Review: Rune Factory 4

At one point in time, Rune Factory was little more than a Harvest Moon game with the ability to brandish a sword and kill stuff. As the franchise progressed, however, it became more complex, and seemingly got away from being just another fantasy farm simulator. Now that the series is on its fourth mainstay installment, and its sixth title overall, the formula has been refined to the point that XSEED’s latest chapter feels like the most polished and complete version of the game yet. Though, it’s not without its fair share of setbacks.

While the narrative has never exactly been front and center in Rune Factory, 4‘s tale is nevertheless highlighted to a greater degree, giving players a plot with more depth and character development than seen in any of the previous games. RF4 places folks in the role of an amnesiac protagonist who arrives in the town of Selphia by total happenstance. While aboard an airship, our fair hero — whose gender is determined by the player — gets into a tussle with a pair of hijackers and is ultimately tossed overboard. The fall doesn’t kill our hero, but all the same leaves them without their memory amidst a strange town with which they are unfamiliar. It’s then that they are taken under the tutelage of a dragon mistress who mistakes them for a prince or princess and introduces him to the townspeople as such. Bearing this new royal title means that the hero must assume the responsibilities of a liege, which serves as the perfect segue into the game’s mechanics and all of its features. While Rune Factory 4‘s story is hardly going to win an award for being the most compelling or creative, it’s still interesting to the point of providing even more reason to pick up the game each day. If nothing else, its characters possess an admirable amount of individuality, granting folks the chance to interact with a variety of cast members ranging from played-out stereotypes to uniquely charming personalities.

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But even with the added emphasis on storytelling, Rune Factory 4 is still very much so about actual gameplay. Historically, that has meant farming and dungeon-delving. While those two aspects are delivered in spades and with much polish, they are flanked by a myriad of features that create an experience ripe with countless possibilities and activities. There’s just a ton of stuff to do in this latest entry. Folks can take requests from Selphia’s denizens in order to earn points that they can then spend on improving the town and bringing in more money. Then there’s the ability to schedule and partake in festivals, some of which are exclusive to the different seasons, and of course there are plenty of NPCs with which to interact and earn their trust.

Of course, like in games of yore, building relationships is a significant part of the Rune Factory experience. Here in 4, we are shown a system that is both new and old. Old in that building rapport with townies ultimately helps players acquire new equipment, crops and the like — and of course players can still befriend and subsequently marry the guy or gal that catches their eye. This is also where a new feature comes into play: it is now possible to establish long-term relationships with love interests prior to marriage. This system is a minor improvement, but a welcome one regardless. Being able to engage in serious relationships, without the parameters of marriage, feels liberating in that it lets folks explore love interests with depth, but without feeling the need to pull the trigger on proposing to a specific person in order to get to know them on a closer level. It’s not a game-changing mechanic, but its inclusion shows that developers Neverland Co. were willing to add another layer to the dating scene.

Like in the previous titles, playing the dating game is a big deal here. Fortunately, there’s a great deal of ladies (or guys) from which to decide. There are also rivals, which makes winning a particular person’s heart all the more challenging. As always, this aspect of Rune Factory 4 is wonderfully realized and one of the parts that we consistently looked forward to when starting up each of our play sessions. The fundamentals of this system haven’t changed much, minus the long-term relationships facet, but it didn’t need to, as the process that’s been in place has been rock solid all along.

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So dating and marriage is only part of Rune Factory 4. The other two portions are its biggest components. Firstly, the farming. While the original RF possessed a large helping of this feature, with each successive installment the farming aspects of the series have seemingly taken a bit more of a backseat. While it’s still an integral piece of the Factory pie, it’s influence has waned some, no doubt. Still, the farming is fun as all get out, especially for those who really enjoy Harvest Moon and other similar titles. So, as in the past, tilling, sewing and watering crops has to happen on a daily basis in order to grow a decent harvest to then sell and make profits. The raising and selling of crops is as fulfilling as it was in RF3, but players should clearly understand that this is a game that only dabbles in such simulation efforts, and does not in fact focus all of its efforts on it.

Where Rune Factory 4 does narrow its focus is in the direction of dungeon-crawling and monster-taming. As aforementioned, players can take on requests from the townsfolk at any point in their adventure. Some of these requests will be village- or farming-based, while others include finding or hunting items within the confines of the game’s labyrinths. Combat as a whole hasn’t been changed much since the last game. Sure, there’s more options available, but they’re not exorbitant or outstandingly noticeable. First and foremost, players will start off possessing only four basic attacks for each weapon. As they increase their battle proficiency (i.e. use a particular weapon often enough), they earn new attacks such as charge attacks, dash attacks and extended combos. It’s good to keep in mind that combat in Rune Factory is all real-time action, so there’s no waiting or turn-based mechanics to be found.

Weapon specializations also exist in a number of areas, and it’s up to each person to decide if and how they want to mix and match weapon skills with different armaments. By doing this, there’s a particular amount of tactical prowess that one must understand to get the most out of each combat scenario. In other words, combat situations can be extremely fast and frenetic, particularly so when evaluating the type and number of enemies players may face. Some battles are extra challenging, while many can be handled by even the most inept action-RPG’er; but what can be agreed upon by both sides of the skill fence is the level of intensity involved with boss battles. These situations are tough, but never to a fault — in fact, they manage to strike a balance that enables players to feel rewarded and satisfied upon completion, but never at the sacrifice of becoming maddeningly difficult. The best part about boss encounters now is the ability to befriend these characters, so that players can later call on them in times of need.

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But bosses aren’t the only monsters to tame; many (read: most) wandering monsters can be tamed and as a result used by the player for a variety of tasks. Tamed creatures can perform all sorts of behavior, but the most notable is that of helping with farm upkeep. It’s a system that allows folks to better spend their time on the many tasks that Rune Factory wants players to pay attention to. Essentially, these monsters become reliable partners and are a gratifying part of hacking and slashing through a dungeon’s caverns and hallways. Outside of taming the previously said bosses, this monster-handling feature hasn’t been altered in the slightest, really; so returning players will know exactly what to expect here in 4.

Then there’s the crafting to speak of. Each weapon (and there are many of them, mind you), armor piece and accessory has its own recipe and level. Stronger weapons clearly require rarer materials and a higher crafting level to produce, with each weapon coming complete with unique passive skills, as well. Players can improve a certain piece of gear ten times in total with various materials, all of which  can supplement the equipment in question with increased statistics and other passive abilities. This is yet another process that brings variety and depth to the RF table.

As an action-RPG, so much comes down to control, though. Fortunately for Rune Factory 4, the game controls wonderfully. While it can be cumbersome to sort through menus to equip a new item or piece of gear, when the action ramps up, being able to move about and swing a bludgeoning item to and fro feels precise. The 3DSs bottom screen is fantastically setup as well, making use of a layout that is logical, uncluttered and generally effective in its purpose and aesthetic design.

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Speaking of aesthetic fidelity, Rune Factory may be one of the only games that, after four primary entries in its franchise, looks nigh identical to the original title. That’s somewhat an exaggeration, and yet Rune Factory 4 is not the best looking game on the 3DS. In actuality, it’s nothing more than average. Its use of vibrant colors is excellent, giving the whole thing a whimsical feel, in addition to the its absolutely stunning fully-animated cutscenes. But regrettably, the majority of the game unfolds through the in-game engine, which looks pixelated at times, and jaggy at others. Surprisingly, we played with the 3D turned all the way up for our entire play, just to take care of the aliasing issues.

While on the topic of presentation, Rune Factory 4 sports a soundtrack that fits its fanciful tone. Since much of the game is light-hearted in nature, the music carries out its role with proficiency, full of bouncy tunes that make roaming around Selphia a delight. It knows when to push a hard line, though, as the boss battles are made all the more heart-pounding by percussive jams that feature fast, wailing guitar licks, suitable for anyone that wants a quick adrenaline rush. But for as good as some of its songs are, 4‘s soundtrack is overall fairly forgettable. It’s not that the arrangements are poor, rather they feel uninspired and on occasion phoned-in.

What’s perhaps more positive is the game’s localization, which has been handled here by JRPG vets, XSEED. The prose are well-written, clever in their approach to characters and resonate where they need to deliver something more serious. In this, the game is a pleasure to read, which is a requirement when its entirety consists of text. XSEED have also done a fantastic job at making each of the characters feel unique, with certain tonal quirks permeating their personalities.

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Closing Comments:

Rune Factory 4 doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from its predecessors, but the combat depth and amount of things to do around town and on the farm will keep players busy for a long, long while. It’s still an action-RPG with sim elements and feels more like Rune Factory 3.5 than a full-fledged sequel, but the old adage of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rings true here. If you haven’t been a fan of Rune Factory in the past, 4 isn’t going to do much to change your mind. Thankfully, the localization is top-notch and the gameplay remains as enjoyable as ever, making the game easily worth its price of admission for returning veterans and RPG enthusiasts alike. It may not be the best 3DS roleplaying experience, but it’s a darn fine one all the same.
Platform: 3DS