Early evening on the farm, and the white bellies of ripening turnips grow fat in the moonlight. Dairy cows amble peacefully towards the barn, because there's rain forecast for tomorrow. Streetlamps cast amber light on the ...LOADING... sleepy fishing village, while over in ...LOADING... the fields beyond, rabbits bounce down from ...LOADING... the hills to enjoy ...LOADING... the lush grass around the ...LOADING... silent graveyard.
Talk about ruining the atmosphere. Subtitled Tree of Peace in Japan, this game has possibly the biggest environment of any title in the much-loved Harvest Moon series. But it's hard to tell for sure because it's broken up into so many tiny parts.
Loading screens pop up all over the place. Whenever you see a signpost, positioned at most major forks in the trail, it means you're about to be treated to some 7-10 seconds of blackness while the game pulls the next chunk of landscape off the DVD. If you're just cutting across the corner of an area, as often and necessarily happens during a trip, you'll get a loading screen on the way in and another one a few seconds later, on the way out.
Harvest Moon isn't exactly known for its technical prowess, and to be fair it's not something that most fans of the series - like us - would place anywhere near the top of their priority list when anticipating another instalment of the game.
But this isn't the only problem that would have been fixable given just a bit more time and money spent on development. Perhaps as annoying as the constant interruptions is the lack of a controllable camera.
You've got this beautiful island location - the nicest setting so far in Harvest Moon - and you're forced to look at it from the close-up automatic camera angles the game chooses. Walk south and you simply can't see where you're going. The map is next to useless, so you'll have to navigate by memory. If you want to look around and admire the view, you can swivel the camera about 45 and that's all. It's a mess.
Still, it's Harvest Moon. All the old fixtures are present and correct, from animal husbandry to social engineering, and if you can ignore the suspicion that certain parts of it were designed by the work experience guy, it's still a quality piece of entertainment.
The story this time sees your boy or girl character arriving penniless on the island and being taken care of by the locals. Presumably some of them are relatives - we didn't quite get that part of the Japanese text - or they're just unusually kind to vagrants. Anyway, the mayor ends up giving you a humble house and farming rights for a number of patches of land, and you set about making your fortune.
Working the land is a hard job, although the tools you start with can be charged up to affect long strips of earth. Took us a while to figure that out. The more you grow, the more you earn, until you wind up taking care of livestock, buying pieces of machinery to make life a little easier and gallivanting around the countryside on the back of an ostrich.
As gorgeous as the island may be, with its long beaches, rugged clifftops and perfectly kept villages, it does feel a little empty compared to some earlier Harvest Moon games. There are around the same number of characters to meet but they roam over a wider area and are harder to find.
The big thing for this version is the customisation of your character and the farmhouse. You can buy or build furniture and dress up in outfits purchased in the main town, so there's a fair bit of Animal Crossing about it once you've found enough labour-saving tools to have the free time for messing around.