"...the most polished game of the Rune Factory series."
Rune Factory 4 holds special meaning to me. I have been a fan of both Harvest Moon and Rune Factory forever, but I can't recall if any game in either series hooked me as much as Rune Factory 4 (RF4). RF4 is one of my top 10 3DS games; it sits at over 600 hours of playtime and over five hours per average game session. I spent hours in my room with my 3DS plugged into the wall beside me just so I could keep playing. When I heard the news that Neverland shut down shortly after RF4's release in the West, I was genuinely upset. I felt the series had hit its stride and there was potential for even greater things. In early 2019, my hope was rekindled when I heard Rune Factory 4 Special was on its way, along with Rune Factory 5. While I wait with bated breath for more information on Rune Factory 5, returning to RF4's world must suffice to tide me over.
RF4 begins when one day, en route to the Kingdom of Norad, the protagonist is suddenly attacked by two armed men. The two men demand that they hand over a gift intended for the dragon Ventuswill, who protects the kingdom. The protagonist fights back, and the gift is destroyed and the protagonist is knocked off their windship in the scuffle. Our hero falls and lands in the home of Ventuswill. Mistaking the protagonist for the prince/princess of Norad who was supposed to arrive that day, Ventuswill puts up the protagonist in the castle and sets them to work on the farm in the backyard, as well as assigning them the royal duties. Life begins for the protagonist in the town of Selphia.
Rune Factory 4 is divided into three different story arcs, each centered around a different dilemma facing the town. The overall story is okay, likely depending on how much you like Ventuswill, as the story heavily involves her with most of the townspeople in a smaller supporting role. Beating the third arc of the story will require a good amount of grinding and time, so I personally think completing the second alone is fine. If the story and combat don't end up intriguing you, you can focus on life in town after the first arc of the story. The first arc is essential for getting new bachelors/bachelorettes into your town, so if you want your romance options to open up, you need to complete at least the first arc.
The series' producer, Yoshifumi Hashimoto, said one of the main focus points of Rune Factory 4 was romance and the theme of family. Rune Factory 4 was the first game in the Harvest Moon/Rune Factory series to introduce a dating phase to your relationships with the bachelors/bachelorettes. In previous games, you would simply give gifts to the person you liked until they became interested in marrying you. Now, there's a process to go through in building up your relationship.
This culminates in a special town event where your boyfriend/girlfriend goes through a personal dilemma. This is usually related to some part of their traumatizing past, and prevents them from committing to you since they feel they aren't worthy enough for you. These events are some of the best written parts of the game. They learn how to deal with the past and accept themselves for who they are, which is great to see. These characters grow, but they don't without these events. It's a bit of a shame that much about these characters is left out without you seeking them out as a spouse, but it's a nice reward.
The only problem I have with this system of dating and going through a dramatic event with your partner is the randomness of the town events. Town events are usually multi-day events that involve specific members of the town, usually presenting some sort of problem that you must solve. These events are nice, since it is a means to develop the townspeople. However, as mentioned, these events are random. So if you want to tie the knot with your chosen partner, you have to wait for the town event first. It should be noted that all romance options in this game are heterosexual. Perhaps in future games we might see a change to include same-sex options, especially in today's post-Stardew Valley landscape.
The town of Selphia is full of quirky and colourful residents that make town life consistently interesting. From lovey-dovey couple Jones and Nancy to the sleepy Clorica, the residents' interactions with you and each other are a delight to listen to. Even without those town events, just hanging out with this cast of characters is entertaining. As you build up your "friendship" levels with the various townspeople, they have new conversations with you, so it feels natural to go around town and check up on everyone. One of my favourite characters is Porcoline, ever since the original release. The boisterous and flamboyant town chef always has some of the best interactions with you, often teasing you with marriage propositions to him. His reactions regardless of whether you agree or reprimand him never fail to at least get a chuckle out of me. It helps that your character often plays the "straight man" to the townspeople's "funny man." Oftentimes it seems like you're the only one in town who has their head screwed on right.
Rune Factory 4 Special takes the romance to a new level with the new "Newlywed Mode." This mode is meant to expand your married life with your chosen spouse, since it was such a major point for the developers. To show off the new content, this mode features new 2D models that highlight character movement during conversations, as well as new voice lines for these characters. The romance element of Rune Factory 4 was already pretty good in comparison to other games in the series, so having these extra episodes just makes things better. They are fairly short, though — maybe only about an hour or so of gameplay. There is also the "Another Episode" DLC that also features the bachelors/bachelorettes, as well as Ventuswill. These episodes are free for anyone who purchases the game within the first month of release, but I was unable to play them during my time with the game. I still welcome more opportunities to connect with these characters, and will revisit this content after the game's official release.
In Rune Factory 4, you take on the duties of the royal family, so you are in charge of the town's development. This aspect of the game isn't particularly deep, but it's a nice touch. You can "order" new festivals in town, upgrade your room and farm, and even gain the ability to "push away" unwanted typhoons which could destroy your crops. I always wished there was more to do with your orders after the first year in the game, since it feels like running the town could have been a more integral part of the game.
Farming behaves the same way as it does in other games in the series. You need to clear your farm of weeds and other debris, till the soil, plant seeds, and water them until the crops are ready for shipment. There are crops that will grow better in certain seasons, and there are a couple of ways to improve the soil so it produces better crops. Monster taming is also a part of the series, and most monsters will provide you with materials with a variety of uses. Activities like cooking, smithing, and crafting require a lot of materials which you can gather around the map, and as mentioned, from the tamed monsters themselves.
The thing that sets Rune Factory apart from its Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons roots is its RPG gameplay. Combat plays like an action RPG with a variety of weapons and spells at your disposal to help in the game's various dungeons. Combat isn't terribly deep; you usually can mash the B button as fast as possible with your preferred weapon to kill enemies quickly. Enemies may have resistance to physical/magic attacks, though, so you still need to be prepared for different dungeons with appropriate equipment.
One of the things that makes Rune Factory's RPG elements so addicting is that you're constantly improving yourself. Pretty much everything you can do in this game is tracked with a skill bar. Whether it's combat, magic, smithing, farming, monster taming, or even just walking around, you will be rewarded with HP, RP (MP), or increased combat stats like vitality, intelligence, etc. Even if you're not particularly interested in the RPG aspect, or farming is not captivating, there are always ways to increase your stats.
When Rune Factory 4 Special was first revealed, something I realized was just how much the game showed its age in the graphical department. To Marvelous' credit, the finished game does look better than the initial reveal trailer. But the 3D models still show their age, and the backgrounds aren't that much of an improvement either. The slightly isometric view of the game is fine when on played on something of a bit lower quality, but it really looks off in HD. It's a bit hard to explain without actually looking at the game, but if you look at a few screenshots maybe you'll be able to see what I'm talking about.
This is likely clear from my previous work: I generally prefer Japanese voice acting over English. Rune Factory 4 Special features dual audio, as opposed to the original's English only. However, I actually really liked the original English dub. After listening to the Japanese dub and comparing it to the English, I'd say they're both great options depending on your preference. There's a couple of characters I preferred in Japanese, and a couple I preferred in English. Admittedly, it's rare for me to say I like an English dub just as much as the Japanese one, so it's a testament to how good the voice acting is. The original Japanese dub also has some genuine star talent, especially for 2012 when this game first released in Japan: Tomokazu Sugita, Aoi Yuuki, Ayana Taketatsu, and Satomi Sato just to name a few. This is matched by the great performances of Cassandra Lee Morris, Stephanie Sheh, Yuri Lowenthal, and Matt Mercer. This game is not fully voiced however, which is a shame. The music in the game is pretty much forgettable, with the exception of the opening song.
A large reason why I delve deeply into farming sims like Harvest Moon or Rune Factory is the way the gameplay sucks you in. There's always something to do, something that will require your attention. You don't want to forget about it, so you keep telling yourself "just one more (in-game) day. " Then the next day comes around and there's something new that happens that you won't want to forget the following day. Maybe there's a birthday coming up, or you need to prepare for the upcoming town festival. So you keep playing, and that's the loop.
Rune Factory 4 Special is a fairly underrated game from the 3DS library that I'm glad got another chance on Switch. If you were ever curious about the Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons games but perhaps farming wasn't your thing, you should check out Rune Factory 4 Special. It's the most polished game of the Rune Factory series, and if they can improve on Rune Factory 4's formula going forward, I'm looking forward to the future of this series.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.