No one likes to be trod on, but stepping stones are important! Innocent Life is an interesting deviation from the Harvest Moon formula. A sci-fi Harvest Moon to spice the series up? Hell yeah.
At first glance, Innocent Life appeared to be an answer to my prayers for a different take on Harvest Moon! I was ready to have crazy alien encounters, grow outerspace cabbage, and make a few trips to distant planets using intergalactic cheese from purple cows.
And the early signs were good. I love the Pinocchio premise – the main character is a kind of AI being created by a grieving scientist (called Dr Hope Grain). You must learn important life lessons to become human and be accepted by the island’s community. Early on, we are introduced to a morally dubious, technology obsessed Mayor and his cronies, who acts as something of an antagonist to the “natural” farming techniques Dr Hope espouses (his idea of “natural” involves creating an AI creature and eventually giving you a robot…).
Other early good signs were the kooky humour in the TV programmes, and the bizarre art installations – the forest of phones and planets pieces – created by the inhouse artist, Moonlight. The interiors of the buildings were enormous, and beautiful!
And yet, the buildings were also empty…
This became something of a meaningful image to me. Because, for all the potential the genre shake up provided, Innocent Life also deviated from Harvest Moon in other, less successful ways. The thing is, Innocent Life is extremely streamlined. At first, this threw me off and I didn’t know how to feel. As I plowed my fields and began planting, I thought “well, it is nice that farming is quicker and more straightforward, I suppose…” I mean, I didn’t have to water my plants everyday: I had a robot to do it for me. And before the robot, I had special moss which held the moisture in… there was a technological solution for everything. After a few hours, I concluded it was just too streamlined.
Another issue is that the lack of events relating to the towns people and the wider game narrative make the game feel somewhat soulless. After a while, I stopped bothering to talk to any of the townspeople – they never said anything new anyway. I didn’t feel compelled to do much other than the bare essentials to advance the story. All that early promise didn’t amount to much. One example: the scary antagonist Mayor turns out not to be the antagonist at all – instead an angry volcano spirit has to be appeased through a variety of tasks. Peel back the layers and what do you have left? A Harvest Moon game with the good bits shorn off masquarading as a edgy spin off.
I kept asking “is this it?” and feeling like I must be doing something wrong. Why wasn’t Innocent Life whipping me into shape? Why was I not desperately competing for the townspeoples’ affections? I COULDN’T EVEN MARRY ANYONE! All too often the game felt like a a lean cut of meat with no flavour, or unseasoned tofu (for the veggies out there).
You wouldn’t expect such a streamlined game to require a walkthrough to play – WRONG! For such an easy game, Innocent Life is also often needlessly obscure. 20-25 hours in, I was forced to restart my game from scratch after not using my watering can enough, therefore not levelling it up, because I chose to let the helper robot water for me! This meant that an important story event in Winter could not be accessed, unless I wanted to wait another in-game year for next Winter – no thanks. No one ever said anything about levelling up the damn watering can!
Despite its flaws, I will forever be grateful for this game’s existence. Stepping stones play an extremely important role, especially in videogames! Take the original N64 Super Smash Bros, which paved the way for Melee; or Wolfenstein 3D, which helped birth Doom. Even though Innocent Life feels like a prototype, it laid the groundwork another (successful) experiment with the Harvest Moon formula, the Rune Factory series, including my personal favourite, Rune Factory Frontier.