Platform: Nintendo Switch (and 3DS)
Genre: Role-playing, Simulation, Action
Developer: Neverland, Marvelous
Publisher: Marvelous (XSEED)
Release date: 25-Feb-2020
The Rune Factory series began in 2006 as a spinoff of the then-famous Harvest Moon series (now renamed Story of Seasons in English titles). The aim was to give a more linear story and incorporate fantastical action into the series while maintaining the successful simulation and farming aspects of the source material.
The first entry, called Rune Factory: A Fantasy Harvest Moon, aimed to capitalise on Harvest Moon’s success. By Rune Factory 2 they knew they had a unique concept and worked at distancing themselves from the source material with each installation.
By this title, Rune Factory 4 Special, I believe they have finally arrived at a great balance between an accessible action game and the character development that Harvest Moon was known for.
Full of Cute, Self-Aware Tropes
The game starts in one of the strangest ways I have seen. It opens with a shot of an airship flying through the sky, no people on screen, and you are given the choice between two phrases. “Goodness, I’m so high up!” or “I’m flyin’ high, baby!” - guess which one leads to you being the male or female protagonist.
Outside of that irritating choice (What if I wanted the fun phrasing and to be the female character, huh?), the game opens and you discover that you have been charged to travel to Selphia to deliver a gift to a mysterious recipient.
After an attack on the airship, the protagonist is thrown off and falls towards the earth. This leads to your landing, quite literally, on the head of a guardian dragon. You lose your memories in the process and are convinced to make your new home in town while recovering your memories. With one weird twist.
The town had been waiting on the prince to arrive and help run it - the dragon decides this must be you. With no proof at all, you are forced into an administrative position and even when the prince himself arrives the next day he seems delighted to leave the job to you. So you begin your life as prince/princess of Selphia, who is also weirdly the sole farmer. Go figure.
Warrior Farmer Extraordinaire
If there’s one thing that had no business in the original Harvest Moon, it is swords and spells and monsters. So what is in Rune Factory 4 Special? Every category of weapon I can think of, multiple spells, and monsters to the max.
You can even tame monsters, bring them back to your farm, and keep them as pets. The Buffamoo is my particular favourite. At first, you are only leaving the town for basic foraging, gathering monsters, and materials for crafting. It is a little later, once the plot begins to unveil itself, that you begin traversing full dungeons.
I almost expected this game to be turn-based, an assumption made almost entirely on character design and stylistic choices in the game, but the battles are in real-time. If you want a breather during these battles you’d better open your tool menu or backpack.
The gameplay itself is fairly simple. To attack without using magic, press B. For a chain attack, keep pressing B. There are a few different combo patterns that you can learn, but these aren’t all that necessary. You can get by on basics alone for most difficulty levels. After assigning your favourite spells to shortcut slots X, Y, RX, and RY you are pretty much good to go for the entire game in normal mode. And presumably easy mode.
For Hard and Hellish you would be expected to need to put more thought into it.
Thankfully farming itself takes on a much smaller role when compared to Harvest Moon. You need to run your farm, and keep crops growing, but the ability to assign tasks to the monsters you befriend means that it is not the time sink that it comes across as.
The controls are also optimised to make it as straightforward a process as possible, although there was an in-between stage before you upgrade your equipment and after you gain the ability to till wherever you want that I found the controls unwieldy and difficult to structure in the standard 4x4 square. As you progress through the story and level up your town through your actions as a prince/princess, you will have more access to a wider variety of seeds to grow on your farm.
How is there Cooking and Crafting Too?
The more good you do in town as prince/princess, the more Licences you can earn, Festivals you can hold to attract tourists, and shops you can increase stock in among other things.
Licences are required to cook, craft, and forge. These skills are in turn needed to get through dungeons in the game. It is a well-balanced cycle of activity that is entertaining and fun to achieve. Every level I increase in my cooking skill, the more likely I am to be able to learn a recipe that is a favourite among one of the villagers and use it to increase my friendship points with them. Forging is necessary to keep improving your weapons, and crafting is required for armour and to eventually make an engagement ring for one of the bachelors/bachelorettes in town.
I like that the game punishes you for not keeping on top of one of these skills, and forces you to improve one every once in a while for the sake of progressing the game. It maintains a sort of balance akin to real life - if you replace technological literacy and general hobbies for crafting and forging anyway.
Life in the Village
The star of the show is the village and those that reside in it. There are twenty-two villagers in Selphia, and two regular guests that visit periodically at first but you can later request that they come every day.
These characters are largely shallow but adorable. While every JRPG trope appears here, they are presented well and there are usually one or two aspects of their personality that are unique enough to stand out at least a little bit from their cookie-cutter origins.
The clumsy adorable girl™ has a father from China (presumably) and has picked up his unusual speech pattern. The closed-off cool-guy™ is genuinely just a shy communicator and oddly… part horse. That is (hopefully) not a euphemism for something. The overly hard-working glasses-wearing guy™ is obsessed with cute things. It is these weird little side notes that make the characters stand out a tiny bit more than their counterparts in nearly every single other JRPG that exists. Not that every character is a home run, but Rune Factory does remarkably well at reproducing old tropes in a slightly different way. As you increase your relationship with the villagers you discover more of these fun little details, and eventually can date and marry one of six bachelors or bachelorettes depending on your protagonist's gender.
As is the case with a huge number of games, the LGBTQ+ community does not seem to exist in this game.
This is a cute feel-good game with a sweet story and an entertaining cast. It is the blend of elements that are not often found together that makes this game unique rather than any individual component of it.
I don’t think any piece of this game is original in and of itself, but it has perfected the art of mashing a lot of genres together to create a game that is palatable across the board. This is a far larger achievement than it sounds.
The graphics are nothing special, but as it is largely taken from the original 3DS game it is about what I expected. I wish there was more or no voice acting. Having the characters shout out one or two words in a sentence is more jarring and distracting than it is a bonus. But still, not a deal-breaker in the ability to enjoy this game.
Just try not to smile when attempting to ‘appeal’ your crop to a crowd during the Harvest Festival. It’s impossible.
Play this game if…
You like JRPGs
You enjoy the crafting and cooking side of simulation games
You need to relax and wind down
You enjoy a well built, but cheerful, world
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