"Rune Factory? What the heck is that?"
Well, for one thing, other than Zelda, this is my most beloved game franchise.
I could write a whole book on my love of Rune Factory, a gaming series that began in 2006 as a spin off of the addicting Harvest Moon farming simulator franchise and which entered my life almost spontaneously when I received the first game as a gift for my birthday. It was a rather low key game, something that I suspect was only localized because Yoshifumi Hashimoto, the man behind Harvest Moon, was behind the concept and because the idea of that game with RPG elements sounded really fun. I doubt many people heard about it, simply because it's definitely not the kind of game that gathers a lot of attention, and because, to be honest, the game was ridiculously difficult and troublesome, though not in a usual sense. The thing about Rune Factory is that this is a series that requires dedication. And I mean dedication. This is not a game you pick up casually for a few minutes and put down again. This is a game that constantly urges you, forces to you to use your time efficiently, asks you to complete a hundred tasks every 15 minutes (every minute is an in-game hour), rarely holds your hand, and encourages a routine. There are endless possibilities to the things you can do, and the things you must do, but you mustn't concentrate solely on one aspect and ignore the rest if you want to succeed. For a life sim, this is not a forgiving game.
Among the things all Rune Factory games ask you to do, they can be divided into roughly three categories: farming, exploring and dungeon crawling, and social interaction. The first and last aspects are familiar to anyone who has ever played a Harvest Moon title; farming requires tilling a field, planting seeds, clearing the ground of weeds, branches, and rocks, and watering your crops everyday, while socializing requires talking to people, giving them presents, following their requests, and raising their friendship and love levels (you can always marry the eligible bachelorettes and in later games, bachelors, as long as you follow their requirements). The second aspect, dungeon crawling, adds the Rune Factory only element that separates the franchise from its parent series. These games always include a plot, you see, and it's only through conquering dungeons that you are able to complete that plot and complete the game. Unlike a regular RPG, however, there are a few differences; first of all, the plot is "optional". You are allowed to postpone the dungeons as long as you want and focus on the Harvest Moon only aspects if you wish, though that forfeits your ability to unlock some events that may or may not occur depending how far along you are in the plot. You can, however, decide to use your time to go fishing one day, or to only raise crops, or only attend a festival. If you're more ambitious, you can do all those things in one day and advance the plot as well. The only problem is, you can't do anything indefinitely. Firstly, you have that clock ticking away the hours of the day, and if you don't rest, you can get ill (yes, you catch colds) or have less energy the next day. Secondly, you have a bar of "Rune Points" in addition to your HP bar that dictates how much work you can do in a day. Use up all your RP, and you use your HP for tasks, culminating in you fainting and either dying (as in the original game) or having to pay for treatment at the local clinic. That adds a lot of pressure into using your time wisely, whatever that means to you.
If, however, the plot is more important to you, you can endeavor to focus on that. This is a really difficult thing to do. Every time you swing a weapon, you consume that RP bar, and so you need to do a few things to explore efficiently. One, you must grow crops in dungeons to refill your RP. Secondly, you need to learn how to cook, and craft weapons and accessories, as well as make medicines. This introduces the extremely complex crafting system, which requires you to go to dungeons and grind monsters for item drops, as well as practice crafting and raise your skill to make the items you want and need. In Rune Factory, one does not simply waltz into a store and buy the weapons and armor one needs. One makes them with effort and hours of grinding and hard work. It is also sometimes impossible to advance the plot if you ignore your social interactions, since marriage is often an important element to advancing the plot and friendship levels dictate what events occur. So in some senses, you can't ignore any aspect of the game, though you can postpone them if you wish. It's a complicated game, much more so than I have time to explain, but that's Rune Factory in general. What about this game in particular?
Rune Factory 4, contrary to its name, is actually the sixth installment of the series, and the first released on the 3DS. It is named 4 because there is an unspoken tradition that the handheld games are the main series canon, and the console ones are "side worlds". Like its predecessors before it, you arrive in the Kindgom of Norad as an amnesiac and take up residence in a local town, this time Selphia, and begin your adventure as the warrior/baker/fisherman of the area. There are, of course, improvements. For the first time, you can play as a female character from the start (yeah I know, it took them THAT long), and the game is much longer than usual. The graphics improve (though can still be a tad clunky, with some overlapping sprites and some odd things happening here and there), the gameplay and battle dynamics are usually more fluid, and there's a lot more in terms of convenience. There are also some new functions, such as the Prince/Princess system, by which you give royal edicts and change aspects of the town, as well as improved dating and family relations, by which you can finally have a lover before marriage and have a child that is an active member of the town. Plot wise, there are far more dungeons than usual, and three whole arcs to complete, and the leveling system has gone off the scale with dungeons boasting monsters over level 100 by the end.
Yet, despite all these improvements, I can't help but hold heavy nostalgia for my two favorite games of the series, Rune Factory Frontier on the Wii and the preceding Rune Factory 3. You see, the game is great, and I enjoyed nearly everything about it, but I didn't find myself as attached to the characters, who aren't quite as charismatic as in the former games. My chosen Waifu this time around was the female knight Forte, but unlike usual, where I court all the girls at once (I'm a completionist, really), I didn't enjoy the idea of dating everyone, and not because I didn't want to. The girls were fun and cute, (and the boys as well, if I wanted to play a girl), but no one really stuck out or got under my skin and made me love them as I normally do. On top of that, events are randomly generated, so learning more about someone takes an incredible amount of luck, so much so that in order to marry Forte I had to abandon my precise routine and focus on triggering her marriage flags. Since I didn't strike notes with characters, the plot too was a tad underwhelming. I didn't feel as much emotion at some of the very sad events as I would usually, and finishing the last dungeon isn't as urgent as it usually feels. That really put a damper on my experience, though not so much that I didn't enjoy it tremendously. It was still fun, and really time consuming, but I do wish I had had that intense character connection I usually get.
In the end though, this is a really good game, and one I hope to revisit someday. It's longer, it's difficult, and it has a lot to offer, even if there are some localization issues (katakana in one dialogue, for one thing) and a very nasty glitch in the last battle. If anything, the game just re-sparked my old love for the series, and though it doesn't tend to age well (going back to older games after playing new ones is REALLY disorienting because of how much they improve), I have a feeling I'll be playing some of my older favorites soon. If you've never played any games in this series, I suggest picking this up sometime; it's really addicting, and the games are non-linear so you can play any without really missing anything but nods here and there to old games. I wouldn't give Rune Factory 4 a perfect score, but it was definitely well worth the wait.