Game Review

by Todd Ciolek,

Rune Factory 4

Nintendo 3DS

Rune Factory 4
Upon landing in a small town, you're unexpectedly promoted to royalty and charged with expanding and improving life for all the residents of Selphia. As you reign as prince or princess of the realm, your duties involve farming, banking, and building just as much as they do the usual monster-slaying quests.
There are dangers all around the town of Selphia. A forest maze teems with goblins. Half-flooded ruins house fierce manticores and devil-steeds. There's even a haunted house, complete with ghosts and grim reapers. All of these places hide secrets that will twist the fate of the entire kingdom.

But that doesn't matter now, because the pink turnips are ready to harvest. You want to plant moondrop flowers next so you have something to show for the town festival, and the entire field needs watering. You'd like to raise more woolies and buffamoos as well, but the barn needs to be bigger for that, so off you go to chop wood and break stones for building material. And Margaret's birthday is tomorrow. She seems to like fruit an awful lot. Then again, she's an elf and a musician, so she might prefer something more tasteful and less ephemeral. So goes a day in Rune Factory 4.

The Rune Factory games are known for mixing the farmland life of Harvest Moon with the strains of a fantasy-RPG, and the fourth's demands become obvious very early. Whether you choose to play as a boy named Lest or a girl named Frey, your predicament is the same: en route to the town of Selphia, you're kicked off an airship and, miraculously, land on top of Selphia's patron dragon-god, Ventuswill. After some convoluted arrangement of magically entwined destinies and public-relations damage control, you're named the prince or princess and placed in charge of all the town's workings. The buildings. The farming. The tourism. The economy. All of that.

At first you're given a field, a hoe, some seeds, and the simple goal of growing crops to sell. There's much more to Selphia, though, and you'll soon tame monsters for livestock, plan festivals to boost morale, and master such arts as cooking and blacksmithery. This serves the various merchants and travelers who roam the streets, bustling as much as a town with a dozen occupants can bustle.

The people of Selphia are hardly faceless shopkeepers, and you soon come to know the predilections of the relentlessly chipper chef Porcoline, amateur detective and florist Illuminata, dyspeptic beast-man Dylas, and every other citizen. Some guard their preferences well. Others are easily sketched out. And royal guard Forte tells you time and time again that she doesn't like sweet stuff, so you shouldn't ply her with candies and cake, whatever you do. Especially not chocolate cake.

Rune Factory 4 is rarely at a loss. Should you grow tired of planting turnips, there are dishes to cook and barns to build. Should fishing the rivers, lakes, and moats get boring, there are recipes to learn and swords to forge. Should such solitary pursuits run dry, there are townsfolk to befriend. The pace is muddled at first by explanations of day-to-day tasks, but soon everything coalesces into a brisk flow where bringing in a potato crop for sleepyheaded butler Clorica is a matter of national import. It's sweet, lightweight stuff, nicely voiced and competently localized. And if it's driven less by actual comedy than by idiosyncratic clichés we've all seen before, everything takes a firm hold once you're in the thick of it all.

For those times when life about town strikes a lull, there's the action-RPG side of Rune Factory 4. When exploring the watery temples and monster-infested caverns around Selphia, Frey and Lest outfit themselves with all sorts of weapons and special attacks, including the sort they've forged themselves. Yet they want for dexterity—or at least the inbuilt rolling dodge of developer Neverland's recent Lufia remake. A speedy interface makes it easy to switch between tools, weapons, and items, but it works far better during backyard chores than close-range combat. Despite a sturdy graphics engine, the screen is often crowded, and it's too easy for enemies to swarm and overwhelm you when you're trying to gulp a healing potion or a sushi platter. More hurdles arise if characters accompany you into dungeons, and you're forced to feed them curatives in the midst of a boss fight.

Rune Factory 4's action-RPG questing wouldn't stand well on its own. It's careless in its challenges and lazy in its scenery, returning to the same areas several times throughout its lengthy, segmented tale. Good thing it's just another part of the world, another errand to run when the buffamoos are fed and the cooking contest is over.

The same goes for the storyline and the jarring turn it takes. Having laid down a gentle atmosphere, Rune Factory 4 suddenly injects a load of Tragic RPG Plot Twists, trotting out numerous treadbare ideas in a misguided attempt at gravitas. It's like watching a children's puppet show pivot into a cancer drama.

And it works. It shouldn't, but it does.

Melodramatic as it gets, Rune Factory 4 never loses sight of itself, of the humdrum life made vital. You're still farming, selling, and generally running the kingdom amid grim events, and it makes every hackneyed moment just a bit more meaningful. It's far easier to care about someone's trite, vengeance-crazed backstory when you've put time and recipes toward making them a friend—or perhaps more.

True to long-standing series traditions, marriage looms large in Rune Factory 4. Lest can court six women and Frey six men (same-sex marriage remains off-limits), and they're free to spread plenty of affection otherwise. A “BTW” button often appears to let you end a conversation with a confession of love for just about anyone, including an elderly butler, married couples, and the dragon-deity herself. Most of them shrug it off as a joke.

Eventually things get serious. You might maintain a string of lovers, flirting with all six prospective spouses, picking out pet names for each other, and making it all the more callous when you settle down with only one of them, you vile little heartbreaker. Romance in Rune Factory 4 seldom grows complex (at least not when the artwork makes characters look all of 12 years old), but it goes beyond the range of other RPGs with dating simulators attached. You aren't just finding some puppyish teenage love. You're getting married, having children, and adding another little story to the world you've created.

That's the remarkable feat of Rune Factory 4: making an afternoon in the garden or a quiet evening with the family more important than a garishly epic struggle against some centuries-old demon. There are bigger, prettier, and more refined experiences to be found elsewhere, but few games this year have the consistent rewards of Rune Factory 4.

Overall : B+
Graphics : B-
Sound/Music : B
Gameplay : B
Presentation : B+

+ Town upkeep and adventuring allow very few dull moments
Control system can't handle the tenser battles

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