I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: farming life sims are a perfect way to just chill out. There’s something cathartic and incredibly relaxing about having lots of little tasks to focus your energy on, but with little in the way of time constraints or pressure. In the context of an idealised simple rural life alongside cheerful townsfolk, these games create a world that’s easy to just lose yourself in and leave the stresses of the real world behind. As the latest in the series that pretty much invented the genre, Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town takes that to new heights.
Olive Town starts, as all Story of Seasons games do, with you moving away from the city to take over your family’s rundown old farm. The land you inherit this time around is more rundown than most—having been almost entirely reclaimed by nature, the land you inherit is, effectively, a slice of wilderness on the edge of town. There isn’t so much as a farmhouse; your first few nights in Olive Town are spent living in a tent, until you can gather the resources to build a little log cabin.
Therein lies Pioneers of Olive Town‘s defining characteristic: taming the wilderness. I touched on this a bit in my preview earlier this month, but in short, the first step to building a productive farm is to claw back some farmland. In lieu of the overgrown but still clearly-defined fields you start with in other Story of Seasons games, Olive Town gives you a forest and a set of old farm tools—it’s up to you to clear a section of open land, till the unfarmed land to create a viable field, decide where to build a fountain to fill your watering can, and so on.
Stamina limits mean there’s only so much you can do in one day, so in all likelihood, you’ll start by clearing a small little section near your tent to grow a few humble crops. But as the days tick along, you’ll inevitably venture further afield, reclaiming more land and giving yourself more space to work with. As you do so, you’ll make new discoveries: wild crops that, when shipped for the first time, become available to buy in seed form, expanding the range of things you can farm; decrepit old farm buildings that you can repair and then use to raise livestock; wild animals that you can tame and start to raise.
As you venture further out into the wilderness, you’ll find the way to further discoveries gated behind some repair work, but once you rebuild that broken bridge or clear away that rubble, you get to explore even further and see what new discoveries await. In this, Pioneers of Olive Town creates a captivating progression loop for the early-mid game that’s a little bit more directed than the usual “grow crops, get money”. Unlocking the full expanse of land at your disposal and the full array of crops, livestock, and whatnot gives you something concrete to works towards alongside your daily activities, with a sense of adventure and discovery to go with it.
Pioneering coexists nicely with all the other usual Story of Seasons progression systems: upgrading your tools, improving your skill levels in different areas of farm life, improving the quality of your harvests, upgrading your house, falling in love and getting married. You’ll have to choose your priorities in the short term, since resources can be scarce, but broadly speaking, success in one area paves the way to success in others. Crucially, there’s no real pressure to do anything at any given time, so you can focus on whatever you want and take each day as it comes—caring for crops is the only thing that has any real consequence if you ignore it for too long, but even then, the return of sprinklers means you can automate the most time-consuming part of that.
The other side of Olive Town‘s pioneer spirit is the freedom to build your farm as you see fit. Across three large sections of land amounting to a good couple thousands tiles’ worth of useable land, you can do as you please—put barnyards anywhere they’ll fit, create fields big and small anywhere you like, decorate with all sorts of fences, topiaries, sculptures, decorative farm equipment, and so on. Your farm really is yours to do with as you please, with space and some generous limits on how many copies of an individual item being your only real limitations.
This all feeds into the meditative atmosphere that makes Story of Seasons so enjoyable to begin with. The satisfying busywork of tending to crops and the relaxing strolls through town as you get to know your neighbours are as rewarding as ever, but now there’s an added layer of landscape design and light exploration. The people of Olive Town are a typically cheerful and curious bunch, with all sorts of personalities coming to the surface as you get to know them better and plenty of cute romantic moments with potential love interests (and yes, same-sex marriage is fully supported). The simple joys of Olive Town are easy to get lost in and find satisfying rewards, however you choose to spend your time.
That said, for all of Pioneers of Olive Town‘s ambitions, some of its new ideas feel underdeveloped. There’s an element of town growth that comes through your interactions with Olive Town’s mayor: he has big plans for this little village to become a tourist hotspot, and so he’ll regularly come to you for help in providing materials for his latest renovation. It’s another progression system—and like the rest, one that you can tackle at your leisure—but with the exception of unlocking a new clothing store early on, there’s very little benefit to actually doing these things. You get some barely-noticeable cosmetic changes to the town, and this is how you progress the game’s central storyline (insofar as there is one), but it’s a barebones narrative that’s far less interesting than the character vignettes surrounding it.
Stables in Pioneers of Olive Town lack any real purpose, despite the game introducing mounts to let you get around quicker. While mounts themselves are extremely handy, stables are rendered useless by the ready availability of an equally useful and far more convenient scooter—instead of needing to allocate valuable farm space for a stable, the scooter just lives outside your house on land you can’t use for anything else, and is every bit as quick and useful as a horse. Moreover, Olive Town lacks any horse care element that previous games have had; with no feeding, no horse races, no breeding, providing storage space for a mount is literally the only function that stables have now, and that’s a function already provided by the scooter.
Festivals always play a big role in a Story of Seasons game—after all, this is when the whole town gets together for some big celebration or another, to play minigames and eat good food. It’s also, usually, a chance to really show off the results of your labour, with harvest festivals and the like where you can showcase your best crops. Sadly, Olive Town doesn’t have any of those sorts of long-term goal-oriented festivals; it’s limited to simple, fun but shallow minigames and celebratory cutscenes that are fun the first time but quickly lose interest after that. After a couple of years, I pretty much stopped attending festivals at all, which seems a real shame in a Story of Seasons game, of all things.
My last big complaint is around the way maker machines are implemented this time around. A common feature of Story of Seasons, makers let you process raw materials into different sorts of products: eggs into mayonnaise, milk into cheese, and so on. In Pioneers of Olive Town, makers play a big role, as indicated by the sheer number of them and the fact that you can put up to 20 of each on your farm. The problem is that they’re wildly inefficient: depending on what you’re producing, a maker will generally take between two to eight in-game hours to complete its work, needing to be manually reloaded each time. If you need specific materials in bulk—ore and lumber come to mind, in particular—one maker won’t cut it; you need a whole bunch, which means a whole bunch of loading them up. The majority of makers are single-purpose things, too: yogurt, cheese, and butter all come from milk, but each one is a separate maker that needs its own space on your farm.
These things aren’t inherently a problem, but they combine to make the production side of Pioneers of Olive Town extremely tedious and inefficient. Checking in on your crops and livestock each day is soothing and rewarding; frantically running through lines and lines of makers collecting their products and refilling them with raw materials, ad nauseum, isn’t. When you only infrequently need a seasoning maker, having it sitting unused most of the time becomes a waste of farm space. The giant makers you unlock later in the game don’t really help—they’re a little bit more efficient, but still run into the same issue of needing constant refilling with raw materials.
In past games, makers were a simple little addition to a barn or chicken coop; in Pioneers of Olive Town, they’re pieces of a wildly inefficient and labour-intensive factory. While the rest of the game still gets the right balance between busywork and meaningful progression, between “grinding” and a satisfying game loop, dealing with makers is a nuisance, which varies only in the degree of how much you actually want to make use of what you get from them. The game’s producer has indicated that the team is looking at rebalancing them (as well as addressing some other performance criticisms, though I personally haven’t found load times and frame drops to be too much of an issue)—but until then, they’re a tedious aspect to an otherwise wonderfully serene game.
While Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town has its shortcomings, they’re minor frustrations in the scheme of things. For the most part, this is exactly what you’d want from the latest addition to the original farm life sim: a relaxing, cheerful game that lets you get lost in the simple joys of an idealised rural life, taking each day as it comes and working towards different goals at your own pace, with some welcome new additions to the genre’s formula. A wilderness to tame, a space to call your own, some crops to grow and chickens to raise—there are far worse ways to relax and unwind.
Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town is developed by Marvelous Interactive and published by Marvelous Europe / XSEED. It launches March 23 (North America) / March 26 (Europe, Australia, New Zealand) for Nintendo Switch.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.