Thursday, July 18, 2024

Story of Seasons: A Wonderful Life Review — The Queer Dream of the Countryside

There’s always something daunting about reviewing a game that has such a huge history behind it, especially when it’s a game that comes from the Harvest Moon series. A Wonderful Life originally came out in 2003 and has such a cozy and snug place in people’s hearts that the Story of Seasons remake was always going to make die-hard fans hesitate. Would it capture those same feelings?

Not only do I think it does that and more, but Story of Seasons: A Wonderful Life is the best way to play through this wonderful slow-burn of a game.

The premise is simple: you start a new life in a tranquil village deep within Forgotten Valley. After meeting up with your father’s friend Takakura and, after a brief explanation of how your father and Takakura dreamed of running a farm together (and they were roommates — uh, we mean stablehands), you begin your new life as a farmer. You get the opportunity to raise animals, plant crops, and get closer to all of the quirky residents that live in Forgotten Valley.

After only a day or two, Takakura – who, for future reference, you should probably see as your farm’s manager – stops me to very bluntly declare that I should think about settling down and getting married. As someone who adores a good farming sim, I’m aware marriage and children can play a big role in these games. However, Story of Seasons: A Wonderful Life takes it to a new extreme: if you don’t get married and have kids, it’s game over. A very swift kick up my ass to get moving and find the love of my life before the first year ends and I’m left behind. Frankly, I admire this game’s focus on something that isn’t just being the best farmer you can be, but pushing you to be a good parent and spouse too. It’s different, and it gives you more than just one goal to work toward.

The goal of getting married quickly led me to Nami, who I wouldn’t have been able to romance as a non-binary person back in the original game. Yes, the remake doesn’t just slap a fresh coat of paint on visuals and makeovers, but also adds same-sex romance and marriage and expands the character creator to become much more inclusive than the original. You can also pick your pronouns, and the outfits you wear are not restricted whatsoever, allowing you to wear dresses and/or overalls. While it may seem like a ‘small’ change on the surface, making A Wonderful Life more LGBTQ+ friendly ultimately expands the game from being a heteronormative tale about forming your own nuclear family to a rural, queer-inclusive haven. While you will follow the same steps – get married, have kids, etc – the fact you’re able to do so as a queer person speaks more of forming your own community within the heteronormative, conservative space rural life is so often portrayed to be. It feels special. It feels like it matters.

Story of Seasons: A Wonderful Life

The inclusion of LGBTQ+ identities and themes also compliments the slow-burn life that makes up the entirety of A Wonderful Life. Many new players would be forgiven for feeling as though there simply isn’t enough to do on the farm at first, but that is ultimately what pushed me to go and speak with the residents of Forgotten Valley and find other things to amuse myself with. Activity-wise, there is plenty to do, whether that be partaking in mini-games, fishing, or digging in the mines. Making money is always important, but it feels far more significant when you’ve got a spouse and child at home. For queer players who perhaps aren’t after children, we recommend giving this game a pass. The whole point of the game is helping shape your child into being the person they want to be, and while sweet, it’s a premise that won’t be for everyone.

Having a child comes with new – and exciting – obstacles. Not only will you need to make sure your farm continues to thrive, but you also get the added responsibility of making sure your child and wife are happy too. Your child and who they want to be is significant to you and how your family life works. For example, if your child is into art but you want them to become a farmer, you need to pick them up and show them around the farm, visit animals, show them off to Takakura, etc. Your influence is massive in this game, and it feels oh-so-rewarding.

Unfortunately, how the game opens up and challenges you in the second year, does make the first year’s pacing sluggish. Even with Takekura telling me to go out there and get married, understanding how and why it’s important is never fully explained. Instead, players – if they haven’t got any marriage candidate at a certain level of hearts and/or friendship – will be given two options and told to choose who they want to marry and have a child with. I get why, as not doing so will give you an immediate game over, but it’s an odd decision not to emphasize this, and I fear new players will suffer for it.

Even so, it’s hard not to be drawn in by Forgotten Valley and its inhabitants. Once you’ve finally found your feet by the end of the first year, you’ll be treated to something very unique: time actually moving forward. Not only will your child grow and you’ll progress years into your marriage, but Forgotten Valley itself also changes too. I was pleasantly surprised to find new people had moved into the valley that I could befriend and show my kid off to. But it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, because in bringing new life to the place, death also made an appearance. It is as emotionally devastating as it sounds.

It’s easy to get attached in A Wonderful Life, to the people, to your farm animals, and even to the land itself, and I believe that’s the entire point. Your connection to this farm is what you make of it, and while this may be the very first time I’ve stepped foot into this valley, I feel comforted knowing that A Wonderful Life offers me a very different experience that I’ve not seen before during my years of playing farming and life sims, one that I’ll want to come back to in the future.

The western release of Story of Seasons: A Wonderful Life will be available on June 27 for the Nintendo Switch, PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X/S.

Score: 4.5/5

A copy of Story of Seasons: A Wonderful Life for Nintendo Switch was provided to Gayming Magazine by the developer.

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