There are certain games that barely need to be reviewed. A simple "If you like this sort of thing, you'll like this game" is all anyone really needs to know. I'm talking about games like Halo 3, Rock Band 2, Mega Man 9; games that fans of their genres will absolutely love, but non-fans just won't.
Rune Factory: Frontier (Wii)
Publisher: Marvelous Entertainment/XSeed Games
Released: March 17, 2009
I've been trying to get this review finished for weeks. It's probably been the toughest assignment I've done for Destructoid yet, both due to the game's massive size, and also due to a certain indescribable quality the game possesses. Just last week I was telling Anthony Burch that reviewing Rune Factory: Frontier is like trying to review the TV show Friends one episode at a time. It's all technically above average, all a little bland, but most of all, its body of work is so nondescript and inoffensive that it's really hard to even talk about.
Rune Factory: Frontier is a game about a slightly girly amnesiac (cliché) who also happens to be the only one in his town who can save it (cliché) from a mysterious force (cliché) by venturing into a giant, psychic, flying stone whale and doing it favors (not cliché). There is a lot more to the story where that came from, but you might not find that out for hours, days, or even weeks of play time. Rune Factory: Frontier does little to nothing to try to move you forward in the story. You really have to dig (or study an FAQ) to figure out how to trigger 90% of the game's story events (which vary from pressuring a chubby girl into losing weight to passing out from extreme arousal in a bath house).
Thing is, the game really doesn't need a story to keep you playing. There is so much to do at any given moment that most of the time you'll be too busy to care about the next plot event. The game starts off fairly slowly, allowing you only to talk with people, plant seeds, and water plants. This gives you a little time to start flirting with the game's twelve eligible bachelorettes, get used to the controls, and figure out where everything is in town. Next, you'll get enough money to buy a sword, and start exploring dungeons. After that, you get an axe, which doubles as a weapon and a lumber clearing tool. Clear some lumber, then you can build a barn to store captured monsters. After that, you can build a forge to actually build your own weapons. Then some girl gives you a fishing pole. Then you get a kitchen. Then you get a vacuum cleaner that sucks multi-colored kodama-type things out of the air so you can use them to purify the landscape and make magic spells, and on and on and on.
Managing all this stuff makes everything feel like a constant race. The game has its own clock and calendar, where each real-life second is one in-game minute. That gives you 24 minutes to do everything you need to get done that day, including getting a little sleep (forget to sleep and your character collapses, wakes up late the next day, and usually has a cold). That means you have to get to know every girl's schedule; learn when and how to flirt with them; know when to get your chores done in order to get your produce ready for sale; and make time to do "anytime" stuff like fish, tend to farm life, and organize the town's runeys -- all while killing monsters, exploring, and collecting items and weapons. You never feel like there is quite enough time to do it all, which can easily lead to the "I'll just do this one more thing" game addiction, which, in turn, can lead to hours of play.
There is also the stress of constantly managing your stamina. Just about every physically strenuous action you take in the game (swing a sword, swing a hoe, etc.) depletes your stamina just a little bit. If you run out of stamina, you faint and wake up the next day in the hospital (again, usually with a cold). Managing your stamina is actually more important that managing your HP. Unless I unexpectedly ran into a particularly devastating monster, I rarely got killed in my play-through of Rune Factory: Frontier. That's also because you can warp out of a dungeon any time with a press of the "2" button, an important feature in a game that actually "kills" you if you attack too many enemies.
To balance out the constant hustle of time/stamina/resource management are the game's almost painfully serene environment and characters. The game looks and sounds like one of the lighter PS2 titles from Square Enix. It does nothing to push the limits of what the Wii can do, but it still offers the player a pleasant, almost overly relaxing environment to spend time in. Everything looks extremely soft and approachable, all the town's women are sweet and not too sexy, and even the town's resident dysthymic is helpful and charming (in his own depressing sort of way). No matter how stressed out you are about needing to explore that dungeon a little further or get all your turnips sold before the turnip broker's house closes, you'll be feeling somewhat relaxed the whole time. It's downright Flower-rific.
This focus on the light and sweet is especially apparent in the game's monster designs. All of the game's serious opponents seem like after-thoughts, whereas the silly ones all look interesting and new. It's really weird to see how uninspired and textbook the "monsters" look (goblins, orcs, ghosts, giant ants), when the game's "animal friends" look so cute and interesting (mushroom heads with giant tongues, weird sheep creatures, dog-cows, violent squirrels). Either way, there are about seventy different monsters in the game, and with the two completely different styles of design in effect, you'll never really know what to expect.
There is a similar split in the game's combat system. The basics are pretty bland hack-and-slash, but things get significantly more interesting after you've caught a few monsters (which requires a barn and a grooming brush). In order to capture a monster, you first have to win it over by grooming it, which involves you combing its hair and saying "there, there" while it's slashing/biting/kicking your ass. You can capture any monster in the game (save bosses), and depending on their type, they'll help you in battle, produce milk or wool for you, etc., etc. It's Pokémon meets Harvest Moon meets Zelda -- but without the sub-weapons.
Don't get the wrong idea from the fact that I've spent two whole paragraphs focusing on the game's monsters and combat. That part of the game probably takes up less then a third of the actual gameplay, and boy, does the game have a lot of gamplay. If you're a mathematician, you've probably already figured out that an in-game week takes a about an hour and a half to get through, which means an in-game month takes six hours to through, and a full in-game year takes 72 hours. You need to get through the seasons to unlock many of the game's central story elements, as well as pay witness to the "extra" stuff like holidays, birthdays, and so on. It will take even longer than 72 hours to see everything though, as you'll need to start over and marry each of the game's eligible ladies to see every side of them. It's stuff like that leads a lot of Rune Factory: Frontier fans to say the game is basically endless; finding all the items, leveling every stat and weapon to the max, seeing all the cinemas, forming all the relationships, and seeing every single time-based event is nearly impossible. Even if you cut a lot of corners, you're looking at 60 hours of fun, at least, before the core story is over.
So did Rune Factory: Frontier turn me into a full-fledged fan of the farming sim genre? No, not entirely, but it was definitely the most fun I've ever had with a Harvest Moon-like title. I enjoyed pretty much every moment of my time with game, and the experience certainly has its share of novelty, but it's just a little too forgettable for me to add it to my all-time favorites list. Sure, a lot of the "relationship moments" are pretty special (still can't believe I had to talk a girl into losing weight in a videogame, and it was actually the right choice), but even more of them are tired and predictable from a storytelling standpoint. Still, I can't say that there is anything else quite like Rune Factory: Frontier on home consoles. The game really is equal parts farming, fighting, dating and animal catching, all intertwined into a cohesive whole. That's an experience worth renting (with the potential to buy) for a fan of any of those four genres. Just don't expect a fully fleshed out battle system or tons of narrative originality, and you will find some fun here.
Score: 7.5 -- Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)
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