"…the longer I played the game, the worse it became, as it dragged me from one torturous dungeon to another like a ragdoll."
Maybe it's my fault – maybe I just put too much pressure on Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny to fill the console JRPG void. It seemed like a sure bet; after all, I adored Rune Factory Frontier, even appointing it my 2009 RPG of the Year. And then a year later, Rune Factory 3 stepped up to the plate and one-upped its Wii predecessor. Naturally, I thought Tides of Destiny was going to continue the trend and take the series to new territories (hello, giant battles and sea exploration!), but I can't help but ask: where did it all go wrong?
Despite all of my love for the series, my venture into Tides was not a happy one. In fact, the longer I played the game, the worse it became, as it dragged me from one torturous dungeon to another like a ragdoll. Rune Factory fans deserve better than what ToD offers: unexciting combat, drab dungeons, an uninteresting cast, and broken, glitchy game systems. ToD is a lot of wasted potential that fails to capture the addiction, quirkiness, and lore that allowed Rune Factory to cultivate a hardcore fan following.
Why Can't We Be Friends?
Those who are sick of the amnesiac main character usually at the forefront of Rune Factory games' plot should find ToD's story a refreshing change of pace. Longtime friends Aden and Sonja are hauled to the future and both souls end up transported into Aden's body. It's up to the two pals to unlock the secrets of Fenith Island and reclaim Sonja's body. Tension arises since they have to deal with being in constant contact with each other, especially since Sonja isn't exactly the best companion in the world. To be honest, I was so stoked to have a main female character for the first time in a Rune Factory game, but Sonja is one of the worst I've seen. They made her the epitome of the nagging female stereotype. She constantly interjects to tell you what to do, which gets old really fast. She's not likable in the slightest, nor does she make you want to play as her (which you must first complete the story to do).
Tides of Destiny's cast simply isn't as intriguing as previous Rune Factory troupes. Many characters just aren't worth interacting with, but that's not to say the whole cast is bad. Some characters develop some charm as the game progresses, but it's never enough to keep you invested. There are more than a few characters that are simply off-putting, though. I'm just going to come out and say it: the priest is a creeper. He's highly exuberant and sometimes what he says can be jarring, so much so that it's hard not to question his motives, especially since a lot of the time it feels like he's hitting on Aden. Perhaps there's a difference in Japanese culture, but it's not funny in America to have a flamboyant priest who says inappropriate things and takes care of children. There are more unseemly characters beyond the priest; I'm just scratching the surface here on what feels off the mark even for the quirky Rune Factory series.
Beyond the bizarre characters, the story is incredibly vanilla. It reminds me of a bad 80s movie, only without the inherent charm. The narrative is predictable, and meaningful plot points don't come as often as they should to keep you invested. And just when you finally do get to the good stuff, the ending slaps you in the face with a boring wrap-up. There was also one social aspect of ToD that greatly disappointed me: festivals. They're not all bad, but the majority are throwaway festivals that don't offer anything unique or fun. The ones that won me over had interactive offerings like a cooking contest and target practice, but there were far too many that seemed like wasted days. Rune Factory 3 did a better job with festivals, so it was disappointing to see ToD take a step back. The request board returns from Rune Factory 3, but it's really hit or miss here. Several quests are repeated throughout the game, which get boring quickly, especially the fetch quests. There are a few interesting story-oriented requests, but I wish they came up more often. Sadly, for as mediocre as they are, the story and characters are probably the most fun there is in the game, as the gameplay is an even bigger mess.
Gameplay Needs an Overhaul
There's no need for me to sugarcoat it: ToD made me further realize that the majority of the Rune Factory game systems need a complete renovation. There are good ideas, but the execution is consistently flawed. Let's start with combat, which has always been rather simplistic: mash buttons, defeat enemies, sometimes use your special rune ability. The problem is that it's way too focused on offense, neglecting any defensive skills; it'd be nice to have an actual dodge button (rune abilities and jumps mimic it, but it's not enough) or a block ability. It's troubling to get hit by one attack by an enemy, as it usually means getting caught in a chain of multiple attacks. To add insult to injury, healing is awkward, since there's a long animation between pressing the button and the healing actually taking effect. Since there's chaos on the screen and a wonky camera, ranged attacks often sneak in to make Aden drop his potion, negating any healing.
Monsters can be raised and used in battle, but they're not nearly as useful as they could be. They're really useful for only one thing: to take the heat off Aden and absorb damage. I know it sounds mean, but with the abysmal AI, there's a good chunk of ToD that can be played without using monsters. In fact, half of the time in dungeons, the pathfinding simply doesn't work. Monsters get stuck in the environment, unable to keep up with Aden. Thankfully, if you press a button, there's a bell that brings them directly to Aden, but it's still inexcusable.
As for the dungeons, they're completely unimaginative, repetitive, and oriented around finding switches to get to the next level. There's nothing unique here, except that each dungeon has a different color to distinguish it from the next. The individual floors are painfully similar, missing any details to make the environments standout... which causes another problem. The mini map is essential because it's the only way to determine where you have and haven't been; it's difficult to do so by sight since every area looks the same.
Intense boss battles also return from Rune Factory 3, but I found them significantly more difficult than in any other Rune Factory game. If I didn't memorize patterns, or if I was off with my movements in even the slightest, I was doomed. But that wasn't enough because without grinding your crafting skills, it's impossible to create the top-tier equipment, a requirement for victory. As for crafting, it follows the same system as fishing and cooking, which isn't anything special. When you try to craft an item, make a meal, or catch a fish, there's a bar with a blue portion in it. Get it in the blue and you're successful, but since the speed and blue portion always change, it's impossible to get it down to a science. It's frustrating that the same system is used for all three crafting types, and it wears out its welcome.
As far as farming is concerned, it's incredibly simplified in ToD, but not horrible. At first, I loathed the setup. Farming takes place on different seasonal islands, and particular crops can be grown based on the monsters assigned there. So while monsters are mostly useless in combat, they're useful for farming. Near the beginning, there are a limited number of islands, so farming feels like a small aspect – which causes a bit of a money struggle. As more islands are unlocked, suddenly cash money and a plethora of crops pour in, since the happier the monsters are, the more likely they are to produce special, high value produce. But once I had mastered farming, it started to become overwhelming, and I was spending more time harvesting and planting crops than I was fighting.
One place where ToD tried to separate itself was in its sea exploration with the golem Ymir. This was what I was most excited for, yet it ended up being the most disappointing part of the game. Let's start with Ymir's "epic" sea battles; they play out like a one-on-one fighter, but the controls are extremely clunky and awkward, as if Ymir was fighting in molasses. These battles also don't require much strategy – if an opponent gets knocked down, just keep hitting it. Outside combat, Ymir spends his time raising islands from the sea, but the biggest issue I had was with Ymir's pathing. There are obstacles in the sea, such as impassible deep waters, that lead to backtracking and extra maneuvering. This also exhausted his RP pool too quickly, making it take more than a day to reach some locations. I hated exploring the sea for this reason; it was the worst combination of annoying and mind-numbing. It's just one more area of wasted potential in Tides.
Also, don't be surprised if there's the occasional glitch that hits in ToD. I was exposed to far too many. More than five times, I lost items when transferring them from my rucksack to my storage bin, sometimes certain festivals wouldn't trigger as they were supposed to, and one boss ended up outside the battle arena. In the end, all the progress from Rune Factory 3 feels erased in Tides. Since these games don't change all that much from one entry to the next, it's important to always outshine the past one, which I can't say ToD did here. That's probably my biggest gripe, and with broken gameplay and the lack of an amazing cast, Tides of Destiny offered me very little.
Can You Hear Me? Can You Sea Me?
The music in ToD is quite decent, but it's very overused. I really enjoyed the heart-pumping boss battle music, but the problem was that every major battle uses the same track. To its strength, the seasonal music was vastly different and always set the mood. Unfortunately, the music is the high point for sound, because the voice acting is abysmal. The VAs have an odd tendency to go off character, most noticeable with Pandora. The minute the VA had to go into a lengthy explanation about anything, she lost the voice she had been using for the character the majority of the game. It's just one example of bad voice acting amongst many.
It's clear that ToD has some beautiful backdrops amongst its islands, but this looks no better than a high-resolution PS2 title. There's not much that wows graphically, but where the game does stand out is in its lush, colorful visuals. It's something that has always been a staple in Harvest Moon, and it's nice to see a game that's not overusing grey and brown tones. Still, when the only praise I can give is that the game is colorful, it's done something wrong.
Disappointment of the Year
After investing over 80 hours into my journey of Tides of Destiny, I came away feeling completely devastated. Each entry in a series should improve upon the previous, and ToD fails in that department. The game is about as mediocre as they come and suffers from a complete lack of polish. Will Rune Factory fans have some fun playing ToD? Sure, since it's been quite some time since there's been a console entry in the series, but just because a game is new, doesn't mean it's automatically great. That certainly holds true for Tides of Destiny, as it's a complete monstrosity that I can't recommend to anyone but the diehards. Tides' myriad flaws screamed in my face the longer I went on, like a nagging mother who just won't quit bothering you. I just hope that Rune Factory 4 can clean up its mess.