The developers behind the cult-favorite Harvest Moon games have a knack for making endearing and enjoyable gameplay experiences out of the more mundane and peaceful activities of daily life. Instead of farming and animal husbandry, the River King series revolves around the trials, tribulations, and simple joys of fishing. River King: A Wonderful Journey is the series' first foray onto the PlayStation 2, and while there's plenty of fish to catch and tasks to complete, some design and gameplay issues keep the game's appeal limited.
I'm just sittin' on the dock of the bay, wastin' time...
You'll be able to choose from one of four playable characters in a family of would-be fishing phenoms. There's the father, who once battled with the mighty River King but was never able to reel in that legendary fish; the mother, who seeks to improve her culinary skills; the sister, who vows to catch the River King for her beau; and the brother, who wants to fulfill his father's dream of fishing stardom. There are slight differences in each character, such as the amount of money you start with or the type of bait you possess, but aside from those minor tweaks, there's really no functional distinction once you get started. After a short introductory sequence, you're pushed out the door into the village to explore your surroundings.
The game is divided into a number of different regions, such as streams, mountains, rapids, and so on, each with its own ecosystem and native varieties of fish. You'll gradually open the paths to new zones via certain quests that you can pick up by talking to one of the many non-player characters that are scattered throughout the villages and countryside. There are a number of stores in town, each of which lets you do something different--one store lets you sell your catch in return for funds, one sells you fishing equipment and bait, one sells you cooking recipes, and one, an inn, lets you rest. You won't get much direction when you start out, though soon enough you'll stumble across someone or other with a task for you to complete (which can naturally only be completed through the awesome power of fishing).
Reeling in your catch takes surprisingly little effort.
For a game that bases itself entirely around fishing, you might expect the fishing system to be pretty robust, but that's not the case here. There are three main types of fishing: bait fishing, which relies on water currents to highlight your tasty bait; lure fishing, which requires you to entice the fish slightly; and fly fishing, where you maximize long casts. Once you've found a promising area--you can see the silhouettes of fish through the water--it's a simple matter of making your cast and hoping you get a strike. When you've hooked the fish, you can then hold down the X button to reel it in, being careful not to fight the fish and break your line. Once you've mastered that, that's it. All fish, from the smallest guppy to the largest trout, will yield easily to the same technique. Catching fish earns you experience points that increase your max hit points, but your HP only goes down if your line breaks or if you need to swim or row to a new fishing spot. While it's relaxing and all, it would've been nice if the fishing itself had a bit more skill involved.
The simplistic fishing gameplay would go over a little better if there were at least a large variety of things to do, and it's true that the many characters scattered throughout the game have quests for you to accomplish. However, once you accept a quest from a given character, you're locked in. You often can't leave the quest and try to pick up another. While the majority of tasks tend to be simple to complete, the fact that you can only take on an extremely limited number at a time serves to throttle some of the game's otherwise open feel.