After Dragon Age, with its wrist-slittingly bleak outlook on storytelling, I decided to go look for something with sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. And nothing is more like the video game manifestation of a cheery Lesley Gore song than the Harvest Moon series.
Well, actually, I'd never played Harvest Moon itself before. I'm a huge fan of its fantasy cousin Rune Factory, which is in fact a really brilliant fantasy series for the DS (I believe there is a version or two for the Wii as well). But Harvest Moon actually came first, and is a series of farming games. Yep, farming. You play a newcomer to a town, you sow crops and raise livestock--and you also try to befriend and even woo townsfolk and participate in town shenanigans like various festivals. It's a simple simulation but quite addictive. Rune Factory adds dungeon crawling, monster fighting, and item crafting to the table, and as a fantasy gamer I thus prefer this, but Harvest Moon in its simplicity has its appeal, even if its cows and chickens don't look slightly and awesomely demonic.
The particular Harvest Moon game I got is "Tale of Two Towns." I'm led to understand this is a pretty entry level version of the game. Its gameplay is largely as in Rune Factory but without the monster hunting bits. You plant crops, raise animals, fish, scavenge in the wilderness, cook dishes, and chat with people and do quests for them. The gist of the story is that you move into a mountainside area occupied by two towns, who have been bickering for generations. They bicker over which empty farm of theirs you get to occupy, and you have your choice of either (and you can move back and forth between the two); one is better for raising crops and the other is better for raising animals. You have to raise the towns' friendship over time by participating in cooking festivals, which is how the towns "duel" each other. And that's pretty much it.
It's a very slow paced game, and I have a feeling I may not have picked the best example of the series out there, but it's a nice break from dark and dreary RPGs (though I will probably go back and do a replay of Fallout: New Vegas soon, or crack and buy Skyrim even though I said I'd wait until all the DLC came out first). There is a simple pleasure to be had in figuring out growth cycles and how to befriend your animals and learning recipes and so on, plus engage in the difficult matter of how to earn the most profit with what you produce or find (the mechanical goal of the series is to maximize profits, interaction and romance and town plotline aside). The music is decent, the graphics bright and pleasant, with lots of lovely little details painstakingly worked into the background.
It's a Japanese game, and for some reason every Japanese game I've ever played come with a degree of the "Guide Dang It" philosophy (to borrow a phrase from TV Tropes)--you really have to at some point look at a walkthrough to figure out certain things. But such things as they are. Some things in the game could have had a little more thought put into it -- you can have a pet owl that flies you from the top of the mountain to one of the two towns, but no way to quickly get TO the top of the mountain, so the owl is kind of useless (I wish I hadn't bought him). The inventory is waaaay too small... I get inventory management is part of the game's challenge but it's frustratingly so; inventory management is NOT fun and it's the one big thing that detracts from the series (Rune Factory has this problem as well, though Rune Factory 3 was better about it). I think if they put all your tools in a separate inventory that did not take up backpack space, that would be a godsend. The quest system is a little too random--often you receive requests for stuff that you can't possibly achieve (not till much later in the game). But ultimately, there's a lot of fun to be had.
If you like simulations and have a DS, and you're in the mood for a nice quiet game, check it out--or other Harvest Moon games. And if you like Japanese fantasy games, definitely get the Rune Factory series (3 in particular was brilliant--phenomenal story AND you are a WERE-SHEEP. Yes, a were-sheep. How can that not be awesome?). Its next installment is coming out frustratingly only for the 3DS. I may have to give in and trade in my lite for it (but generally, hate the whole 3D mess, so it may not be worth it).