A charming timesink
Some have compared Rune Factory to Animal Crossing. There are a few similarities between Nintendo's charming world and Natsume's flagship title. For one, they both suck you in and manage to somehow entertain with their seemingly endless supplies of ordinary tasks, including farming and talking to weirdos. But Rune Factory 4 has several aspects that Animal Crossing: New Leaf does not, including a storyline, action-RPG gameplay, dungeons to explore, and even mates to date and eventually marry.
Look, I love the Animal Crossing franchise, but if you want to get lost in a world, Rune Factory 4 has so much more to offer.
Rune Factory 4 (3DS)
You are literally dropped into the world of Rune Factory 4 after falling out of an airship -- an accident happens on the way to delivering an important item. The hero's (a boy or girl, your choice) body doesn't suffer, but their memory does. No worries, though, as you fall into a pretty nice situation. The town you land in, Selphia, just happens to be protected by one of the four legendary dragons, Ventuswill.
As luck would have it, Ventuswill really likes you and sees something in you, even with your total lack of memory. She mistakes you for royalty that was expected to visit the town. But when that royalty, a prince, does show up, it turns out that he's looking for some time off. The prince lets you act as royalty in his place while you work to get your memory back. Ventuswill gives you a home in her castle, the prince lets you use his name, and your servants are there for anything else needed.
Wow, I need to fall out of an airship some time!
Those that have played games from Natsume's other top franchise, Harvest Moon, will instantly feel familiar with a lot of Rune Factory 4's early gameplay. Players are immediately introduced to the garden behind their castle home, where they'll plant and tend to crops, selling them for profit. And later on, capturing monsters as pets to keep in your farm is not unlike ranching. Natsume's oddly adorable farming simulation gameplay is fully intact here in RF4, and is engrossing enough to feel like a game on its own.
But then there's a whole other side to Rune Factory 4 with its action-RPG gameplay. Fans of games like Secret of Mana will likely enjoy the fast, accessible swordplay. It's a no-frills slash-and-run type of affair. A magic/skill system lets you pick any two acquired skills -- anything from fireballs to super uppercuts -- to be assigned to face buttons, letting you use them as long as you have points available. From battles players will earn gold and gather items to build up their equipment. Victories bring more skills and power to play with -- pretty standard action-RPG systems, really.
This battle system is light and enjoyable, matching perfectly with the other aspects of the game. It's far from complex, but this goes a long way towards keeping things fun. My advice? Don't think too hard about it. Just jump in, sword a-swinging. I've put dozens of hours into exploring maps and dungeons, and have yet to tire of taking down baddies. Dungeon bosses are a nice challenge, though they can be a bit tough/cheap when you have the difficulty on its highest setting.
Dying comes with a high penalty. If you're done in, you'll awake in a doctor's office, slammed with a bill that feels unnecessarily high. On the hard setting I've lost my entire fortune countless times!
It's also more than happy to tell you about your progress -- I've seen so many level and skill-up notifications in the past week that they started to go to my head.
A quest giver gradually introduces players to the almost countless number of other gameplay diversions in Rune Factory 4. Through these simple quests, players will learn the basics of skills like cooking, fishing, and flower growing. Later, crafting and chemistry come into play for more advanced skill exploration. The brilliance here is that all of these aspects intertwine. For example, you could take up fishing to try to capture the biggest pike or squid for recognition, and then maybe take the squid back to the kitchen to make squid sashimi. The pike could be sold, or entered in a fishing contest. It's up to you -- there's no right or wrong.
And let's not forget our princely (or princess-ly, for female characters) duties as the prince's stand-in. Players will use acquired royalty points to do things like upgrade the town's shops, or add buildings to their farms. The main goal is to increase tourism in Selphia, so working up enough points to host town events, like cook-offs and festivals, is advised, and keeps things lively around town.
Even with all of this, there's one more gameplay aspect that, at least for me, eventually overshadowed the rest: relationships and dating. I think that if you boil all of the varied gameplay aspects down, what you're left with is flirting with townsfolk. It starts as small talk, which hopefully leads to dates (they call them adventures), relationships, and even marriage. Every townsperson has a gauge that you'll work to level up through your choice of actions. The girl I'm into (I'll never tell!) likes fresh fruit, so I bring her apples when I come across them. The one you fancy may like to beat up monsters, so you should do that together. It's on you to learn what the apple of your eye likes. Again, there's no right or wrong -- you'll have to figure out how to lay on the appropriate type of charm on your own.
Players will likely fall into a sort of daily grind with all of these things to tend to. My daily rotation had me tending to my garden in the morning, meeting townsfolk and running quests in the afternoon, venturing out into dungeons in the evening, and offering wares for sale in the evening, all before hitting the sack to do it again the next game day.
Somehow, story segments seem to magically weave their way into your daily grind, which has their tale unfolding in a very natural way. Often, I was surprised by story progression segments, totally unaware that I flagged them. It's not the deepest story, but it's certainly fitting for the game's world, as well as interesting enough to keep me tuned in.
But, depending on your tastes, that story may not be enough to keep you going. The issue some may have with Rune Factory 4 is that it offers next to nothing in the way of guidance. There's nothing there to tell you how to play or what to do next, let alone the deeper aspects of the crafting or combat systems. You're own your own; it seems that they're hoping you'll find something you enjoy doing.
Unfortunately, those that don't find something to enjoy aren't going to feel fulfilled by running around trying to find it. If you're the type that needs to have some kind of idea of what's going to happen next, you may find RF4 frustrating with its very loose structure. On the other hand, if you're perfectly content in carrying out the day-to-day chores that the game has you doing, you'll be fine. I think fans of Animal Crossing will be more than pleased.
I can't tell you how many times I completely lost track of time while playing Rune Factory 4. I'd get hung up on one particular thing, like, hunting down an ingredient for a dish I wanted to prepare, and then I'd look up and see that it was 2:30 a.m.
Learning all of the game's various systems is a bit of work, but once I had them down, I could get directly to doing what I wanted to do most: win my girl's heart. There's rarely a dull moment with the lively townspeople and countless quests. It sounds like a lot to handle, but you are free to do what you enjoy, skipping anything you don't find fun. That's what I enjoyed most about this game.
Rune Factory 4 isn't the deepest or most structured game out there, but it more than makes up for it with its charm and wide-open freedom. If you are willing to put in the time to learn its varied systems, I think you'll find that this game is an absolute delight.
THE VERDICT - Rune Factory 4
Reviewed by Dale North