We'll take this opportunity to admit that right off the bat, we haven't had a lot of experience with the Harvest Moon series, and our last experience was with its Wii incarnation, and wasn't exactly favourable. On there, one of the game's problems was the game's controls, trying to take advantage of the Wii's unique controls and spectacularly failing. So we're approaching this one from a fresh perspective. Unfortunately, Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness takes a similar approach to the earlier Wii title, attempting to marry the game's farming gameplay with a new touch control scheme. So does Island of Happiness succeed in making farming fun?
The story of Island of Happiness plays out like a farming spin-off of Lost. Your character, on the way to a new life in the city, finds his ship in the middle of a storm, and is ship-wrecked on a deserted island with a few other survivors. Rather than seek rescue or help, they rather quickly decide to set up a community on the island, to make it a bustling centre of populace and trade. And guess what? Your character gets to be the farmer. It's really best not to think about the plot too much, or at all. While the game largely leaves your farming exploits in your hands, there are scripted events which occur from time to time, although they aren't necessarily all that interesting.
Getting started with Island of Happiness was a little bit of a problem. After the opening sequence, you're given a tutorial which explains how to move around and interact with the world, and then you're sort of left alone. If you'd never played a Harvest Moon title before, you probably wouldn't know that you have to sleep to advance to the next stage in the tutorial. In fact, you'd probably discover your farming tools in your inventory and try farming before you went to sleep, woke up and started the tutorial on farming. It's a little counter-intuitive. However, this is a good example of the routine you'll be facing in Island of Happiness.
Your character has stamina and fullness bars, with one indicating how many actions you can perform during the day and the other indicating your hunger. Ploughing a block of land, sowing seeds, watering them, these all use up stamina at a somewhat alarming rate, and you'll collapse of exhaustion if you don't sleep before it runs down. Your routine will essentially consist of ploughing land, sowing seeds, collecting water, watering seeds, sleeping, watering seeds, sleeping, harvesting crops, sending produce, buying supplies, sleeping, etc. Now, this routine wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing if it was fun or addictive (as we understand past games have been), but there's one major issue getting in the way of this, and that is the controls.
Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness has realised that the DS has a touch-screen. So, everything you do in the game is controlled with it. To move your farmer, you have to drag your stylus across the screen in the direction you want to go, similar to The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. However, it feels as if they've laid this analogue control scheme onto a very digital system of movement. For instance, holding your stylus down near your farmer will make him walk, but once your stylus hits the outer third or so of the touch-screen, he'll run. There's no in-between speed, he just jarringly switches between the two. The same goes for the number of directions he can face, it's not analogue. How hard would it have been to integrate D-Pad control? As it is now, the D-Pad is assigned to selecting an inventory item. You can also select the same items on the touch-screen, but to use your items, you have to tap them once to select, and then again to use. Combined with the imprecise movement, farming is a lot more clumsy than it has to be. To put it simply, it feels more like a chore than having fun, which while replicating the actual farming experience we imagine, doesn't make for a good game.
There are good points in Island of Happiness, but they're mainly things that you've probably seen in previous titles. The in-game economy is quite solid, and there is a a fair bit of depth in the proceedings. As time marches on, you can farm animals, as well as try to find a soul-mate in the ever-increasing population of the town. While the dialogue in the game isn't incredibly interesting, there are still a lot of (optional) opportunities to interact with your fellow townsfolk. The problem is that you might have a tough time finding them. The DS' top screen is basically wasted in Island of Happiness, displaying a map that should show where you and the townsfolk are. Instead, it only shows the general area that you and they happen to be in, which is useless, since the areas can still be quite broad and you'll still have to run around searching for them.
You'd think that setting the game on an island would allow for a much brighter and more vibrant tropical presentation, but sadly this is not the case. The game certainly is bright, but it settles for mostly dull browns and greens, although the colours do change in different seasons. A mixture of 2D sprites and 3D models are used for an interesting look, although the sprites themselves are a little low-resolution and don't convey much character. Their art during dialogue is quite cute, though. The music in the game is nothing to write home about either, and there's no voice work to speak of.
Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness in some ways just feels like a lazy effort. The DS' second screen serves virtually no purpose, and the touch controls actually actively get in the way of enjoying the game, which is a massive disappointment. It seems like this the kind of title that should suck you in and chew up obscene amounts of your time as you turn your island into a giant in the farming industry, but unfortunately almost every action feels like too much of a chore to hold your interest for long. It's a real shame, but Island of Happiness doesn't make us happy at all. In fact it makes us sad. Which is the opposite of happy.