Rinse and repeat
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin has been a long time coming, and even though it’s dropping in a super crowded release week, I’m thrilled to see this spunky rice-growing action-RPG platformer finally come out.
As a laid-back agricultural sim with monster-whacking side-scrolling action bits, it’s a pretty chill game, one you can throw yourself into for 20 hours or slowly but surely complete over a few months.
I had high hopes coming in – maybe too high? – but there’s still a lot to like here. Especially the rice.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin (Nintendo Switch [reviewed], PC, PS4]
Publisher: Xseed Games, Marvelous
Released: November 10, 2020
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin feels simultaneously bigger and smaller than expected.
First, the goods news. Sakuna seems big in the sense that the story – a tale of redemption for a spoiled-brat goddess who’s exiled on an island overrun by demons – is surprisingly in-depth and thoughtful. Edelweiss put a lot of care into its Japan-inspired mythos, premise, and characters.
To sum it up, Sakuna’s fate is intertwined with an eccentric family of mortals that has somehow managed to stroll into the heavenly realm. Hijinks ensue, and they’re all left with no choice but to band together, cultivate rice to raise Sakuna’s strength, and ultimately reclaim the wretched island to set things right. It’s an all-around fantastic setup for a game built around a daily and seasonal grind.
Generally speaking, in the morning, you’ll do some quick chores like pulling weeds and tending to the crops as needed in your cozy 3D homestead. At any point, you can pop open an expansive island map and warp to a 2.5D action-platformer level in which you’ll pummel baddies like pig beasts, skeletal warriors, and evil flocks of birds. More often than not, I had plenty of time to clear one full level and poke around in another before deciding to head home. When night falls and enemies grow stronger, you’ll want to go back for dinner (to temporarily boost your stats) and nourishing sleep (to heal).
Apart from Sakuna’s RPG stats that you’ll gradually improve over time, she has a separate “exploration level” that you’ll need to rank up by completing each level thoroughly. Different levels have different alternate objectives beyond just making it to the end. Sometimes, you’ll need to use certain weapon types or slay creatures at night once you’re powerful enough. Other times, you might need to think outside the box to reach tucked-away items or clear a (once-tricky) boss in under 30 seconds.
The more you raise your exploration rank, the more levels you’ll unlock on the map, and the further the story (which is mostly told in cutscenes back at the homestead) will progress. On a few occasions, I only vaguely knew what I was expected to do next. In general, it’s a good idea to keep up with your rice each season, chat with your makeshift family as much as possible, and fully finish every level that’s available.
Here’s the less-than-good news. Sakuna also feels smaller than expected in the sense that the action-platforming levels don’t evolve enough. What you see in the trailers is pretty much what you get.
To be clear, I really like the just-complicated-enough combat system – in a strange way, it reminds me of Super Smash Bros. and Kirby Fighters – and I think the “divine raiment” grapple/dodge ability is fun to wield while it lasts. I enjoyed jumping around, flinging foes, and smashing them into crowds. I can’t speak as highly about the level design, though. It’s fine. Not exciting, or dull, just… fine. I did appreciate seeing new mechanics like noxious air and levitating pools of water, but they can only go so far.
After a few hours of unlocking combat abilities/techniques and mastering aerial-focused combos, you’ll have experienced most of the high points. Many of the stages and enemy encounters feel more or less the same. At a certain point, it’s a matter of exploring to find secret nooks, earning XP and materials, crafting better gear, and fighting the same powered-up foes (even bosses!) over and over again.
It’s a shame that Sakuna‘s favorable first impression doesn’t hold up across the entire experience. It never quite got to the point where I wanted to quit playing, but there were moments where motivation slipped. In the end, the low-key soothing grind and desire to follow the story kept me going strong.
That, and growing rice is satisfying. The more effort you put in, the better stat gains you’ll get out.
I loved painstakingly clearing out rocks, prepping the soil, creating fertilizer with the right ingredients, spacing the plants just so, tinkering with water levels, pulling weeds, and processing the crops with several hands-on steps. It’s extensive! The simulation starts on a simple note before layering in more concepts. Before you can ever get bored, it either adds new twists or speeds up the existing process.
Once you’ve had your fill of the more monotonous tasks (like planting hundreds of individual seeds), you can have the AI assist as a time-saver with small caveats. It’s a fair trade-off. Overall, I dug how cohesively the sim elements slotted into the rest of the game without being overbearing. The seasonal farming affects the day-to-day platforming and vice-versa. None of it feels like an afterthought.
I do need to stress that I wouldn’t buy Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin solely for the simulation side if that’s what is speaking to you most, as it’s not really the main focus. This is an action-platformer first and foremost. It’s a long game. You’ll spend a lot of time caring for crops, but you’ll spend even more time fighting fiends.
Sakuna outstays its welcome, but I’m okay with that, to an extent. Even though the combat encounters and level design fail to ramp up and stay fresh, I was captivated for a good long while. I never fully checked out even when the game was at its most repetitive. There’s a time, place, and mood for this.
If a quirky action game with RPG progression and relaxing agricultural activities seems like your kind of thing, trust your gut on this one. The Nintendo Switch version is solid enough for me to recommend it.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]