The original Rune Factory title debuted in 2007 as the first “fantasy” Harvest Moon, complete with action RPG mechanics, dungeons, swords, and orcs. While the fantasy elements complemented the farm simulation well enough, there were too many inconveniences and rough edges for it to be considered a great game. This time around, the developers had the chance to pull a few weeds from an otherwise healthy garden. Unfortunately, in the process, developer Neverland overlooked the locusts that came swarming in at the same time. As a result, Rune Factory 2 is a mix of improvements to interface and presentation and downgrades to combat and overall design. The resulting game is no more worthwhile than its predecessor and, perhaps, even slightly less enjoyable.
The story begins with the introduction of the protagonist, an amnesiac who stumbles upon the peaceful town of Alvarna. Here, the hero meets a young girl and her father, who happen to have a farm to lend to the forgetful young man. He begins to tend to the unkempt farmland and all the while mingles with the townsfolk. And that’s it until about a third of the way through the game. At this point, the protagonist has a child and the player takes over as his son or daughter. The story then receives a minor boost when your father, the original protagonist, leaves unexpectedly. You’re left to investigate the dungeons your father explored and discover the meaning behind his mysterious departure.
The idea of a multi-generational Harvest Moon is intriguing, but it can’t save this hackneyed tale of amnesia and mysterious fatherly abandonment. Furthermore, there is simply too little to the plot to interest anyone, not to mention that it is nearly identical to the plot of Rune Factory, but without the conservation theme. Fortunately, the townsfolk are a bit more likable in this incarnation, with an increased volume of dialogue, even if it is poorly translated and riddled with errors. A few characters are even memorable, such as the fortuneteller who makes her predictions come true and the impious drunk of a priest. Of course, the game wouldn’t be complete without an innkeeper who was evidently born without a personality. Or a purpose. The second generation offers new characters in the form of the townsfolk’s children, but there is less dialogue after the twist. For the most part, townsfolk say the same things almost every day. Soon, the player learns to ignore them in favor of fighting or farming.
Just as with the original Rune Factory, the sequel is one half action RPG, one half farm simulation. There are monsters to tame, plants to grow, rocks to mine, and weapons to forge, among other activities. Each tool is governed by a skill, and the rune point system returns to give players incentives for leveling up those skills. Improvements upon the original include cleaner menus, more conveniences when using the stylus, deeper combat, larger (and more interesting) dungeons, and a more lengthy adventure. On the contrary, Rune Factory 2 also features menus that still annoy, terrible control, frustrating enemy types, fewer dungeons, and more repetitive play.
The multi-generational aspect of Rune Factory 2 is like an apple, one half sweet and succulent, one half full of worms. The idea is unique and carries with it neat character developments, such as marriages, the resulting offspring, and a school. The first generation, however, is cripplingly restrictive. The item-creation skills don’t open until the second generation, nor do large sections of the game’s four major dungeons. Once a player realizes this, he’ll hurry to get married and have a baby. Thankfully, the residents of Alvarna have a mercifully short gestation period, possibly due to the consumption of the unnaturally colored grasses that seem to grow overnight in the fields. The second generation opens a great deal of gameplay, but the repetitive, chorelike nature of the game’s central tasks doesn’t stay fresh for long, similar to the trend in the first game. Only now, it lasts longer.
The designers made some poor decisions when creating Rune Factory 2. Almost every in-game day brings about pointless waiting and tedium. Whether making the player wait until nightfall to slay that elusive monster for the last item needed to make the ultimate weapon or waiting for shops to open in the morning, Rune Factory 2 seems full of cheap elongation techniques. The worst of this is found at the very end of the game, where the player must needlessly grow crops just to gain access to the final boss. Recipes for the item-creation skills are now distributed in school instead of in books, as they were in the first game. Limited to two or four per day, players must now individually select each item for any given recipe as they undertake a “lesson” from the teacher. It’s cute for two minutes, after which it becomes a chore worse than any school lecture. Further mishaps include the worthless delay when forging or cooking, as a primitive animation repeats on screen for eight seconds and a bar fills from zero to one hundred percent. Those eight-second waits add up. Running from one location to another can be annoying as well, but thankfully three of the four dungeons are adjacent to one another. A form of quick-travel would have been helpful.
Rune Factory 2’s dungeons are more refined than in the original, with unique areas that make them feel less randomly generated. The top screen now features a map, although the dungeons are not so complex as to warrant the need for one. Nevertheless, it’s a helpful feature that shows which dungeon areas contain water and fields. Perhaps the most disappointing of Rune Factory 2’s flaws is that there are only four major dungeons, plus a final one. This is about half the number from Rune Factory, which leads to greater boredom from viewing the same screens over and over. Easily distracted players should treat Rune Factory 2 as they would their least favorite vegetable and stay away.
One of my favorite aspects of Rune Factory was the combat. It was fun, simple, and it provided a diversion from the task of farming. Slightly deepened since then, the combat of Rune Factory 2 includes more special attacks and new commands for monster cohorts. Like all things in this iteration of Harvest Moon, however, it grows stale before the credits roll, especially due to poor control and extremely irritating enemies. Many of the dungeons’ denizens have deceptively long attack ranges; others can temporarily knockout the protagonist, and some monsters can magically disappear just before being struck. Combined with sluggish control and slow attack speeds, the combat suffers from a lack of polish that would ensure that no gamers puncture their DS screens with the stylus. Also, later dungeons require some level grinding in order to surpass, which may deter some gamers even further from the farmer/warrior’s path. Again, Rune Factory 2 is not for the impatient.
Stylus control is limited and awkward, which doesn’t help the clunky combat. Rune Factory 2 has the addition of a quick menu for easier stylus use, but the mechanic from the original that allowed players to queue up tiles to water or plow has vanished. This is perhaps the most inane design decision the developers made. Navigating the still-clumsy menus is easier with the stylus, however, so a mix of both D-pad and stylus control schemes is optimal.
The graphics have also taken divergent paths for the better and worse. The pre-rendered backgrounds are even more beautiful than before. Details like fireflies at nighttime in the summer bring the game to life, and the dungeons are especially stunning, with varying landscapes and features, such as giant mushrooms. Character models haven’t improved much and still look muddy most of the time, but they now animate more fluidly. The improvements come at a cost, however: when there are four or more characters on screen, the frame rate drops significantly. Furthermore, if there are multiple enemies on screen, some spouting magic from their orifices, players will struggle to run to safety due to the lag. This inexcusable flaw will surely doom many players, particularly during the final battle.
The music from the original Rune Factory is difficult to match, and the sequel doesn’t quite live up to the excellence set by its predecessor. There seem to be fewer tracks, and they aren’t quite as catchy or nostalgic, but players might find themselves humming along. The music is slightly more generic than that of the original, but perhaps better composed. I found it less enjoyable, but other gamers might disagree. The difference is minute either way. Voice acting makes a return, also in line with the original’s quality (or lack thereof). Fully voiced dialogue is infrequent, but that may not be for the worse. Some of the characters sound quite strange, if not inhuman, but less creepy than those from Rune Factory.
It may sound like Rune Factory 2 is a worthless game, but that’s only my tendency to focus on the negative, and it is especially frustrating because the developers made so many avoidable mistakes. The experience is still a solid one, however; but overall, it did not improve over Rune Factory and remains to be the more tedious and irritating one of the pair. Certain inconveniences were eliminated, but the gameplay remains repetitive, frustrating, and full of downtime. The value of the package may be the game’s greatest strength; just beating the game takes hours upon hours, and it doesn’t have to end there. Fortunately, it can end there for those who cannot handle spending one more second in Alvarna. I for one rushed to the end to be done with the frustration that was Rune Factory 2, and I vow to never again mix swords and hoes.