One of my favourite games when I was growing up was the farming RPG Harvest Moon, it was relaxing and unique and played nicely into my underlying OCD tendencies. As time went on though I unintentionally stopped paying attention to the series and in the intervening period it’s gone to some weird places. Specifically it’s gone to the land of fantasy JRPGs with the spin-off Rune Factory series which is somehow already up to its fourth entry (though Wikipedia says this is actually the sixth game in the series). Thankfully though, even this far removed from those original pure farming games on the SNES, Rune Factory still holds true to a lot of the gameplay philosophy of Harvest Moon and as a veteran of that series this game left me pleasantly surprised.
You see this isn’t kind of JRPG where the combat and the weird extra mechanics like fishing or farming sit in separate rooms from each other only providing minor occasional bonuses, this is a game where all those mechanics are deeply intertwined and completely dependent on one another. The way they accomplish this is by making absolutely everything you do a level-able skill and having all that experience contribute to one ultimate character level. The XP you earn from killing monsters is the same you earn for watering crops or interacting with villagers and while each of those skills level up on their own and provide various bonuses, they also all contribute to your main level much like in the Elder Scrolls series. Similarly a lot of the resources you use for dungeon crawling you also use for farming and social stuff. For instance, the most effective healing items are cooked food and to get that food you’ll need to farm the ingredients, harvest the resources necessary to build the appropriate cooking tools, and then actually cook the food. Each one of those steps has at least a single skill associated with it and building up those skills builds up the overall stats that will affect your efficacy in combat; basically everything you do, be it beheading a monster or petting your livestock, makes you just a little bit stronger. On the note of monsters and livestock, the monsters are your livestock! They’re also your farm hands and can join your battle party, so they fill a lot of roles. That’s just another great example of this game mixing two very disparate genres though; yes it is odd to be milking your giant cow battle partner as though she were your average heifer, but it works.
While the game does do a fantastic job of mixing its genres, it is important to note that this does seem to be more of a Harvest Moon game than it is a standard JRPG. This is especially evident in the pacing, you don’t just move on from one objective to next but rather slowly pick apart each thing the game asks you to do. You’ll rarely just blow through a dungeon in one shot but instead take it on over the course of days, going back to town to manage your farming responsibilities and yuk it up in between bouts of combat. The game basically just lets you take your time with the main objectives and provides you with plenty of things to do outside of base adventuring. You want to meticulously tend to and organize your fields? That horrible death horse monster can wait. How about taking a few days to court one of the various anime girls in the village? Go ahead the dark labyrinthine caverns aren’t going anywhere. Feel like you’ve haven’t been fishing in a while? The plot and the combat will happily sit in the corner while you spend a whole week catching and then cooking every fish in the god damn river.
As for the story, it’s your standard convoluted anime mess but it’s more there to justify gameplay than anything else. The plot is that your amnesiac ass gets dropped into a fantasy kingdom where you’re immediately declared prince because they were expecting one to show that day. They then assign you some princely duties (like farm work because that’s what royalty apparently does) until eventually the real prince shows up and says “You seem to have all this crap in hand, I’ll just hang out over here” and lets you stay prince for absolutely no good reason. The whole prince thing serves only to contextualize the idea that you get to shape the kingdom a little with Animal Crossing: New Leaf style orders. These orders do things such as set up festivals, increase the size of your inventory, and give you licenses to do things like cook food and forge items. Just like in New Leaf, it’s an interesting system that adds an extra little bit of player agency to the world itself and blends nicely with the life-sim/JRPG gameplay.
I guess all that’s left to talk about is the presentation which is the weakest part of this game if only because it does nothing new or exciting with the fact that it’s on the 3DS. It does the whole sprites mixed with basic 3D models thing we saw a lot of on the original DS, I can understand not fixing what isn’t broke but it would have been nice to see them take things up a notch with the new hardware. In terms of the actual design of the assets, it’s kind of what you’d expect, basic JRPG fantasy monsters and levels, though there is a weird bit of charm now and then that helps it be something a bit more. Something that actually surprised was how many of the sprites from the GBA versions of Harvest Moon this seemed liked it was using, not sure if it was out of reverence or laziness that those original seed bag sprites and flower types are there but I felt it to be a nice touch and a good reminder of where the game came from.
Overall Rune Factory 4 proves to be a very satisfying experience; there is a lot of nuance in the mechanics, a surprising number of systems to play around with (I never even got around to talking about the romance stuff), and it still has that same Harvest Moon charm that I remember. While the series has obviously come a long way, the quiet but addictive nature of the game’s life-sim aspect remains intact and in fact only enhances the more fast paced action-RPG elements. Wandering around dungeons and fighting monsters is just as fun as planting crops and growing your character’s relationships; the intertwining and balance of those two gameplay styles really does make for a game greater than the sum of its parts. I really enjoyed my time with Rune Factory 4 and as such I’m giving it a 4 out of 5 stars; it won’t be for everyone but if you can take a slower pace then this life-sim/JRPG will really suck you in.