I didn’t pick up or play Animal Crossing: New Leaf this year, and I’m still not entirely sure why. It’s definitely not anything specific that the series did to wrong me or turn me away – I’ve been a fan since the original GameCube entry, after all, and I don’t think there will ever come a time when I completely tire of what those cute little anthropomorphs have to offer. Despite rumblings that New Leaf was the best Animal Crossing to date, and that it offered endless charm and amusement, I just couldn’t… pull… the trigger. Maybe I was tired of Tom Nook’s antics. Maybe my tree-chopping, bell-hoarding, material wealth-gathering alter ego needed some time off. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s that this year, I was meant to try Rune Factory 4 instead.
Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean to suggest that the two are mutually exclusive, or that they can’t both be enjoyed, or even that one series is superior. Despite both games’ obvious residence in the life simulation genre, Rune Factory is able to do something that very few games do, and that’s partially because it’s something that very few games try – successfully throwing in the kitchen sink. That’s not to say that the game is devoid of such an approach’s expected issues, but the issues are so effectively minimized and soaked in light-hearted charm that it’s really very difficult to nitpick. Where else can you dungeon-crawl, start a farm, enjoy a fun narrative, possess royal powers, slay monsters, and do it all in time for a home-cooked supper? Outside of MMOs, very few games offer this wide a range of compelling activities, nevermind on the millimeter-thin cartridge of a portable. But I’ll come back to that later.
If at least some of this sounds familiar, it’s probably because it is. Those who have played Harvest Moon will find the farming aspects of Rune Factory 4 both familiar and improved, and within the first hour or two of play I was happily shoving turnip seeds into the ground like an agricultural superstar. With the help of some loaner farming tools and an awkward butler-to-be named Vishnal, my fledgling agronomical meadow began to look like something that may actually net me some gold someday. Vishnal even tossed a compliment my way, professing that it was “simply amazing” to see me “handle that hoe.” It’s tough not to love a localization team with a sense of humor.
Farming progresses as you might expect it would, with access to better crops, more efficient tools, and of course, larger profits coming in accordance with time and effort spent. Though a necessary means of living and a staple of the series, it doesn’t take long to realize that farming, though enjoyable, may very well be the least interesting thing to do in Selphia. After your initial exploratory run of the town and its inhabitants, the gravity of your prince or princess duties begins to settle in. Despite regularly mingling with the townsfolk, you’re actually their ruler – thanks to a bizarre turn of events and a healthy dose of amnesia, the player avatar is mistaken for royalty and tasked with running the town. By the time the mishap is cleared up and the real prince is discovered, the lad realizes that the situation is a perfect opportunity to wriggle off the hook, and “generously” dumps his duties onto the player instead.
With everything in place and for the most part explained, Rune Factory 4 post-tutorial finally begins to sink in its talons to take hold, and take hold it does. Each day is an untapped marvel of possibility – your character wakes up dutifully at 6am each morning, and from there the routine you fall into is entirely up to you. At first it seems standard to farm upon waking, but as time passed I began to think, “why not go exploring?” As the days went by I found myself slipping into a pattern of a morning dungeon-crawl, returning back to town around lunch-hour and taking a look at my crops then. Some mornings I’d bring a friend or townsperson along with me (accessed via the simple but clever “BTW” chat function), while other days I’d tackle the wilderness alone.
Once back in town with the day over half-gone, the multitude of options for how to spend one’s time, even at that point, is impressively massive. “It’s 5pm and I haven’t even dealt with any of today’s requests or prince duties!” I’d find myself often thinking, and it’s this balance of stress and then accomplishment upon completing a task that aligns Rune Factory 4 so surprisingly with real life. The thread of “never of having enough time” is pretty much inseparably woven into Western lifestyle and culture at this point, and though we generally play videogames to escape the sometimes-oppressive forces of reality, Rune Factory’s charm ultimately comes from its simultaneous adherence to both real life responsibility and fantasy-world consequences – or lack thereof. Cultivate a thriving farm, befriend your fellow townsfolk, and develop into a beloved leader, and you’ll surely be rewarded. But if you don’t? Your neighbor will still greet you with a smile if you didn’t say “hi” the previous day. Your farm will still be salvageable if you forgot to water your crops. And despite any frustrations they may have, it’s never too late to adjust your sovereign ways and win the approval of the townsfolk. It’s both deliciously simple and overtly idealistic, and it’s what makes Rune Factory’s world so effortlessly pleasant and engrossing.
Of course, feel-good approval of the emotions a game instills can only take it so far, and Rune Factory 4 definitely meets a few pitfalls in its effort to mix Harvest Moon with The Secret of Mana. Dungeon crawling, though at first enjoyable, is easily the game’s most repetitive facet. Despite being able to improve stats, weapons, and gear over time, combat essentially boils down to swinging sharp (or blunt) objects at monsters until they die. The types of foes you’ll encounter do vary, and the fact that multiple bosses with different abilities and attack patterns even exist in a life simulator at all is by itself mighty impressive. That said, be it a boss or an adorable brown bunny, there’s no getting around the fact that, for the most part, all of the game’s enemies are defeated the same way. Exploration is made more fun by a blank map that reveals itself as you traverse new territory, and you can feel less guilty about stabbing adorable creatures when comrade Forte explains that slain monsters are simply “sent to another realm.” Even so, the best way to enjoy dungeons in Rune Factory is still definitely in moderation. Tend to your town and farm, perform your royal duty, and use the remaining time to venture out into the unknown. Trust me, you’ll be much happier.
So what does that leave? Though the game has a handful of additional mini-enterprises to partake in (such as training and befriending monsters or advancing your cooking skill), much of what Rune Factory 4 has to offer is contained within the elements already discussed. What remains is the technical stuff, and unfortunately the technical stuff doesn’t do Rune Factory 4 very many favors.
Despite containing a bevy of lovely character art, the in-game visuals are probably some of the lowest-fi yet seen on the 3DS. They definitely work for most of the game’s intents and purposes (or else you would have heard me complaining far sooner), but that doesn’t change the fact that graphics like this probably could have been pulled off on the original Nintendo DS. On top of all that, the actual stereoscopic 3D effects are practically non-existent, and sometimes even detract from the experience. This may seem like old news to 3D naysayers or folks who literally never move the slider from its off position, but this is coming from somebody who always leaves 3D on, for every game. I don’t expect every 3DS title to offer stereoscopic effects as impressive as Fire Emblem: Awakening or Super Mario 3D Land (both first-party Nintendo titles with the budget and development know-how to pull amazing 3D off), but at the very least I feel most games should be able to get the basics right. The most easy and effective technique I’ve seen is the simple layering of the dialogue box, character art, and background in a given scene. Games like Etrian Odyssey Untold and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward pull it off beautifully, with presumably non-backbreaking effort, so I’m really not sure what Neverland’s excuse is. I was able to get past it in due time, and as mentioned the character art and anime snippets sprinkled here and there are a nice touch. But lots of games have nice character art. Try and spruce up the 3D next time, guys.
All things considered, Rune Factory 4 is a joy to play if it suits your tastes, and as a life sim-turned RPG it manages to be shockingly comprehensive. Its contrast with something like Animal Crossing is twofold – though the sheer amount of things to do can in some ways diminish the fascination with minutia that a game like Animal Crossing encourages, it also means that every moment you’re playing Rune Factory is jam-packed, and that you’re unlikely to see your play sessions devolve into 30-minute-per-day status quo maintenance checks. Whether that’s a plus or a hindrance will depend on the individual player, but it doesn’t change the ultimate verdict about Rune Factory 4. Its world is alive, its inhabitants are kind and simple, and the fun you’ll extract from the experience is continuous, consistent, and will likely last as long as you let it. It’s not perfect and is sometimes unpolished, but I can’t think of many other things I expect out of a videogame that aren’t abundantly available in Neverland’s wondrous world. If you play games to escape, then do not hesitate to play Rune Factory 4.
This review is based on the 3DS exclusive, which was provided to us.