Harvestella’s Demo Feels Like a Throwback to the Old Square Enix

Square Enix’ fantasy farming simulator is a weird little experience, and a throwback to the company’s early days.

You never really know what you’re going to get when you load up certain games. When I started the Harvestella demo, I expected a game about farming with some fantasy combat. What I got is a fantasy action-RPG about seasons of death, time travel, and evil churches, with a little bit of farming in there as well. 

I am, in general, the kind of person who loves farming and survival simulators. The preponderance of the first genre at the recent Nintendo Direct wasn’t a huge problem to me. I like gaming busywork, so titles like Terra Nil, Disney Dreamlight Valley, Railgrade, and The Wandering Village are on my radar. I’m buzzing over recent additions to games like Rimworld and Cities: Skylines. If a game wants me to click on 30 veins of ore for an hour, I’m probably gonna vibe with it.

As such, I’ve been excited for Square Enix’ Harvestella for some time. A distinctly fantasy spin on the farming simulator, from a publisher that’s known for delivering some fantastically final fantasies. A lot of farming and a little fantasy; it felt like Square Enix was peering through my mind for new ideas. 

Is The Farm Underneath the Giant Crystal?

Harvestella Shot 01

I loaded up the demo on Tuesday expecting a bit of farming action, but farming only took up about 10% of my play time. The game begins with the explanation of Quietus, the season of death where being found outside is a death sentence. Of course, your character is outside during the event, but you find yourself saved by a mysterious dragon child. 

So you wake up and Cres, the town doctor, takes your amnesiac ass in. It’s at this point that I think, “Alright, it’s time to farm.” That’s not the case, however, as you need to learn about Lethe Village and the Seaslights, giant crystal formations that loom over the major towns of the regions. These are related to the Quietus, meaning you’ll probably have to kill or purify them eventually. 

The Seaslight outside of Lethe Village pulses with light and then emits a meteor that lands near the village. The meteor opens and you head inside because memory loss also means a complete loss of self-preservation. Inside, you find a fallen person in power armor, which is a problem because power armor seems quite far outside of the technological knowhow of this culture. You take this fallen figure, which the townspeople call an Omen, back to the shack on the edge of town they let you live in.

Harvestella Shot 02

Here, you finally farm for about a minute! The farming controls are pretty good. It’s easy to plow the land, plant seeds, and water your crops. Switching between items in your inventory is snappy too. The developer, Live Wire, has largely nailed this part, which is surprising as the only other game I can find under its name is last year’s Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights. (Oh, there’s “Quietus” again!) I can’t break up the rocks though, as I lack the materials to build a Hammer.

I’ll also say that Harvestella is a goddamn beautiful game. The Seaslight gives Lethe Village a striking shock of bright red over the pastoral greens and browns of the town itself. At night, the forests themselves glow green and the Seaslight becomes neon pink. The environment design is pretty good, even if there’s a depth of field filter that obscures some details; I assume this is for performance purposes. The character art that appears in conversations is great and the models are nicely done too. There’s a bit of the Bravely Default tiny-foot disease going on, but I got over that quick. The soundtrack is fantastic: the heroic tones being the work of Tales of Legendia, Tales of Zestiria, and Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba composer Go Shiina.

My first major issue is that the day feels a bit too short overall. Inside of a map, time moves forward in 10 minute intervals, but it counts down much too fast in the diorama-style world map, which you need to enter in order to hop from your home and the village. I didn’t have time to really talk to anyone in the village on the second day, because wandering around the world map ate up too much time. You really have to know where you’re going, or waste precious time. 

There’s no time for more exploration though, as the power armor faded, revealing a young woman underneath. The girl, once she wakes, quickly comes to the conclusion that she’s from the future, calling this current era “The Middle Ages.” The mayor of the village teaches you how to craft, but you can only craft two things at the moment. 

Harvestella Shot 03

I spent the fourth day exploring the nearby valley. This is a wild area, giving me the first taste of combat. It’s… passable. The attacks are snappy and there’s a soft lock-on, but there doesn’t seem to be any dodge mechanic; and you avoid damage by… running away. That’s less than adequate; while farming feels right, combat is just okay. This actually carries forward into a later encounter that explains the Job system, so my hope is there’s a Job out there with a Dodge option.

I did a bit more farming, expanding my small patch of land and planting a few more crops! We’re up to around 3 minutes of actual farming at this point. I have a nice mix of crops, some that are harvestable in one day and some in two days. All the crops I harvested got put in the shipping box, to be replaced with money (Grilla in this world) the next day. I’ll eventually be able to craft them into food, but again, no recipes yet. 

Another day passed and I met some of the townsfolk, like the Blacksmith and General Store owner. I also met the requisite evil church, the Seaslight Order. Like any other fantasy game evil church, they wear all white and operate like an Inquisition. I assume I’ll have to kill a few of them at some point, but Chapter 1 ends with me heading off to save the mysterious girl, who is heading toward the Seaslight.

That Old Square Enix, Crafting Something New

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I apologize for the long-winded explanation of the game’s first chapter. I wanted to hammer home that difference between expectation and reality, at least within these early hours. Harvestella operates like a straightforward fantasy action-RPG, with a little farming to break up the pace. That’s likely because the game is busy explaining the world, but it’s a different pace compared to something like Stardew Valley or Story of Seasons.

I’m vibing with the game, but I also wonder how it’s going to hit for folks. It walks like a modern action-RPG, with an aesthetic and narrative to match. The world might end and the only thing that can protect it from these people in scary armor and the church is you! But it also talks like a farming simulator, with an extensive farming and crafting system that I can vaguely see peeking out of the menus. Harvestella is not quite of either world: its combat feels lacking for an action-RPG, and its farming isn’t the entire focus.

The feeling I get while playing is akin to the big swings that Squaresoft and Enix, and the merged Square Enix used to make from around 1997 until 2009. (The latter year marks the time when Square Enix picked up Eidos, with a slight shift in focus.) Sure, the pillars of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest were always fed, but during this period, you’d find odd swings. Games that seemed interesting even if they didn’t quite come together into something successful.

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This is the era of Bushido Blade, Soukaigi, Drakengard, The Bouncer, Heavy Metal Thunder, as well as some of the odder SAGA and Mana entries. I wouldn’t call all of these great games, but you could tell they were trying. There was something in the water at Square Enix, a willingness to throw some ideas in a cauldron and see what came out. 

This verve within Square Enix abated later with a stronger focus on AAA gaming. The addition of the Western studios and growing development costs thanks to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 probably put a bit of fear into the company. If you’re trying to go big or go home, frequent oddities and missed opportunities probably aren’t your best bet.

In Harvestella, it feels like that version of Square Enix has rekindled itself. Whether that’s the consistent moneymaking success of Final Fantasy XIV, or the additional resources gained from selling the Western studios, the modern Square Enix is open to many more smaller games. The past two years alone have seen the release of Balan Wonderworld, three Voice of Cards entries, Dungeon Encounters, Babylon’s Fall, Triangle Strategy, Various Daylife, a Live A Live remake, The Diofield Chronicle, and Harvestella. The publisher is still servicing its biggest brands, but these smaller experiments have increased. I don’t even think they’re all good — Babylon’s Fall is singularly terrible — but at least the publisher is trying something new.

Harvestella is an excellent banner for this new Square Enix to wave around. Even if it doesn’t entirely hit, I do think it’s the potential foundation for something better in the future. If this game doesn’t quite land, I’m looking forward to seeing what the development team could do with a sequel. The taste is a bit off, but it’s early in the cooking process. Hopefully, Square Enix will let the team keep making meals like this.

Harvestella is coming to Nintendo Switch and Steam on November 4, 2022. The demo is currently only available on Nintendo Switch.