Harvest Moon, or the modern equivalents My Time At Portia and Gleaner Heights, ask a lot of my time. The average Harvest Moon like is close to forty-to-sixty hours long, and because video games have that pacing problem where things start to plateau after the first ten hours with nothing drastic or new happening till the very end, I have a particular itch I can’t scratch. There exists distinct merit in the limited village-building aspects of all these games that I value over the farming simulation and villager-gifting player-loop. The Rune Factory games and the mining parts of Stardew Valley are a middle ground, but that’s not enough. The key is for the village aspect to be almost separate to the core of the game, like how it’s probably worth it to do the real estate campaign in Yakuza 0, but it’s not necessary. Wait, Breath of Fire II has a town sim?
The last Breath of Fire on the SNES, Breath of Fire II, centers on rebuilding an old dilapidated cottage into the player’s home base, called Township. After being accused of stealing from a wealthy man in the town of Hometown (a lot of BF2’s translations are goofy like this), sad dog Bow goes with protagonist Ryu into hiding. While Ryu goes off in search of the real thief to prove Bow’s innocence, Bow is joined by other characters to rebuild Township. This becomes a cool subplot for Ryu, where party members, like the tough but bored armadillo man Rand, will recommend leaving them behind to help expand Township. Ryu eventually goes to the town of Capitan, the carpenter center of their world, and can hand pick a preferred village design. Opinions include boring 12th century high fantasy brick house, treetop cabins like Fortree City from Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, and the actually cool Mughal style.
Breath of Fire II’s village sim is quite ambitious, perhaps excessively so. The carpenter option is a permanent, one time decision. Each design both dictates a style, which is nice because it allows for personal customization, but also affects what the carpenter and his wife do with their section of Township. I picked the Indian-esque Mughal style, because western high-fantasy BF2 wasn’t going to reuse this design for some later town, and thus my Township would be unique. This meant that my carpenter and his wife would turn their house into a bar where NPCs could tell me pointless game metrics, like how many times I had fished or used a health item. The treetop cabin carpenter opens up a casino, a mini-game house that seems to be the only place the item talon can be used, making the talon effectively worthless in other playthroughs. The worst is the boring 12th century high fantasy brick house, where the carpenter’s wife will offer to cook by combining two items together. Word on the playground is that this cooking could be tweaked to make tons of money. Seems like I bet on the wrong carpenter.
Township allows for a total of six individuals to permanently take up residence in each home. The game never states that they cannot be removed, so while I got the two art dudes and two of the game’s better item shops, I was stuck with this jackass whose entire deal is grifting money from you. I’m sure glad grifter guy and secret fishing spot guy (every Breath of Fire has fishing and I loathe it each time it comes up) get to take up permanent residence instead of the old man who can teach my party one of the best magic spells, Missile. At least Baretta’s armor shop is top tier.
Negatives aside, I was impressed by how Breath of Fire II actually made Township feel important. If certain optional instances are met, Township even becomes a flying fortress. A flying fortress that, no spoiler for a twenty-six year old SNES game, is the only way to unlock the good ending. My Township was modeled on my own preferences, ending up with pink and blue Mughal-style buildings with statues of all the party members awkwardly placed in the way. A Township I should feel honored to have to weirdly maneuver through main street because both the Nina and Katt statues happen to be permanently in the way.
The PlayStation Breath of Fire’s, III and IV, continue the village simulator, but make it even more optional than in II. Usually after a certain plot point involving the faeirie race, Ryu is tasked with rebuilding their village. This time, it plays out like a worker placement board game, where different faeiries can be allocated into different roles based on inherent skills. Some faeiries are good at hunting, some are good at cooking and cleaning, and some are good at nothing. The faeirie village pleases the lizard brain by showing potentially drastic improvement each time its revisited, possibly after a dungeon or two. It feels great to see this tiny shack expand into this sprawling community. What did the fairies build this time? A school? A farmer’s market? A designated room where I can listen to the game’s soundtrack? The possibilities are endless. Supposedly, the faeirie village also returns in Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, but since I did not get very far in that game, I know nothing about it.
Last big example of the stealth (ha, puns) village simulator was oddly enough, in the most popular video game of 2009, Assassin’s Creed 2. My favorite part of AssCreed 2 was restoring ole uncle Mario Auditore’s villa with convening village, Monteriggioni. Starting as this gray abandoned mansion with boarded up windows and unsightly tree branches, the place becomes an immaculate home by the end of the game. Just as in Breath of Fire II, the villa Monteriggioni works as Ezio Auditore’s base of operations. Simple things like repairing the water well or the mine shaft feel like grand accomplishments. Part of it can seem like a Skinner box, where the button is buying expansions to stores and the reward is a slightly higher discount at said store, but it feels like the villagers become happier when their community looks better. Maybe this is AssCreed 2’s stealth commentary on the usefulness of public works or redistribution of wealth to the community? I almost felt actual pain when that rat bastard Cesare Borgia blew up my Monteriggioni in Brotherhood.
I don’t think my particular itch can be scratched, as so much of it boils down to finding worth in what are effectively ancillary parts of otherwise bigger games. For instance, Raft is an early access PC co-op island simulator game focused on the home building part, i.e. the only good part, of games like Lost in Blue. I’m cynical enough to imagine Raft instead playing as a forty-hour crafting and resource management grind-fest, so for now, I’ll pass. Video games are oddly checklist-y and component based like that.
May Township prosper for as long as it can.