Over the years, Natsume has spawned any number of Harvest Moon sequels, ports, and variations. It comes as no surprise then to find a fantasy iteration of the popular farming sim with elements of an action RPG. Well, maybe it’s a slight surprise. After all, the series has always focused entirely on farming and finding a wife. With Rune Factory, however, the franchise finally departs from that. While the added action RPG elements bring a certain vitality to a field so commonly tilled, there are a few rotten crops in an otherwise garden of green.
The adventure begins with the appearance of Raguna, the protagonist, as he stumbles onto the grounds of a young girl’s farm. Exhausted and unable to recall his past, Raguna is in need of a friend. The girl offers him her farm and the chance to make a living off its fruits, and soon, Raguna is assimilated into the nearby village. The real adventure begins when Raguna discovers mysterious monster-summoning machines in a cave. He and his friends must uncover the secrets behind these machines in a search for an underlying evil and for identity.
Gamers don’t play the Harvest Moon series for story, and the developers must be aware of this. Rune Factory’s plot is poorly told, hackneyed, and nonexistent for long periods of time. Only after Raguna conquers a dungeon does the player learn anything more about him and his world, and the story remains almost entirely mystery until the end-game token expository conversation between the good and the bad. A faulty plot may be expected in a Harvest Moon game, but weak characters are less excusable; after all, marriage is an option, and if the player doesn’t like any of the women, he’s not likely to care to marry one. The town’s inhabitants are underdeveloped, generic, and two-dimensional, with some of their gender roles defined so stereotypically as to come off as sexist.
Fortunately, Rune Factory possesses theme, and it’s an important one about the balance between technology and nature and living peaceably with the earth. Unfortunately, by the conclusion, the player will be beaten over the head repeatedly by these concepts, as the writers ensure that no one goes without knowing what they intended. Furthermore, the theme, and plot overall, is hampered by a terrible translation. Not only is much of the dialogue confusing or simply incorrect, but also some of the name choices are rather questionable. How is one supposed to take the villains seriously when they hail from the Sechs Empire? Thankfully, gamers won’t play Rune Factory for its story; they’ll play it to be a farmer, and a warrior, for a day.
Rune Factory’s gameplay is a mix of traditional Harvest Moon simulation and action RPG. The core game mechanic is a series of skills that govern the use of the game’s tools, such as hoes, watering cans, hammers, and axes. The player begins with access to limited tools, but as the game progresses, he’ll obtain additional equipment, as well as weapons. Farming is a combination of plowing, watering, and planting seeds while combat is a simple system of attacking foes with a sword, axe, or other weapon in one of the game’s dungeons. Rune Factory also employs a system of rune points, which decrease at the use of any given skill. When they run out, Raguna’s hit points begin to decrease, and he’s on his way to collapsing. Using these concepts, Rune Factory follows a progression of days and seasons, fields and dungeons, with Raguna in a constant battle with the elements, monsters, and time.
By far the most rotten aspect of Rune Factory is the aforementioned rune point system. Instead of time as the limiting factor in a given day for the amount of work one can accomplish, rune points are. Even using a tool to no effect produces a loss of rune points. As a result, by the time the player finishes his daily routine on the farm, his rune points are significantly diminished, and he has little to none for the exploration of the dungeons. There are ways to regain rune points, but they’re few and inconvenient. Thus, the game is brought to an unnecessarily frustrating level, but most likely, the seeds of addiction will have already been sown in the player long before to make him abandon any thoughts of quitting.
The progression of skills, items, and the farm overall, combined with exploring dungeons and making gold creates an extremely addictive experience. Once the player has enlarged his house and has access to all the skills, he’ll most likely have enough gold to no longer worry over watering plants every day. Free to concentrate on other skills, he’ll be happy to discover their depth and level of satisfaction. The sheer number of different activities is fantastic: taming monsters, cooking, forging, mining, and logging are all included. New to the series, the combat is simple, yet fun, and leveling up is as fast as can be. Progressing through the dungeons was one of the most enjoyable aspects, along with the use of so many different skills. The control scheme presents the only downside to the large repertoire of skills.
There are many skills, but each activity is carried out nearly identically, with most of them reserved to the press of a button, fighting included. This leads to an almost chore-like feeling at times as the player presses button after button to chop wood or break rocks. The use of the stylus is limited and inconvenient as well. Implementing it in more original ways would have handled the problem with ease, and hopefully the sequel will remedy this problem.
Additionally, Rune Factory possesses a bushel basket full of minor rough spots, creating a very unpolished feeling. Status effects, for instance, are liberally thrown in without purpose except to irritate the player and make him spend a little extra gold for a cure. Annoying and impractical menus can easily kill the player, as well, when he can’t get to that last healing potion in time. Unclear uses for tools, easily droppable items, and unbalanced skills (mining becomes much more profitable than farming) could have been cleaned up for a more enjoyable experience. Whether or not these small issues and the repetitive nature of the game will permanently obstruct gamers’ enjoyment depends on his or her level of patience and perseverance. Once addiction strikes, however, I challenge gamers to quit without seeing the credits roll, and even then, they may continue their adventure.
Rune Factory’s pre-rendered backgrounds establish a quaint atmosphere with soft colors and a somewhat resplendent look. They change between seasons and darken at night to provide a unique feeling for different times. Unfortunately, the same care was not taken in designing sprites. Awkward, ugly, and unproportional to the backdrops, the character and monster models look out of place among the pretty trees and streams. The use of less muddy colors would have improved the sprites, as well as additional animations; every character walks in the same waddling manner.
Surprisingly enjoyable for a game as unpolished as Rune Factory, the game’s music is somewhat reminiscent of an older generation, and that certainly doesn’t prevent it from being worth a listen. Each season and dungeon has a different, appropriate tune, and players will even find a unique track for special holidays. The lack of music on rainy days and late nights may irk some players, but others will recognize it as an effective use of silence. The only rotten egg on the soundtrack is the opening vocal theme, and it’s as bad as they come.
When Raguna speaks to townsfolk, a voice clip sometimes plays, almost in the style of Zelda, although actual words are usually spoken. The voice actors must have been hired from death row because the voices are astonishingly creepy and unsettling. Some of the characters sound oddly sexual, while others may be serial killers. While they aren’t necessarily bad, they’re out of place to say the least.
The major question this incarnation of Harvest Moon poses: is the action RPG take on the series necessary? When I consider how much more repetitive the game would have been with less to accomplish, I answer with an emphatic “yes,” although I would frown upon the inclusion of monsters in every entry of the series. Rune Factory is a great portable action RPG/sim with a vast array of activities and a great addictive vibe. With the sequel, I can only hope the developers double check the quality of their product to increase its overall appeal and create a more entertaining experience. Simulating life on the farm is fine with me, as long as it isn’t too realistic in emulating every inconvenience, chore, and trouble that constantly crop up over the ever-rotating cycle of seasons.