There seem to be more and more farming simulators/slice-of-life games out there that mix the everyday life of upkeeping and taking care of a farm or doing day to day tasks, with an element of socialising and getting to know the people in the nearby village. Stardew Valley or the Harvest Moon-series currently headlines the genre, but to add to that list is the latest title by Marvelous, Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town.
Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town starts with you designing your avatar character like many other farming simulators, and afterwards you are thrown into the midst of the farming life. The character you are playing has inherited his/her grandfather's farm near a small town called Olive Town, and it is your job to restore the farm to its former glory. To get you started, the city's mayor, Victor greets you and introduces you to the elements of the game, and visits you in the mornings with new information as you get further and further along in the game. Victor teaches you the basics and tells you how to progress both on your farm, and in the improvement of Olive Town.
Victor is basically Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town's version of a tutorial, and as per usual in the farming simulator genre, Victor doesn't teach you much explicitly, and it is up to you to learn how to maintain your farm, grow and sell crops, and form relationships with the citizens of Olive Town. It is more a 'learn by doing' sort of tutorial than one that holds your hand. The game throws you directly onto an overgrown farm with trees, grass and rocks everywhere, which you have to cut down or break before you can begin restoring your farm - and again as per usual, you have a set amount of energy per day, and every task that you perform eats up some of that precious energy. To make it as a farmer, you have to sow a lot of seeds, nurture them each day with water, crop them, sell them for profit, buy more seeds and do the whole thing once again.
This is the gameplay loop of Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town. Quickly, you'll rebuild your farm as you see fit with cucumbers, turnips, potatoes and miscellaneous flowers etc., which you use to earn money, expand your house, improve your tools, buy a pet or farm animals. Everything you do, you do to improve your farm, and you'll build up an everyday routine, where you gradually become better and better at planting, building, sowing, cutting and chopping.
For those of you familiar with the genre, there's nothing new under the hood here, and it quickly becomes obvious how the game works. Alike in Stardew Valley, there is also a mine near your farm, where you can get better resources as you delve further and further into the randomly generated mine; there is a town filled with citizens who give you more hearts as you progress your relationship with them (by giving gifts or talking with the each day); and there are invisible walls that you need to overcome by gathering an X amount of different materials.
From a narrative point, there isn't that much to do, and it is up to the player to make his/her own story, by building up your farm. There are certain narrative events on different dates, and I was for example part of the yearly Egg Festival, where the city was filled with eggs, which the citizens had to collect - it once again seems like Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town has a lot in common with other farming sims, as Stardew Valley has the exact same festival in the beginning of the game. The difference is however, that in Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town you don't get to participate in the festival - well, not really at least. The entire festival is only a cutscene, and you don't get to collect eggs, and it feels a lot like a missed opportunity for a fresh breath of air to the gameplay loop. Unfortunately that seems to be a common theme in Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town, and you are repeatedly a passive character as the events in the world unfold around you, without having to do or say anything.
When you manage to fill up a heart with another character you get an unique cutscene, which revolves around that person, the problem however, is that your character is mute and has no trace of any personality whatsoever. Every time something happens, your character just stands there watching silently without really interacting with the NPCs. When you think about it, it becomes incredibly awkward, and it is often fixed by not having your character be the main part of the interaction at all, but being present while two NPCs give each other story exposition through dialogue.
The idea is of course that you can project yourself onto your mute avatar, but it feels like the whole thing could have been done a bit more gracefully than making my character a mute spectator. It is frankly speaking a problem throughout Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town, the whole game feels kind of awkward and shallow, and the characters in Olive Town, who are supposed to be the game's soul and charm, didn't really seem that interesting. In the game's defence, it is worth noting, that I "only" played 12 hours of the game, and there are probably a whole lot of things that I didn't realise or experienced yet, but when you pour 12 hours into a game, and are still not hooked, I for one put that game away and spend my time on something more entertaining.
It is not that Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town is decidedly bad. I had a good time while spending time on my farm and in Olive Town; I got a nice routine going, cropping and selling my vegetables; visiting the mine; milking my cows; walking my dog; cooking food; and I had some cute chickens who laid eggs every day. The entire thing was okay, and that might be my problem - it was okay, and nothing else. The game feels incredibly mediocre, and I didn't really have any reason to keep playing. The days are quite long for a game in this genre (maybe 20-30 minutes per day), and I didn't even make it through Spring, and for a game of which expects you to play for seasons and years of in-game time, it is simply too slow.
From a gameplay perspective, you can do what you expect from a game in the farming simulator genre. You can water your plants; destroy rocks with your pickaxe; cut grass with your scythe; chop trees with your axe - farming life activities. Unfortunately it doesn't seem like the game has much more to offer, even though mystical things sometimes happen during some of the nights - for example a mysterious girl who watches your character - but it never became deeper than that. When the gameplay loop isn't that deep, the game has to have a lot to offer - mysteries, variation in gameplay or funny activities - and I didn't feel like Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town had that.
The visual side of the game is quite Nintendo-esque with cute chibi-like characters, and a colourful 'cute' universe. The problem is, I never really felt like the NPC-gallery of Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town fascinated me. On the other hand, Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town' soundtrack never got tiring, even though I listened to it a lot. There is always a fitting soundtrack matching the activity you are doing; in the mine; on the farm; shopping in the town, or just calming music in the evening. The soundtrack amplifies the relaxing feeling the game aims for, and it does a solid job.
Overall, as I mentioned earlier, I had an entirely "okay" time with Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town, nothing less, nothing more than that. It was an alright pastime, but will unfortunately never be more than that for me. It is of course the purpose of the game, that you get into a relaxing slice-of-life mood, but honestly there are better and more relaxing games in this genre out there to play than Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town.