I don’t really like farming simulations, because the concept never really appealed to me in video games. That’s why I never played Harvest Moon until today. I don’t think that’s entirely true, because I’ve researched the history of time: A trio of cities for 3DS which, as many know, is actually Harvest Moon by another name. While I had a lot of fun, I wasn’t convinced by the mechanics of the game. Really, the only series that appealed to me and looks a bit like the genre is Animal Crossing, which only has nuances of generic game ideas like fishing and planting trees and flowers.
As for the Switch, I spent a few hours in Stardew Valley, and while I loved the 16-bit graphics and great soundtrack, it didn’t get my full attention. Maybe it’s just because I was playing other games at the time, but either way, it’s a game I wanted to fall in love with but couldn’t (though I’m willing to download it and try again). I’ve heard that the Rune Factory series is a combination of farming and building relationships between the characters in the Harvest Moon games with some sort of action/adventure element. When I first started reviewing Rune Factory 4 Special, I didn’t really know how much I would like it, but I went into it with an open mind. To my great surprise and delight, I absolutely fell in love with the game. Minutes became hours and hours became days, and before I knew it I had spent 50 hours in my backup file, and I still log in every day to play more!
You begin the game by choosing your gender, then the adventure begins on a blimp where you are captured by villains who want something you have acquired. A fight broke out and you were eventually thrown to the side of the ship and fell to the ground, where you were crushed by a green dragon called Ventusville. Of course, it’s a Japanese RPG where you lose all your memories, and at this point the dragon insists that you must be the new prince (or princess) and asks you to meet everyone in town and start improving them. Sure, the plot is a little light, and frankly, most of the times in the story aren’t that spectacular, but there are a few twists and turns as the game progresses.
It’s not about the story here, it’s about the game cycles, and there are a lot of them. Just outside your bedroom is a field where you can plant seeds and grow flowers, vegetables and fruit. To do this, first clear the ground of debris and then use a hoe to work the soil. Then you have to buy seeds and plant them, then you go out every day and water the plants. Each type of seed requires a certain number of days to fully develop. When they’re done, you can collect them and send them off for money, use them in recipes to make dishes, or even use them as gifts to boost your reputation with your friends in town.
Once you’ve established a strong enough bond with other NPCs, you can ask them to join the adventure. If they have free time, they can do that and you can take them to a world where you fight all kinds of creatures. Like you, they rise with experience and become stronger allies over time. This is where the game gets really fun, because it’s so much fun to explore the world. Defeating monsters often leads to giving up materials that can then be used to create new objects in the city. As you continue your adventure, you’ll eventually earn enough resources and money to buy things like a blacksmith shop, a crafting table, and even a frying pan. These stations can be picked up and placed anywhere. By buying and eating magic bread you learn new recipes and can then create your own weapons, armor, potions, accessories and more.
For most of my adventure, I woke up in the morning to check the plants, water them, harvest them and plant new ones. Then walk around town and talk to locals to learn more about them, develop a story, and increase your reputation. Then I would often go out to fight other monsters or to find certain resources to make myself more powerful the next day. There’s a lot more than what I’m talking about right now, including things like taming monsters that you can use as helpers in the field (so you don’t have to worry about watering and planting seeds every day) or even as battle buddies to get you through tough times.
Each day in the game goes by faster than in reality (a big difference from Animal Crossing), but unlike other games I’ve played, the diary seems to last long enough that you don’t get frustrated if you have to go to bed all the time. Stardew Valley always seemed timeless to me when I played it, and that led to some frustration. Even Dragon Quest Builders 2 had the problem of fighting enemies at night, which soon became obsolete. Usually by midnight I was ready to rest and start a new day. And get some rest, otherwise you might get sick, which is another Pandora’s box we don’t want to deal with.
This is perhaps the biggest limitation of the game: Stamina. Almost every action you take consumes your duration meter, and when it drops to zero, you lose power. There are three ways to refill the meter: Stand still and watch the boat slowly fill up, eat a meal you’ve prepared, or find a source in the wilderness that will allow you to restore some of your meter, or go back to bed and call it a day. There were always so many things I wanted to do in the game (especially in the beginning), but I was limited by this counter. Sometimes I died accidentally because I didn’t pay attention to the exhaustion of my character. I fully understand the reason for this limitation of the game, but mostly I played with a constant spike on my end. As you grow up and move up the ladder, you will have to work with more things that you want to work with, but at the same time, many of the things you want to do will be used more. Knowing what meals to prepare (usually lots of fish) to build your stamina will help you maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Overall, the controls work well, but some odd design decisions continue to bother me. One is that you can’t adapt your tools to some pimples on your face. The way the game works is that you can have either a weapon or a tool, but not both. When you’re in the middle of the action, you’ll encounter monsters that you have to fight with weapons, and on the same screen you’ll see rocks that you can break with a hammer or wood that you can carve with an axe. To do this, go to the submenu and go to the Tools tab, take an item, use it, then go back to the bike and re-equip your weapon for the next screen, which will surely have other enemies. You can customize the special abilities and magic of the other two buttons, but I like to have the freedom to throw my axe and hammer at the other two buttons so I don’t have to play with the menu all the time.
Other minor inconveniences include setting up tools for work and picking up objects. Sometimes it feels like you’re in the right place, but it’s not quite there. This is best highlighted by the red arrow pointing down when you’re in the right place, but often I found myself a little outside the place he wanted me to be. The combat is also a bit clunky at times, especially when you press the mash button and perform a combo that turns into a long animated sequence that can’t be interrupted. I appreciate the very different play styles for the different weapons. I had a lot of fun with the javelin because of its longer range and ability to keep opponents at bay. Short swords and double daggers are great if you want to get close to the monsters and destroy them this way.
The game has trouble with spikes, which is pretty obvious when you play through the action sequences. Often you’ll arrive at the boss’s house and be completely destroyed, which means you’ll have to spend some time in the city growing new plants and learning new recipes to make more resistant objects. Literally, everything you do in the game has a progress bar that can be increased. You just need to keep making new farming tools to increase this level and learn new recipes for more powerful items. I found out that I would have eaten the bread recipe, which suggests that I wasn’t ready to learn more because my level wasn’t high enough. This meant using more of them or making a bunch of them that I didn’t need (mostly I sold or gave them away) so I could learn new things and get stronger.
Hiking, watering, planting, fighting with different weapons, fishing, etc. – All have their own leveling progress indicators, similar to those in The Elder Scrolls V : Skyrim, if you played it. The more you do, the better you get. Going back to the challenge, I would often sneak into the dungeon and beat the boss, then the next story would start and I would get beat up. So the game is balanced so you’re not just focused on the combat, you have to spend time in the city to keep playing.
Rune Factory 4 Special is far from a perfect game, and it’s probably in the graphics department that this is most evident. It’s a remaster of the 3DS game, and it really shows. Some of the characters and monsters consist of so many polygons that it literally looks like they were ripped out of a Nintendo 64 game. Now, I’m not a graphic design snob and I can appreciate artistic design, so some of those spots didn’t bother me at all. However, it is disappointing that the power of the switch is not used for a better visual experience. Fortunately, a game like this doesn’t need high-resolution textures. I just hope that Rune Factory 5, developed from the ground up for the Switch, will really improve in this area.
The music is great everywhere, which is good because you’ll be spending a lot of time in the city. Fortunately, the music changes with the seasons, so you don’t have to worry about it for too long. Overall, I really liked all the songs, some more than others, and because I spent a lot of time cultivating and going through the different menus, the music often got into my head – and I would hum it after a few days. Voice acting is often limited to one or two sentences, but what you hear here is good.
There is an addendum to this game that is difficult to put into words, but suffice it to say that with each day of play that passes, there is always more to do the next morning. I often had to force myself to finish the game because I was often playing longer than expected because there were so many tasks I wanted to complete (over a day!).
I had a lot of fun with the simulation (fishing, cultures, relationships, etc.) and the exploration and combat segments. The action portion of the game is more extensive than I expected, and while it’s not as subtle as something like Zelda, it definitely reminded me of something like Secret of Mana. I wouldn’t even mind if they included multiplayer support for the sequel, because I think it would be fun to play together with two people. This game kind of hints at this by allowing you to lead your companions into battle with you. Imagine how much more fun it would be with a friend!
Despite some minor design issues and poor graphics, I had a good time with the game. If you know nothing about Rune Factory 4 Special, dive in headfirst and get ready for an exciting experience!
Rune plant 4 Special test
- Charts – 5/10
- Sound – 9/10
- Gameplay – 8/10
- Late Call – 9.5/10
Final thoughts : GRAND
Rune Factory 4 Special is one of the most exciting games I’ve played on the Switch so far. There is always something to do: grow more crops, build new equipment, form new relationships, fight monsters or explore new realms. With average graphics and minor control issues, it’s a pleasant surprise and one of my favorite games of the year.
Craig has been covering the video game industry since 1995. His work has been published in various media. He is currently an editor and contributor to Age of Games.
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