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Destructoid Review: Rune Factory -- A Fantasy Harvest Moon

6:31 PM on 09.24.2007 // Leigh Alexander

Thinking of the Harvest Moon series, it’s rather amazing that it’s as compelling as it is, considering the entire gameplay revolves around the repetition of simple, mundane behaviors. But add in gentle townsfolk, a place of your own to feel proud of, the ambition of getting married and starting a family, the subtle and slow passage of the days and years, and the change of the seasons year after year marked with festivals and events, and you’ve got a recipe for joygasm.

The latest installment in the Harvest Moon family to reach our shores brings with it an entirely new gameplay element. It’s like Harvest Moon got married to a classic RPG, and Rune Factory was their spankin’ new little baby. Layered over the familiar farm and village life is a fantasy plot peppered with cave-exploring, monster-slaying and level-grinding adventures. Your little farmer’s been given a sword, stats, and a quest to fulfill, and it brings a new dimension to the format. So does it work?

Hit the jump to find out.

Your rather adorable gentleman has just stumbled into the town of Kardia with no memory of who he is or where he comes from. He quickly becomes the pet project of a gorgeous, if eccentric, local girl named Mist, who lets him move in and work on her abandoned farm. Thus far, not so unlike the familiar Harvest Moon premise – but when a monster suddenly appears in the field, your peaceable farming tools quickly become weapons. As it turns out, the local caves are filled with strange machines that summon hordes of these creatures, endangering the environment – and no one knows why. So not only is your job to make your home in Kardia and restore the dilapidated farmland to its former glory, but you must also explore the caves, destroy the evil machines, and perhaps remember your past in the process.

After making your initial acquaintance of the local folk, some of them will gift you with some cheap tools they apparently no longer want, and the cute girl seems more interested in getting you to plow the field than in making conversation at this point. Once you’ve cleaned up the field and sold a few Spring veggies, you can afford a sword, and the town mayor will gift you with your first cave permit. You earn permits to enter the local caves and dangerous mountainous areas by fulfilling certain tasks that demonstrate your competence to Mayor Godwin – usually these revolve around the number of squares you’ve tilled.

You have two gauges – your health and your Rune Points. RPG loyalists can think of them as HP and MP, but to Harvest Moonies, it’s pretty much the same thing as stamina and fatigue. Any skill-based task, whether that’s swinging a sword or watering some seeds, consumes rune points. So do magical spells, which you can add to your repertoire by purchasing spellbooks from the library. Being hit by monsters also consumes your RP along with your HP, and when it’s all gone, all of these activities will start to eat away at your health.

Growing a patch of crops produces a small, glowing “rune” that you can touch to replenish depleted RP – which is one reason it’s advantageous that you’re able to grow crops inside of caves. Another is that each cave has its own seasonal climate, so inside the cave, you can grow crops native to that season year-round. There may be snow on the ground, but you can still grow pineapples inside a cave if its climate is summery.

There are no farm animals in Rune Factory – you cannot buy or raise cows, sheep, chickens or their mundane ilk. Instead, you may befriend and capture the monsters you meet in caves, and set them to work, either on your farm or as your fighting companion. You build a “monster hut” to keep them, and give them feed (which you can purchase or grow yourself) to keep them happy, and some of them may produce goods like eggs or milk depending on what type of beast it is.

As you perform skill-based tasks, you raise your skills; the higher your skill level, the less RP your tools will consume, and you can handle more advanced weaponry. You will also level up overall, making you more resilient against attacks. When you have enough money and lumber, you can extend your house and add a crafting workshop – the blacksmith will improve your weapons and tools with ores you mine in the caves at first, but eventually you can build your own goods and equipment with the leavings of slain monsters. The beasts you defeat don’t actually die, by the way – by a mysterious power, the interlopers are returned to the forest where they once lived happily before being summoned by these evil machines.

So there is quite a lot to do, and a good deal of customizability – theoretically, you could get by only as a dungeon explorer, and do little to no actual farming at all. Similarly, the time you spend fighting in caves can be much or little, but a good combination of both seems ideal. It’s a great way to convene two genres, and may appeal strongly to RPG fans who have not played or enjoyed Harvest Moon games before.

Rune Factory also solves a lot of the issues that have historically frustrated Harvest Moon games – it’s virtually glitch-free, and you can walk over your crop patches, thereby solving the historical issue of “center crop you can never frickin’ water.” Time is a little more forgiving, too, as the days pass more slowly – useful, since there’s now more than just farming to fill your time. Speaking of time, Rune Factory’s event calendar now shows all of the townsfolk’s birthdays, so you needn’t spend time gifting them daily in the hopes of scoring a lucky day. Other new features? The ability to snap a screenshot at any time, and to doodle on it in your house. Your finished work can be swapped with buddies at the wireless communication center – a big, spiky shell on the beach – where you can also trade seeds and goods you’ve made or grown.

At first blush, Rune Factory is also much more visually stunning than any of its predecessors. The world is rendered in vivid, color-washed dimensions – gone are the pixel-square chipsets, replaced with a realistic painted world. One of the key elements in a Harvest Moon title is the potential spouses, of course, so I’d be remiss in failing to mention that the chicks are as absolutely frickin’ beautiful as the environments, every last one (I’m partial, I think, to Rosetta and Tabitha, but it’s tough). But despite the depth of the environs, they seem empty, somehow – the only place where you can find objects or interact with the world in any way is on your own farm or inside a cave; the meadows and paths are vast and lovely, but there isn’t really anything to do there.

Rune Factory is subtitled “A Fantasy Harvest Moon,” and that’s exactly what it is. The villages, shops, landscapes, and even the music seem pulled from a classic RPG. However, despite how well it’s accomplished and the pleasure therein, to Harvest Moon purists, it’ll seem a little jarring. There’s no television and no telephone, two of the best and most convenient ways to keep continuity in your daily life in previous games. Even in earlier Harvest Moon titles, where the TV was just a way to watch silly programs rather than an informational tool, it provided background color that’s sorely missed here.

As if in exchange for the complexity of the leveling system and the variety of available action gameplay options, the social life suffers a bit, too. Rarely do you see the local folks going about their usual routines, walking from one place to another, convening in the restaurant at various hours, or simply enjoying some time by the sea. While everyone still has their usual location patterns, these tend to be simple and limited; it’s tougher to feel part of a community. Personalities are not very distinct, either – while there are some very minor sidequests specific to individuals, you get less of a sense that others’ stories are unfolding alongside yours. Neither do festivals take place as distinct events – you can participate if you have an item for competition, but other than that, people essentially stand around in the streets, and nothing special takes place.

It seems contradictory, but by complicating the formula, the result is, surprisingly, a vaguely emptier experience, not a more fulfilling one. The stat management, level-grinding and fantasy RPG elements are a surprisingly natural fit for the format – but the combination produces something different than traditional fans have come to expect. Those who are attracted to Harvest Moon and other farming/raising sims because of the illusion of having a fleshed-out little life in a cute, pastoral world might find themselves a little disappointed – but those who love simple dungeon-crawler RPG might adore the extra depth the dose of daily life provides. It’s just challenging enough, engaging while still being accessible. In fact, the hardest thing you’ll have to do is decide which one of the hot chicks you want to make babies with.

Score -  8/10

Rent it if: You like other Harvest Moon games but aren't certain this'll float your boat.
Buy it if: You want a simple game that can devour hours and hours of your time.


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