As grandmama always says, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Finding inspiration in your favorite creative works when making your own is not only common but encouraged.
The team at Maple Powered Games certainly kept gran's lessons in mind when they developed Monster Harvest, part Harvest Moon-like farming simulator and part Pokemon-inspired monster battler.
But if Monster Harvest taught me anything during my 14 hours of playtime, it's that the flipside of our earlier proverb is also true: Imitation can only get you so far.
Just the Facts
Developer: Maple Powered Games
Publisher: Merge Games
Platform(s): PC* and Switch *platform reviewed on
Release Date: Aug. 31, 2021
Key provided by Evolve PR.
Developed by a very small team, Monster Harvest proved to have bigger dreams than it's capable of fulfilling. That's why this review will be a little different.
We at VGG believe in independent creators. We believe in the concepts Maple Powered Games established with their debut release — but we don't think they were ready to release this game. At launch, there were major glitches that essentially broke any form of progression. By the time we finally got around to playing it, the team had already put out 8 hotfixes to try and stabilize the experience. Even with that, I ran into an issue where I was simply unable to shop at one of the game's stores, which locked me out of several tool upgrades.
With that in mind, this review is not the traditional VGG review. We'll go over our experience and share our thoughts, but we're holding off on a score. We can't recommend the game in its current state, but we also know how many games have found their footing months after release. Maple Powered Games have set out a plan for the future of Monster Harvest that includes a few more stabilizing patches, and eventually, full content patches that promise to add some of the things we missed the most from the experience.
VGG will later revisit the Monster Harvest experience to see if the team kept its promises, and the hope is that we'll be celebrating alongside the devs. Making games is hard and the team's responses to criticisms early on show a commitment to righting those wrongs. We want to believe. This will not be a common approach to reviews here on our site, but it felt appropriate here.
Read on for our impressions of the game in its current shape.
Monster Harvest isn't shy about its influences right from the start. Like Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley before it, your character leaves an unfulfilling life in the city to inherit the overrun farm your scientist uncle neglected. Your uncle has been too busy with his latest breakthrough: Planimals. They're plant-animal hybrids that the townspeople have fallen head over heels for, using them for companionship and competition. There's a shady corporation in town, SlimeCo, and a dungeon full of creepy crawlies to contend with.
It's a simple story with well-worn concepts, particularly for the genres it mimics, but honestly, all farming sims have fairly simplistic stories. Where they really shine is in the interpersonal relationships you develop with the townspeople around you. Traditionally, gifting folks items from your farm and talking to them every day unlocks unique scenes that reveal full character arcs for folks who otherwise feel fairly one-dimensional. You can date and eventually marry them while becoming immersed in town life.
Monster Harvest doesn't do any of that. The townspeople you meet are just as one-note as they seem at first. There's a relationship system that really only seems to matter for shopkeepers; they will eventually give you discounts at their stores if you cough up enough gifted goodies. And with the game's two main storylines (kicking out SlimeCo and getting to the end of the dungeon) lacking any punch, it stings that the other characters in the world are essentially generic NPCs, rather than fully developed characters with lives.
And that hollowness carries through to most gameplay systems as well.
It's farming and monster fighting just the way you'd expect it, covering the basics you'd expect if you have any experience with either genre. But again, it misses a few key components that could manage to push it beyond a pale imitation of its inspirations.
You plant crops, water them, sell them, and progress through seasons while managing health and stamina. You and your Planimals engage in turn-based battles against wild monsters in the dungeon and fight other townspeople's Planimals at the Rec Center. The basics are mostly functional, but it's all held back by a series of unfortunate problems.
Mechanics and systems are very inconsistently explained. Some receive extensive dialogue boxes with over-explanation, while you're left to discover others completely on your own. There is fun in discovering the way things intersect on your own, but even some of the most basic and essential concepts have blink-and-you-miss-it explanations.
One of the most confusing elements comes in the intersection of combat and farming. Unlike Pokemon, which famously has its battling monsters faint in combat, Monster Harvest features permanent death when your Planimals fall in battle. Their loss is not in vain though — they leave behind a resource that can level up your farm's soil and raise the base levels of future Planimals you grow. This essentially makes failure a necessity, asking you to sacrifice your Planimals for future success rather than developing a long-term bond with them.
It's honestly probably the one unique system the game brings to the table. But what proves to be a very important part of the experience feels underexplained and it undermines everything the genres usually ask you to buy in on.
A few other oddities:
The dungeon, where you can mine and gain Planimal growth resources, is completely randomized every time you enter, and you only have one shot to get through it each night. You can't skip ahead to any deeper levels as you progress, something that's initially frustrating until you realize there are only five levels to the dungeon.
With no skipping through the dungeon, you'll have to push through the useless early floors and get forced into random fights with low level enemies any time you need to grind for late-game resources in the deeper levels.
You can't swap Planimals mid-combat or escape from fights, meaning if you know your Planimal is going to lose a fight, there's almost nothing you can do.
In combat, Planimals have functionally no differences between them. With even the most basic rock-paper-scissors elemental weakness missing from the combat system, you simply have to overwhelm your enemies with a few overpowered abilities or over-leveled Planimals.
The game has the traditional festivals that most farming sims come equipped with, but without any of the gameplay variety and fun they usually represent. There's a fishing contest, but no way for you to participate. There's a potluck that you just can't engage with. Functionally useless and with no character relationships, there's not even conversations to be had at these parties.
I unlocked a Farm Expansion at some point... which didn't seem to change my farm at all.
On the whole, Monster Harvest is a much thinner experience than you'd expect. I spent 14 hours with the game and 100% completed everything the game had on offer. I got through all the major story beats before the end of the game's first full year, which is only three 21 day-long months. There's something to be said about a more compact version of a game like Stardew Valley, which can feel like it never ends, but not when so much has been stripped away.
Graphically, there is some charm in the game's simplistic pixel art, reminiscent of the beta art that Eric Barone made himself for Stardew Valley back in the day, but it's nothing to write home about. Audio is a problem though, with the same few loops of music playing throughout almost the entire game. Again, when it comes to the artistic side, it's a lot easier to excuse a little messiness for such a small team. But taking the game's entirety into consideration, it's just another disappointment alongside a laundry list of disappointments.
Maple Powered Games has something here that I can just feel waiting to be mined out of this block of coal. If there's anything that's clear after my time with it, it's that Monster Harvest needed an Early Access period. In its current state, it's hard to recommend Monster Harvest. Fans of its genre inspirations will find little to enjoy in the game's interpretations of either gameplay style. Those looking for some winning combination of the two will walk away empty-handed.
But I want to believe they can figure it out. And that's why...