Although I’ve toyed around with Stardew Valley, My Time at Portia, and the Harvest Moon franchise, often with limited results despite the invested time and energy, none of these farm management adventures hooked me quite like Rune Factory 4. And while I missed the game’s original release on the 3DS, Nintendo has granted the adventure a second life on the Nintendo Switch with Rune Factory 4 Special. And even though the game opens with the ol’ “amnesia” plot device that seems to plague every other JRPG since the beginning of time, you won’t mind the developers leaning heavily on the hero’s lack of memory as a framework upon which to hang its story. Rune Factory 4 comes with so much charm and magic that you can forgive the game its shortcomings, of which there are few. At every turn, the positives easily overpower and overshadow the negatives.
One glaring negative that I need to get out of the way before continuing involves the way you select your character’s gender. In a nutshell, you encounter a situation very early on, and the way your hero responds determines the gender you’ll play. In fact, I didn’t realize I was selecting my hero’s gender until I’d made my selection. And because I didn’t want my hero to find the situation exciting, the game automatically assumed I wanted to continue the tale as a girl. This approach to gender selection insults everyone, and I’m surprised this section didn’t get overhauled — or removed altogether — since it’s insulting and, frankly, downright infuriating. I realize I’m getting worked up over something many people addressed during Rune Factory 4’s original release, but I’m amazed that the developers didn’t take use this re-release as a way to rectify the problem.
After a series of events aboard an airship, our hero (I went with name Lest) plummets to the earth below and lands in a town called Selphia — right on top of a very large, very kind dragon. For reasons that don’t make a lot of sense, the dragon assumes that Lest is a prince named Arthur. However, it doesn’t take very long for the real prince to show up, but fortunately, he doesn’t have a huge problem allowing Lest to handle some of the more mundane tasks associated with running a kingdom, such as growing a garden, harvesting flowers and vegetables, scheduling festivals, and boldly venturing off into the surrounding lands to battle a wide array of monsters, animals, and supernatural entities. You know, the boring stuff.
Full disclosure: After roughly 30 hours with Rune Factory 4 Special, I have yet to complete the story. That’s because I enjoy chatting up the locals — who have a lot of different things to say depending on the weather, time of day, and where you are in the story — growing and harvesting plants and vegetables, taming monsters to help with my farm, learning different recipes, and a vast array of other activities. The amount of content boggles the mind, and I have a feeling I’ll easily dump another 30 hours (at the very least) into Lest’s journey through Selphia. I’m sure people felt the same way about Stardew Valley, Harvest Moon, and even Animal Crossing, but for some reason, those games didn’t completely charm me. I totally understand why people play them for hours and hours on end, but I didn’t truly appreciate that fact until I experienced Rune Factory 4.
Regardless of which activity you enjoy, whether it’s fishing and animal taming or planting flowers and selling them for cash, you’ll see your hero’s skills gradually increase, allowing you access to better equipment, different seeds for your garden, new weapons, and other things to make your adventure easier and more enjoyable. Even spending time in the local bathhouse improves your bathing skill — yes, your hero can become an expert bather. Of course, you can pick and choose which activities strike your proverbial fancy, but if you have the “completionist gene” and want to experience every single thing Rune Factory 4 has to offer, then you’d better brush up on your time management skills. In other words, prepare to abandon every other game you want to play for the foreseeable future. That may sound like an exaggeration, but trust me — it’s not.
Additionally, and much to my surprise, Rune Factory 4 Special packs a satisfying punch as an action RPG. Granted, the game doesn’t offer a deep combat system and won’t necessarily require anything more than some mindless button mashing, but I still found myself pulled to the world outside of the town so I could smack around creatures great and small. But don’t let the aforementioned simplicity and cutesy graphics lull you into a false sense of security; if you don’t have the skill level and equipment to handle some of the game’s bosses, they will make quick work of you. I found this out the hard way. And the price you’ll pay the local physician for fixing you up after a defeat will take a financial toll on you as well. Early on, you’ll work hard for every penny you earn, and when you lose a large chunk of that because you couldn’t defeat a supernatural foe inside a haunted manor, the loss of income will set your teeth on edge.
I have only one major complaint about Rune Factory 4: the characters. Again, the game’s overall charm will help you look beyond the simplistic townsfolk, but these people don’t have much in the way of personality. They are most definitely tropey, and each one feels distinct and unique. But when it comes to the game’s romance angle, I don’t feel the need to woo any of them. At all. In fact, Rune Factory 4 Special has an additional section that addresses your life once you’ve tied the knot with someone, but at this stage in my journey, I don’t want to marry any of them. The residents of Selphia make for interesting neighbors, but none of them light a fire in my heart. I’m sure I’ll choose someone before I complete my adventure just to experience that aspect of the game, but none of these hopefuls really do it for me. I could have used some genuinely captivating characters, as opposed to a cast of paper-thin, seen-them-before anime tropes.
Much to my pleasant surprise, Rune Factory 4 Special satisfies in a number of thrilling — and relaxing — ways. I literally had to plan out my in-game week so that I could take advantage of weather patterns and take part in the number of festivals and competitions that I’d lined up as one of my many princely duties. I also had to carefully consider whether to investigate ruins or address one of the seemingly endless requests that the local townsfolk made on a daily basis. However, the beauty of the game’s robust content is that you can play for a little or as long as you want. Need to pop in for 15 minutes to harvest your crops or whip up a few recipes? You can do that. Want to drop an hour or two leveling up so you can defeat that troublesome boss at the end of a dungeon? You can do that as well. Just keep one thing in mind: There are only so many hours in the day, and Rune Factory 4 Special wants all of them. And as a faux prince, I am ready to serve my kingdom.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A copy was provided by XSEED Games.
Rune Factory 4 Special delivers a wealth of content in a charming and engaging package that should keep newcomers and long-time fans happy for dozens upon dozens of hours.