The title of John Deere’s Harvest in the Heartland should already tell adrenaline junkies and fans of twitch-based shooters that they might want to reach for something else. Sim fans, especially those interested in farming games, should find the game’s business themes and incremental progress more enjoyable.
The farm setting of Harvest in the Heartland immediately invites comparison with Natsume’s Harvest Moon series, the popular multi-platform agrarian series. However, most of the role-playing interactions have been stripped from the Heartland, and more emphasis is placed on the dollars and statistics that make up this virtual world. The tradeoff means that it’s easier to quantify how both you and your farm are doing, but tougher to feel like an integrated member of the game’s community. Thankfully, it also means that you’re not encouraging minors to get married and have babies through pervy love-interest storylines.
Players should find the tools and concepts familiar; you use tools like your gloves, hoe, and watering can to plant, water, and harvest seeds. In addition to cows and chickens, the game offers players a chance to raise goats and pigs for cash, using additional tools and buildings to keep them happy. Heartland is aggressive about tracking the costs involved with these undertakings, and both profits and expenses will float upwards from your character accompanied by a cash register noise whenever money is involved. The game’s real innovation comes in the player’s ability to use John Deere-branded tractors.
It’s not a complete surprise. With top billing in the game’s title, John Deere equipment is expected in the game, and its green and yellow logo appears on baseball caps worn by various characters, as well as on the shirt of the game’s authorized John Deere dealer. Yes, he has his own shop in town. Tough luck, CAT and International Harvester, you’ll have to go create monopolies in your own virtual worlds.
Does the game offer a realistic tractor-driving experience? Not particularly, but it does a good job of showing the tractor as the backbone of a successful farm, vital to players who want to run a serious business that grows more than just a tiny carrot patch in the front yard. Tractor attachments (purchased in the John Deere store) can perform almost all of the tilling, planting, and harvesting done by hand, with the exception of watering. The sound effects and engine noises for the tractor are also fun.
Besides greatly simplifying the work on the farm, tractors also help players keep their sanity. Returning to the farm triggers a loading delay, which can happen when coming back from town or closing out of the “tool shed” screen. Early-game farming is an exercise in patience, as one selects the hoe, waits for the farm to load, tills the soil and selects seeds, waits for the farm to load, plants seeds and selects the watering can, waits for the farm to load, and generally curses small-scale farm efforts that require frequent tool switches. The “garage” screen has the same loading delay, but it breaks up the game play much less when players can spend more time on the tractor tending to bigger fields spread over a larger area. It still would have been nice to be able to switch between tools on the fly, especially because the game can lock up and never come out of the loading screen.
The stylus controls in the game feel underused, and all the farm motions can be bypassed with the A button. An effort was made to have players swing with the hoe, slash with the scythe, and spray with the pesticides, it almost feels faster just to skip the touch screen. In the tractor, the stylus is only used to tap the attachments to turn them on or off.
One of the game’s strengths is the in-game assistance. Any time a new aspect of the farm is encountered, players are shown a brief tutorial explaining how it works. These tutorials can be accessed from the pause screen at any time, even before they are encountered, so that the mechanics behind the farm are clear. Players can also select individual buildings, plants, and animals to get a diagnostic readout that shows how they are doing. This makes it easier to verify that plants have been watered, animals aren’t getting sick, and buildings have been painted and repaired before they start deteriorating. There are also a number of in-game services available that will take care of some farm upkeep requirements for a fee.
Things are kept from getting too desperate with the four mini-games at the fairgrounds in town. There’s pig chasing, cow milking, egg catching and sheep shearing that can all be undertaken for cash. If players are broke and their last crops have failed, they can still win some literal seed money to keep themselves in business.
The open-ended game play feels a little too free at times, as though the player is not working towards any specific goals. Certainly, the money that you earn can buy better equipment, bigger buildings, and more land, but these accomplishments are executed with as little fanfare as the palette swaps that you can select for your character and your farm. A trophy room in your home has markers for 36 different trophies, but there is no special graphic, message, or tone to let you know when a new one is placed on your shelf. As you earn more “reputation points,” you can buy decorative sculptures for your farm, but they offer only cosmetic changes.
The game itself isn’t breaking any new ground with the graphics, but at least it offers a visual style that is in keeping with the “American heartland” tone. It looks like an SNES game, but some of the objects on screen can flicker alarmingly, especially when riding the tractor.
Harvest in the Heartland is a forgiving sandbox that lets you play with tractors. Players can earn more land, bigger buildings, and flashier tools, but there is no driving motivation beyond love of the farming. It’s low-risk, but suffers from feeling low-reward.
John Deere: Harvest in the Heartland is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB.