"Farming rice isn't just a minigame for Sakuna, it is a vital part of the adventure."
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin became my calm game of E3. I started off the show nervous, anxious and excited, and that culminated in me breaking down as I entered the hall. To calm me down, the team brought me to Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin, and almost immediately any fear I had melted away. The next day, I came to XSEED to talk about this adorable, charming little game, and loved almost every moment of it.
At this year's show, there were two demos for us to try out. One was a demo focused on combat that was set in a different level compared to last year's showcase. The second was much different and focused on the farming aspects of the game. Sakuna is the Goddess of Harvesting, and as the title suggests, her job is to maintain the rice fields in order to make herself more powerful. She lives on an island that has been overrun with demons and will stop at nothing to protect her subjects and spread her influence further.
The combat demo was much the same as last year's but demonstrated the abilities available to Sakuna in the early parts of the game. The level structures are akin to Metroidvania games, albeit much shorter, with a strong focus on platforming and battling. In the first demo, we climbed up a huge waterfall. The water was some of the most impressive I've seen in any video game — rushing down the mountain and crystal clear. It also offered some peaceful, calm moments: as Sakuna stands in a shallow pool it ripples around her. The trees rustle in the breeze in the background and the world feels like a storybook waiting to pop out of the pages.
Sakuna can jump and run around these 2.5D plains at free will and use her magical scarf to grapple onto cliff ledges in order to climb higher. The scarf felt a little bit fiddly to aim; sometimes it took multiple times to get Sakuna to use it. Given how these kinds of games rest their laurels on their exploration, I hope this is something that is improved on during the coming months.
Combat is extremely satisfying and easy for anyone to just pick up and play right off the bat. Attacks are assigned to three buttons — one normal, one quick and one heavy attack — and each of these can be used to take advantage of different enemies. Sakuna can also jump and attack, and this is especially handy for dodging or for taking down birds. And while there's a stamina bar, I found it extremely easy to keep track of to ensure Sakuna isn't vulnerable to attack. All of these skills were put to the test during the last boss of the demo, the Demon Catfish. As he dived across the screen and launched ice attacks at me, I took full advantage of her scarf skill to grapple onto the boss's head and throw Sakuna over it to avoid attacks.
After beating the catfish, we moved on to the second demo, which teaches you how to farm rice. Farming rice isn't just a minigame for Sakuna, it is a vital part of the adventure. There are seven steps to farm the perfect rice crop — tilling, planting, weeding, harvesting, drying, threshing and hulling. Each of these steps can affect the quality of your rice. Tilling the field allows you to prepare the soil for your rice seeds, and the more you soften the ground, the better quality your rice will be. And when you're weeding the rice paddy, you need to make sure the water level is just up to Sakuna's ankles in order to get your best harvest.
The final step is probably the most important. Once you've started hulling your rice, you need to pound it to make it into rice grains. Depending on how fast you pound it, you can make either brown or white rice, and these have two different purposes. Brown rice is used to spread Sakuna's influence across the island, boosting both her personal assets and her abilities. White rice is used to gradually restore health when you're out exploring the island and fighting demons, but it also gives you stat boosts. You can see how much rice you have left by looking at the rice ball icon in the top left of the field. Growing rice and going out to fight nets you experience, so you need to rely on both assets to make the most of the game.
While the demo allowed us to only experience these two modes separately, rice will take time to grow in the full game, so you need to alternate your farming and exploring. For example, after you've completed one section of the game, you can go back to your rice paddy to dry your newly scythed rice. However, you need to wait for it to be completely dry so you can go back out on another adventure. This stops the game from feeling repetitive and adds an extra layer of challenge and a need to plan your daily tasks ahead of schedule.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is shaping up to be a charming game, and one I'm extremely excited to see more of. It put me in good stead for the rest of E3 2018, and ended up being one of my favourite games of the show. I hope some of the combat is tidied up a little and that there's the opportunity to expand your rice growing. It looks beautiful, plays smoothly and is a very unique experience with different mechanics that don't feel tacked on to the experience. Edelweiss have created something very endearing, and I can't wait for everyone to try it.
"The final game promises a healthy mix of action and farming that will appeal to fans of Odin Sphere and Stardew Valley alike."
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin combines two very different genres to create one very strange and Japanese game. Part stylish action RPG, part farming sim, Sakuna is occupying two opposite ends of the spectrum. Feel your heart tighten as you build your combo meter in the action levels, then breathe a sigh of relief when it's time to go back to the village and focus on your rice crops. The titular character, Sakuna, is a harvest goddess, and it is her job to conquer and tame the wilderness in order to gather materials to bring back to the village as supplies for crafting and farming.
Our playable demo at E3 only featured an action stage and none of the simulation elements. The action plays out in a side-on 2.5D perspective; you control Sakuna as she jumps obstacles and slices her way through enemies. The gameplay was reminiscent of a Vanillaware game like Dragon's Crown, though maybe a little less rigid and precise. I'm going to give Sakuna the benefit of the doubt and assume that the looseness was only due to the fact that it was an early build of the game, and hopefully the finished product will have more polish. The coolest gameplay element unique to Sakuna was her magic scarf, which you can use to swing over gaps and/or toss enemies into them. The boss fight at the end of the demo required you to hook onto the boss and swing behind it in order to attack safely. It'll be interesting to see if this mechanic gets more complex as the game progresses.
Although the available demo was short, it was very enjoyable, with the emphasis on Japanese culture and aesthetic making the game a visual treat. The final game promises a healthy mix of action and farming that will appeal to fans of Odin Sphere and Stardew Valley alike. We can't speak to the farming aspect, but the press release seems to emphasize the importance and particulars of rice farming. Time will tell how the other half of Sakuna turns out, though the small bit that we played was a satisfying and competent action RPG experience. I look forward to seeing how the two modes complement each other.