Set on the pastel-hued Waffle Island, Tree of Tranquility begins with the premise that life is not so good. Wide-eyed anime citizens are scattered around the local village and across the island, but the general population has thinned recently due to the death of the island's mythical Mother Tree. Restoring this tree and bringing vitality back to the island becomes the game's mandate.
At first I was in familiar Harvest Moon territory, spending most of a virtual day tending my tiny plot, too poor and exhausted at night to do anything more than forage. As the game's quest was revealed, however, I spent less time on the farm and more time on a scavenger hunt. It wasn't that farming was boring or useless -- gardening still required adventure and patience as seeds were tucked into virtual soil and tended. And I ended up making or growing many of the quest's requested objects myself. But once I had obtained them I wasn't encouraged to settle into the gameworld's rhythms. I was simply sent to obtain something else.
Tree of Tranquility is set in a larger landscape than previous Harvest Moons. Instead of offering more to do, the added space slows the pace. Perhaps this prompted the game's designers to simplify many of the series' past systems in which planting patterns and cross-pollination figured into farming. In Tree of Tranquility, there's no time for indulging in subtleties. It's a goal-driven experience, rather than one inspired by possibility. The result is a diminishment of the series' unique challenges, and the game withers slightly.
THE GOOD: The enlarged scope of Tree of Tranquility extends into the player's style. New outfits are available to replace the standard-issue farming togs, and furniture is sold throughout the year in stores and at the island's festivals. A range of animals allows for most types of ranching (though pigs and geese are notably absent), and a horde of wild animals is available to be patiently domesticated as pets.
THE BAD: Almost all of Waffle Island's interpersonal options turn out to be boring. There's the hunky apprentice blacksmith who spends all his time in the nearby mine. The local rancher's demure daughter rarely ventures outside her barn. Gone are the oddball artists, beggars and mad scientists that made past Harvest Moons so entertaining. Even as the island awakens, the newly arrived archaeologist reveals himself to be a dud. And despite hailing from a tropical isle, Selena the dancing girl seldom departs the local inn. With citizens this dull, why save the island at all?
THE BOTTOM LINE: A bigger, more beautiful, but somewhat blander Harvest Moon.