Those of us heavily invested in our farming games know that the Harvest Moon/Bokujou Monogatari Gate of 2014 has been serious business. There are legions who regularly purchase these installments year after year, with the same kind of fervor and enthusiasm as Call of Duty fanatics (except where they rejoice over new shades of grey and brown, we celebrate new crops and animals). Thus when what will be referred to henceforth as The Split happened, and Marvelous sent what would have been Harvest Moon: Connect to a New World to XSEED to become Story of Seasons, while Natsume prepared their own, internally developed, farming life simulation and dubbed it Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley.
Since then, many have wondered which will be better, and if one game will "win" over the other. As someone who took the time to play the demos of both Story of Seasons and Harvest Moon: The Last Valley at E3 2014, I have an answer. One won't out do or one-up the other, because while both appeared to be quality life simulations with a focus on farming, I came away with the impression that they'll be attracting different audiences.
Which may seem odd, considering how similarly both games begin. In each title, the player character is building up a homestead in a region stuck in a perpetual winter. Both cases involve a player doing their best, working the land, and connecting with other characters to restore other regions to the world. I'll admit, my eyebrows were raised when I went from hearing the story pitch at XSEED, to a Natsume demonstration with a nearly identical plot.
Yet, I maintain that the foundation doesn't matter much. Story has never been Bokujou Monogatari's strongest point. Gameplay is what draws people in and keeps them playing for days, weeks, and even months at a time. When it comes to that, Story of Seasons and Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley are clearly targeting different groups.
Story of Seasons feels like it's continuing a trend in the Bokujou Monogatari line of games. Like Harvest Moon: A New Beginning, there are a ridiculous number of character customization options, allowing players to have an avatar that is identical to themselves. The focus of variety has increased as well, with more crops and animals to raise. One of the highlights is, of course, the introduction of Super Mario power-ups as crops. Also, instead of A New Beginning's Garden Tour, there's a Safari with animals to build and collect.
Even more important, there's a focus on a sense of community in Story of Seasons. Players are going to see other farmers in their game, and connect to other people playing via StreetPass and multiplayer. Once you harvest crops, you'll be able to decide where they're shipped and form ties with other (virtual) countries. I came away with an impression that Story of Seasons is a more mature game for people who have been continually following the Harvest Moon and Bokujou Monogatari series for years.
On the other hand, I left Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley feeling like I was playing an entirely new series that was going back to Harvest Moon and Bokujou Monogatari's roots, while at the same time tapping into the Minecraft/Terraria genre of customizable, open-world games. The farming elements were there, but were more streamlined in a way that allowed every task to be done with a push of the button, without managing tools. So were socialization elements, as I was able to talk to a few of the other characters inhabiting the world. But as a whole, it felt like the kind of game where my character was the creator and shaper of a larger destiny. Even as I went through the demo, the Natsume employee on staff was encouraging me to explore, build, and customize the world, rather than do my daily chores.
Which makes me think that Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley is going to be bringing in an entirely different audience than Story of Seasons. I'm sure people who loved the traditional Harvest Moon/Bokujou Monogatari games will still opt in, but I think even more people who loved Minecraft's Creative mode or played Terraria just to build elaborate castles and worlds are going to flock to this 3DS game. Where Story of Seasons seemed to focus on connecting with other players, be they virtual or real, Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley seemed to be about one man (or woman) making a difference.
There's bound to be some overlap. Story of Seasons and Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley are both farming life simulations at their core. The thing is, I think the core focus of both is different enough that each will find an audience and grab the attention of different gamers. As a result, both titles will thrive and hopefully go on to continue a legacy of imaginative titles for players.