Continuing the trend of reviewing lesser known DS gems, I bring you Rune Factory. The original game on the DS sold less than 10k in Europe, whilst its successors were slightly more successful but not by much. Rune Factory is best described as a spin-off from the Harvest Moon series, the whimsical and cute farming simulator RPG. Whilst Rune Factory keeps a lot of the core farming mechanics in Harvest Moon, a lot of it is simplified because the game shifts the emphasis from just living an idyllic farm life to include story-driven dungeon exploration. You wield weapons in a hack and slash manner and have to destroy monster spawners and fight bosses. The story itself involves you turning up to a town with amnesia and trying to figure out where you come from. Not the most original of stories, but I promise the rest of the story is quite engaging. You come to learn about the troubles plaguing this strange new land, and eventually become embroiled in the political machinations of warring nations who have different views on the monsters spawning across the region. Besides this overarching plot, you also get involved in the townsfolk personal stories, and these are much deeper than the kind you get in Harvest Moon.
For those used to Harvest Moon, the extra elements might seem very strange, but part of the charm and appeal of this game is seamless integration of RPG dungeon diving with the farming and town life aspects of the game. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that these additions vastly improve the Harvest Moon franchise, which frankly was getting a little stale and ridiculous. I’m probably not the only one frustrated with the unnecessary complications in the Harvest Moon series where growing crops optimally now involves keeping a spreadsheet to obtain the best breeds and levels. I miss the days where growing crops was as simple as keeping your 9×9 square routinely watered and then harvesting it at a set date and putting it into a shipping box and that was it. Rune Factory maintains that simple farming mechanic but its complexity lies in its well-thought out story and the emphasis on dungeon exploration.
First a little on the farming aspects for those unfamiliar with Harvest Moon. You start with a plot of land and a farm to inhabit. You have to clear out this overgrown field of its rocks, weeds and branches. Once you have some space cleared, you can buy seeds and plant them in 9×9 plots. You water them every day, and each crop takes a different amount of time to grow. They grow in stages, so after a few in-game days, you’ll see little sprouts come up and eventually leaves and flowers, until they are fully grown and you can harvest your fruit or vegetable. You have to keep an eye on two bars, one is a stamina bar and the other is a health bar. You start depleting your stamina bar when you use tools, be it a swing of the axe or using the hoe to flatten the land. Once you use up the stamina bar, it dips into your health bar. Of course, in the dungeons, using weapons like swinging a sword will deplete stamina, but monsters attacking you will directly hit your health points. Managing your stamina and health is an integral part of all aspects of the game. There are, of course, ways to restore stamina and health. You can craft potions. There’s even a bath/spa you can use once a day for a small amount of gold and that will fully restore you. The game time runs fairly quickly, with 10 seconds equivalent to 10 in-game minutes, which means time management and organisation is key.
Creating a manageable routine might sound boring but it’s key to thriving on your farm, and this is really where the simulation aspects shine. You wake up in the morning, you water your crops, you go into town and visit your favourite people (maybe shower them with gifts), then you might choose to head into a dungeon and make some progress or just gain some experience. Or perhaps you might want to spend the whole day fishing at the beach. Perhaps there’s a festival or holiday event on and you spend the day interacting with the townsfolk instead. There’s also the option of accepting quests from villagers and they usually involve fetching things from dungeons.
The game is very open-ended. How you choose to live your idyllic life is up to you. Of course, there is the main story which is progressed through by getting to the end of dungeons. But you could also just never touch this aspect of the game. You could happily live a life of an amnesiac farmer forever, but then if you wanted to do that, you could just play Harvest Moon. Dungeons and story is where Rune Factory really shines over Harvest Moon.
In dungeons, there are monster spawners and completing the dungeon requires destroying all the spawners. But you can use your farming skills to help. By planting crops in dungeons, they produce little orbs which restore your stamina. Because spawners come back after exiting a dungeon, in order to destroy them all in one go, you have to plan ahead, either by having crops at handy intervals or by bringing a lot of potions or just by being a high enough level. The monsters vary tremendously and all drop interesting loot which is used in the crafting system. Plus, you can also befriend monsters and use them on your farm. Basically, monsters take over the role of farm animals from Harvest Moon. Some produce food items like milk or honey, but others can take a more hands-on approach and actually help you water your farm (like sprites could in HM) or harvest crops for you. You can also take them into the dungeons to help you fight. Befriending monsters and building your relationship with them will only bring you massive benefits.
The combination of farming skills with fighting skills is really well implemented. For example, the in-game time runs on four seasons, each consisting of 30 days. Only certain crops will grow in certain seasons. So you can’t grow a pumpkin in Spring (wait until Autumn), or grow anything in Winter. However, to get around this restriction, dungeons have their own internal climate and correspond to different seasons. For example, it might be Summer in the actual game but you want to grow turnips which only grow in Spring, so you can plant them in the Spring cave as if it were that season. Plus, as mentioned above, when plants are fully grown they give a stamina boost which will help you fight the dungeon monsters. Furthermore, the caves contain areas to fish in as well as rocks to mine which give you more resources to use in either crafting, cooking or selling.
For me, Rune Factory’s appeal is in the way it makes a farming simulation seem so epic. At its heart it is an RPG and the dungeon exploration is part of that, but the added farming aspects really helps you to immerse yourself into the role as a farmer, as a fellow townsperson, who gets involved with his community. The world of Rune Factory, as in all Harvest Moon games, is beautiful, often funny, and very pleasant. Everyone in town has their own unique personality and quirks, but they’re all relatively friendly. Of course, you can have love interests and earning their affections may eventually allow you to marry them and live with them. Increasing your relationship with townspeople is done in a very simple way: talking to them, giving them gifts, watching and engaging in random cut scenes in the right way and completing quests will increase their affection for you. What’s fantastic about the game is it feels like every action you’re taking is a free action, but goes towards improving your gaming experience. You gain experience for everything you do, and you level up, which makes you feel stronger and more competent at different aspects of the game. At no point does it feel like a grind. The balance between working to get money, and just having a relaxed time talking to NPCs, is up to you.
What I love about Rune Factory, and also the Harvest Moon series, is how it is open-ended whilst still giving you objectives. I think fans of games like Animal Crossing will find a lot to enjoy in this game. The game is very meaty, and being so open-ended, you can feasibly spend dozens of hours on the game. The story does take a considerable amount of time to get through because to access later dungeons, you sometimes have to wait until certain in-game seasons. To be honest, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to rush the story unless that’s your sole focus. For me, I took it slowly, experimented with how my farm was set up, had a few different goals at any given point (e.g. today I will try to cut enough logs to expand my house or today I will finish this dungeon) and just enjoyed the journey. Some people might find the game slow, but to be honest, I found the game time goes fast enough that you find yourself running out time too often and having to sacrifice one thing for another. The other thing that balances this is your stamina and health bar, and not having stamina means you are forced to do something less labour intensive like talk with townspeople rather than go dungeon diving.
Plus, the whole thing has a beautiful aesthetic, and its hand-drawn art style is both charming and exquisite. It’s not too obnoxiously anime-ish but of course, it is heavily inspired by that aesthetic. The sound is great too, though the English voice acting can be a bit spotty at times.
There have been several Rune Factory games out, but they’re all very similar and keep many of the core mechanics. What changes from game to game tends to be the characters, the world, and the story, whilst all the game play is generally the same (sometimes improved upon). If you haven’t played anything like this before, then I’d recommend starting with Rune Factory 1, and then playing them in order, because the later games reference earlier stories sometimes which you would miss without having played it. Plus it’s always nicer to go from a less polished game to more polished games, and given that Rune Factory 1 is perfectly playable and enjoyable, there’s no reason not to start there.
Rune Factory is the ultimate form of escapism. Farming has never been so exciting and the simplistic, rural life of the characters in the game is sympathetic portrayed and thoroughly engaging. I would especially recommend this if you’re a fan of the Harvest Moon games, because it really does keep a lot of the same kind of game play whilst expanding on it a great deal as well. Overall, a fantastic game for people looking for an open-ended RPG experience on the DS.