By Jack . October 13, 2013 . 5:00pm
I’ve come to a point where I’m fairly certain that video games can make any kind of boring task seem fun, and the Harvest Moon series has been keeping that idea strong for a long time. For the past few years, in an effort to spice things up even more, the games have spun off into a full-on fantasy setting with the Rune Factory series. Rune Factory 4 is the latest installment, as well as the series’ debut on the Nintendo 3DS.
The game opens with a character (you can choose to be either a boy or a girl) on an airship about to make an important delivery. The ship gets invaded by “gangster soldiers” and you take control to fight them off. The scuffle ends with your character getting amnesia, being thrown off the ship, and landing in a chamber housing a giant dragon. Rather than eating you, however, Ventuswill, the Native Dragon of a small town named Selphia, decides to make you a prince. The plot is pretty silly, but the writing is charming enough to sell it.
In broad terms, Rune Factory 4 is an action RPG in which you fight monsters, all the while practicing farming as a trade and maintaining a home life. While these activities are polar opposites in terms of pace and mechanics, they end up working together to form a cohesive experience.
At the start I was more excited to head into battle than tend to my farm. The basics of combat are easy enough to pick up; you move around in an isometric space and mash an attack button to defeat enemies. Essentially the combat boils down to running around to avoid attacks while looking for an opening to retaliate. It’s a simple formula, but I found it to be effective.
Rune Factory 4 doesn’t always play fair, though. Common enemy tactics are to either swarm you or trap you in a corner. When stuck, enemies are free to wail on you and there’s no way to escape. This drains the health bar quickly and I found myself avoiding sections of the wall rather than the enemies. Additionally, it’s tough to bounce back during these encounters. There’s a slight delay while healing yourself with either an item or a healing spell, which can’t be afforded when there are enemies ready to take advantage of the delay. I don’t mind a challenge, but it felt very unbalanced at times.
Part of that frustration arises because the game’s expectations for progressing can be unclear. Most of dungeons have signs that give you a level recommendation, but it can be misleading. It might be a decent level to fight the initial enemies, but not for the ones that show up later in the dungeon. For instance, I was able to blow through an entire dungeon and do well on the boss, only for it to power up and dwarf everything that came before it. It became less a battle of skill and more of a stat indicator. You can master a boss and get his pattern down, which is nice and rewarding, but unless you happen to be at the level the game secretly wanted you at, or decked out with the latest gear, you will be dealing a paltry amount of damage and receiving tons in return for making little mistakes.
On the flip side, when you are appropriately equipped, the enemies become too easy. This cheapens the gameplay by making the enemies feel more like progress walls to climb rather than a legitimate challenge.
The strange combat balance also carries on when being penalized for losing. Fear of a ‘game over’ wasn’t my motivation for doing well; it was a fear of going bankrupt. Rather than being sent back to the title screen after a defeat, you are instead warped to the doctor’s office. A little too realistically, the doctor proceeds to slam you with a hefty medical bill. Call me a cheater, but I would much rather reset my game and redo fifteen minutes of progress rather than give up half my life savings. The amount he charges is especially staggering early in the game, where I was struggling to make any income at all.
Despite some issues with the combat, I was still motivated to push onward. Things may not be stacked in your favor, but battles can still be rewarding. The weapons and magic available add some strategy to the button mashing, and a lot of the enemies have attacks that require some fancy maneuvering to avoid. The quick pace of battle makes the combat both feel fun as well as easy to come back to after suffering a horrible defeat. Most of the dungeons are good at keeping your interest as well. They never felt too long, and there are lots of secrets to find and resources to collect.
While the fighting is fairly straightforward, it’s the rest of the game that makes Rune Factory 4 a unique experience. I was buried in the amount of options available in town. The game starts you off with farming, but you will quickly get the chance to dabble in things like cooking, fishing, interior decorating, crafting, chemistry, monster taming, mining, lumberjacking, and more. You can also earn Prince Points that can be used for passing sweeping legislation, such as planning a turnip festival or receiving a bigger backpack to hold items.
The vast array of systems is nice, but learning them all can be a chore. There are plenty of tutorials to assist you but it’s easy to get lost in them, and like combat, sometimes it can be unclear how to make progress. Generally the tutorials give you a basic overview of something like cooking, but don’t really explain how to do something useful with it. Systems that involve making your own products are simply drag and drop affairs, but recipes are necessary to know what you’re doing. I was confused for a quite a while on how to get more recipes, as it was done by eating special bread. Unfortunately, every time I ate bread my character would not learn anything new, saying I needed to increase my skill level. After gaining a ton of levels, I found out the problem was not my cooking skill, but the fact that I needed to buy more cooking tools. For the most part, tutorials can be done at your own pace, but it may be better to just experiment on your own.
Running around town becomes natural very quickly, however, and spending time in town is easy, thanks to the welcoming atmosphere. Townsfolk will often shout a greeting as you pass by, and stopping to chat with them all makes for a cozy experience. Doing this will also make people like you more, as they all have a friendship meter that can be filled up. Leveling this up allows you to learn more about these people as well as take them on adventures. It can even lead to marriage, if they happen to be one of the six eligible bachelors or bachelorettes.
Everyday life in town can offer some minor annoyances, however. All of the townsfolk move about of their own free will, which is neat until one of the store owners is nowhere to be found and you don’t have any way to buy what you need. This problem is especially baffling as the blacksmith allows you to buy items whether he’s physically present in the store or not, so it makes no sense to restrict everyone else. Additionally, I ran into trouble with my item storage. Some items can stack when you obtain more than one, keeping them all in a nice convenient item slot together. Others though—mainly things you cook or craft yourself—don’t stack.
This makes it so you have to take each individual one out and put it where they need to go separately, which can be a hassle when you’ve crafted a ton of swords to sell. There’s a few minor problems like these, and I really want to emphasize that they are minor, but dealing with them on a daily basis in-game starts to feel obnoxious.
For everything I’ve said above, however, Rune Factory 4 makes up for it by offering you a lot of freedom. It was completely up to me how I wanted to spend my day, every day, once I was settled in.
Sure, I could tackle the next dungeon and get torn apart by chipmunks, but it might be less stressful to just take the day off and work on my fishing. Eventually, I settled on a morning routine where I would wake up, tend to my garden, and go around town giving gifts to all and spreading cheer. After that, I would focus on something different to close out the day. There are so many systems at play in the game that it’s hard to both run out of things to do as well as keep track of it all. On top of that, new stuff seems to always be trickling in. For example, I played for about 20 hours without realizing I could open a shop to maximize profits.
More important than throwing a bunch of options at you though, is that the game allows you to adjust to them at your own pace. I spent forever figuring out how to craft something I actually wanted to use, and even longer until I started hiring monsters to do my farm chores for me. Meanwhile, you’ll discover new farming areas the whole time. While the main garden is behind your castle in town, I found more patches throughout the game’s overworld and dungeons, allowing multiple gardens to be run at the same time. Personally, I think keeping track of one is enough, but I definitely appreciate the chance for improvement.
My favorite feature in Rune Factory 4 is that literally everything you do works in favour of improving your character. Opening up my skill screen for the first time was a shock, as there is a skill level to increase for just about anything you can think of, whether it’s taking a bath or simply walking around. I was especially glad to see that getting beat up a lot was actually beneficial to raising my overall HP. Rather than being a horrible failure, it turns out I was actually strategically maxing out my stats for the next boss fight. This constant sense of progress makes the game very addicting, as there’s always something you can be doing and nothing feels like a waste of time.
Rune Factory 4 is an addicting game despite its flaws. However, it is also a huge time investment. I’m still trying to master all of the subsystems that the game has to offer, and there’s no definitive ending in sight. After sinking in the required time, though, I don’t regret moving into town in the least.
Food for Thought:
1. My perspective of the game was from the male side, and so I feel like I got to know the female cast a bit more than I would have as the other gender. At the same time, it seems I missed out on learning more about the male cast, which might be interesting for a second playthrough. All I could ever get out of Dylas, a surly restaurant server that I rescued, was a “Get out of my face.”
2. Getting good equipment can cost you your fashion sense. For about the first half of my time playing I was wearing an unfitting ribbon in my prince’s hair, as well some sandals that would make an obnoxious squeaking sound. These days I’ve upgraded to a maid’s headdress.
3. If you happen to fall in battle, wait to see who wakes you up in the doctor’s office. I found that his wife would heal me free of charge, saving me a reset and proving there are still good people in the world.
4. Speaking of cheating, you can spend some play coins to receive emergency gold funds. Great for times where you happen to blow all your money on a new kitchen without saving a little for ingredients to use in said kitchen. Not that I would know about doing something like that.