Swords and strawberries
I still remember when I first heard about Harvest Moon, a strange farming RPG for the Super NES that some company had revealed in the latest copy of the Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu. A farming RPG? How would that ever work, I wondered. Would you be getting into random battles with local wildlife? Would you cast spells to make your crops grow?
You have to understand that, back then, one couldn’t imagine a game like Harvest Moon, because its ideas simply hadn’t been tried yet. When the game was finally released in English on our shores, the experience wasn’t quite what I’d imagined at its announcement.
The funny thing is, years later, a series would be released by Harvest Moon parent company Marvelous Entertainment that actually hit close to my initial expectations of what a “farming RPG” would be: Rune Factory: A Fantasy Harvest Moon.
I’d never found the time to really give the Rune Factory series a proper chance, so I came into the franchise’s sixth chapter—Rune Factory 4 for the 3DS—with a handful of expectations but absolutely no experience.
Some of those expectations were met. Rune Factory 4 is, indeed, a game where you raise crops and kill monsters—sometimes, strangely, at the exact same time. The game opens with your character accidentally falling out of the sky, resulting in a rather rough landing in the small village you’ll soon call home. (During the landing, you get knocked on your head, leading to a bout of amnesia. Ah, Japan—will you ever tire of that trope?) The village’s caretaker is a legendary dragon, and she’s certain that you are a prince (or princess) come to bring good fortune to all who live there.
While you’re rather uncertain of your newfound royalty, you decide that you might as well earn your keep by helping make the village a better place. For those familiar with the long line of Harvest Moon games, this means activities like growing and selling crops, tending to livestock, and socializing with your new friends and neighbors. The other side to Rune Factory 4 is combat and monster-slaying, something that definitely makes the game a bit more familiar and easier to understand for those who have no experience with Harvest Moon. Initially, venturing outside of the protection of the village’s walls will come from simple curiosity, but as the game plays out, quests and storyline progression will push you to explore new areas and vanquish menacing beasts.
My opinions on Rune Factory 4 were a bit mixed at first, and then it dawned on me as to why: My brain had been tricked into expecting a level of pacing that it shouldn’t have. I’ve played enough Harvest Moon at this point that I’m accustomed to (and appreciative of) its slower, more laid-back way of doing things, but that gets muddied the moment action is thrown in. Where’s the next area I need to explore? What’s the next big monster for me to kill? Why aren’t I being given those things at a faster rate?
When you find the ability to get past thrusting action-adventure expectations upon it, Rune Factory 4 can really be entertaining. A game where your main character is tasked with both creating life and causing death seems like an idea that could easily feel disjointed, but it works. The player is given a nice amount of flexibility in what needs to be done and when, so you can always decide that you’d rather focus your energy on interacting with others and helping build up the village, or you can put responsibility aside for a bit and just have fun adventuring in the wilderness.
Of course, Rune Factory 4 is at its best when you roll up your sleeves and balance everything the game has to offer simultaneously. As I’ve never played any of the previous Rune Factory games, I didn’t have any reference with which to determine how much better (or potentially worse) the elements offered up here were in comparison to previous chapters—but as my introduction to the series, it hooked my pretty early. The NPC villagers you’ll encounter have some charming personalities to them, so long as you’re willing to put forth the effort to get to know them better. Aspects like farming, cooking, and crafting flesh out nicely as you unlock more options and abilities, and even the element I was most concerned about—combat—was more fun than I’d assumed it would be. This really is a farming game and an action game brought together, a combination that could easily go wrong had it been in less-capable hands.
And yet, it also could be in more capable hands. As surprised as I was with Rune Factory 4, and as much as I enjoyed a decent chunk of the time I spent with it, sometimes that enjoyment came in spite of the game’s execution. Both aspects of the game—its social side and its more traditional game side—could definitely be better, and if they were, this could be a heck of a franchise. Conversing with villagers (or eavesdropping on them while they converse with one another) is fun, but I was left wishing that the whole social aspect had more depth to it. Meanwhile, Rune Factory 4’s action elements feel like a supplement to a farming game, where I wish they were strong enough to stand on their own.
Rune Factory 4 reminds me a lot of Persona 3 and 4, titles that also marry two very different schools of gameplay into one total package. Atlus’ recent Persona efforts work as well as they do because they offer halves that are strong enough to survive on their own—even when they’re meant to always be a couple joined in cohabitational bliss. I never felt as if Rune Factory 4’s farming or fraternizing was ever as strong as what I’ve received from Harvest Moon, nor was its quite on the level of any host of action-adventures offered up on the 3DS or otherwise.
That doesn’t mean Rune Factory 4 is a bad game—I want to be clear on that. It’s a good game that could be great; i’ts a B-average student who could study harder and get many of their grades up to As. Rune Factory 4 only failed in my eyes in two ways, and those were its graphics and user interface. The UI is easily the biggest negative checkmark; in a game so focused around working with a wide variety of both tools and weapons, throwing them all into a few cumbersome item containers with no real way to quick-select your most-used instruments means you’ll be spending far more time moving through menus than you should have to. Meanwhile, the game’s visuals are too unimpressive too much of the time. Backgrounds feel as if they were initially meant for a lower-resolution platform and then upscaled, and there’s a level of stylistic inconsistency that runs through everything from characters to items to monsters.
Those two aspects of the game are failures—but failures in what’s otherwise a pretty solid experience. I couldn’t help but come to adore the plucky little Rune Factory 4 and its quirky I’m-about-farming-crops-but-also-farming-loot nature, but I also can’t help but think it could, and should, be more. This was my first shot at the series, and I’m glad I finally got the chance to give it a try. My concern about coming back for more, however, is that I’d want to see some marked improvements in gameplay depth and presentation. Given that we’re six chapters into the franchise, I’m worried if those expectations would be realistic.
|Developer: Neverland • Publisher: XSEED Games • ESRB: E10+ • Release Date: 10.01.2013|
While all of its pieces could definitely benefit from more production and polish, Rune Factory 4 is a fun, addictive game that enjoyably combines taming the earth with taming the creatures that walk upon it.
|The Good||An enjoyable game that mixes a variety of gameplay types into one cohesive experience.|
|The Bad||Its ideas never reach their full potential, resulting in a game that’s good but not quite great.|
|The Ugly||The visuals, especially when set to 3D—I’ve never legitimately felt ill when using this option on the 3DS until now.|
|Rune Factory 4 is a 3DS exclusive.|