dedication and patience, but you’ll give up the necessary hours gladly, happily digging in the local mine or spending a rainy afternoon fishing.
The only thing that may put a damper on your experience is the game’s over-reliance on the DS’ touch screen. Everything in the game is controlled using the stylus, which works very well for precise tasks such as watering plants, playing the milking minigame or managing your inventory, but can be quite annoying when it comes to moving your character around. You’ll find yourself walking when you want to run, and standing still when you want to move just a bit to the side. It’s not a game-breaker, but I found myself constantly wishing I could just use the D-pad to move around the island.
Bottom Line: Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness is the most cheerful grind you’re ever likely to encounter. If you’re willing to put in the time, you’ll be rewarded for your efforts. Also, the cows and sheep are freakin’ adorable.
Recommendation: If you’re a fan of the series, there’s no question you should have this game, as it adds several new satisfying tweaks to the well-worn formula. For everyone else, if you’re allergic to cute or don’t have much time to spare, sail on by. But if you’re looking for a game you can really throw yourself into, you’ll truly enjoy your time on the ranch.
Susan Arendt wishes the bachelors in Island of Happiness weren’t all complete losers. She also named her cow Steak, which makes her giggle.