I’ll always have fond memories of the original Harvest Moon and Harvest Moon 64. The peaceful routine of watering my crops each day, planning out my investments in advance, talking to my fellow townspeople to learn the ins and outs of their personalities and schedules…it scratched an itch that few other games really do.
Now, you might be asking yourself, “Hold on a sec, this is Rune Factory, not Harvest Moon, what are you going off about?” Rune Factory began as a fantasy spin-off of the Harvest Moon (now Story of Seasons) series, and in fact was made by the same team who worked on the original titles. It takes the classic farm and town life sim and mixes in exploring the wilderness and dungeons, fighting monsters and bosses, and a plot involving magic and the fate of the world.
Rune Factory 4 Special itself is a re-release of the 3DS original (released in October of 2013), bringing it to the switch with a few minor changes here and there. It was released February 25th, 2020.
A Heavenly Arrival
The story of Rune Factory 4 Special begins with you on a journey to the far off kingdom of Selphia to deliver a certain offering to Selphia’s native dragon. Unfortunately, a pair of rather ditzy soldiers have stowed away on your airship and attack you, causing you to lose your memory after getting hit on the head, and subsequently getting tossed overboard when an attempt at interrogation goes horribly wrong.
You fall from the sky, landing on the dragon you were going to visit, and, being mistaken for a prince that was supposed to be visiting soon, are asked to perform his duties. This prince does in fact arrive the next day, but is more than happy to let you keep acting as caretaker of the town. Said duties involve working on the farm behind the castle (Everyone who eats must work, and royalty is no exception here) and performing duties for the townsfolk to earn their trust, so you can then spend that trust on things to better the town. Very noblesse oblige, this kingdom. While you’re concerned about your missing memories and what brought you here, everyone quickly agrees that living a peaceful life in the village is the best thing to do while waiting for your memory to come back.
Of course, being a fantasy game, there’s a bit more to the plot than simple mundane village caretaking. Sometimes what the citizens need is for someone to go investigate one of the nearby dungeons before a problem there becomes a problem for the village. This leads to a grand plot involving humans who have been transformed into monsters, the fate of the “Runeys” that give life to the land, and the vital duty you were taking care of before the attack.
Overall, the plot is fairly basic, and even lampshades a few cliches such as how easily you lost your memory from a simple bump on the head. The main quest can also come at a bit of a slow pace at times, requiring that you wait a few in-game days for things to happen, and occasionally requiring RNG for an event to trigger before you can progress.
However, there’s plenty of stuff to do between waiting. Getting to know the townspeople is as much a part of the story as anything else, and it felt like every day they had something new to say, along with more in-depth random events now and then. I really felt like I was getting to know them better as the game progressed. As you’re told early on, there’s no sense trying to rush recovering your memories, and the best thing to do is to live your life in the meantime. That’s quite true here.
I also quite enjoyed the writing/localization. I genuinely laughed at their jokes and silly moments, though this same silly attitude that surrounded the whole game made it a little difficult to take seriously when it tried to tug at my heartstrings. What I liked most was how despite the large cast of characters, their exaggerated personalities meant they all felt very distinct and memorable. Quite handy when trying to recall who may have liked a certain present, or what weapons they might need as an upgrade.
Meals and Magic
Do you like interconnected systems? Do you like crafting systems? Do you like level-ups? If so, Rune Factory 4 Special delivers in spades. And watering cans, and swords, and nice hats, and…err, ahem. What I meant to say is, Rune Factory 4 Special has a ton of different things to do, which all merge back together.
First and foremost, the Harvest Moon-esque gameplay has remained relatively unchanged since the original. You clear your field, till the soil, plant some seeds, and water them until they’re ready to harvest and sell or cook, then use your profits to repeat. Outside of your field duties you can talk to the various villagers, get to know them better, give them presents, and otherwise grow closer to them, and also participate in festivals with them.
There have been a few changes from the games I grew up with, however. There’s now a system where the field itself will level up, growing crops faster, more reliably, and with better quality especially if you plant a variety of crops and/or give the field a rest with crop rotations. You can still marry villagers you grow extra close to, but now there’s dating involved beforehand, and you can even pursue multiple people at once (though you can only pick one in the end). Even better though, there’s more reasons to foster a relationship with people you’re not interested in marrying, or even those you can’t. Going with the fantasy adventure side of the game, you can recruit villagers you’ve gotten to know (And Forte, who’s always eager to go on patrol even when you’re brand new) as party members.
Speaking of the fantasy adventure side, it plays like plenty of other top-down action RPGs, and I found myself reminded of Square Enix’s Mana series a fair bit. As you progress you’ll learn a variety of spells and special techniques, although your stats and equipment do the lion’s share of the lifting in terms of whether you can finish a fight or not.
What’s interesting is the way the systems interact. While you could technically do one or the other alone, they work best when paired. You could ignore the main quest, tend to your farm, and build a relationship, or you could leave your fields alone and live your life on the road battling monsters and selling their drops to afford what you need…but I wouldn’t advise it.
You’ll soon find that this game has a lot of skills. An almost absurd amount of skills. There is a skill for WALKING for crying out loud. Also things like eating food, bathing, sleeping…yup, they all have skills attached. It feels a bit ridiculous at first, but most of these skills don’t actually directly affect how well you can do the task they come from. You won’t get any better at walking, a bath is still a relaxing experience no matter what, and you start off being able to drop into bed at 4 AM and wake up two hours later bright eyed and bushy tailed. No, what most of the “village life” skills as I like to call them do is raise stats. All skills increase certain stats as they level up. So as a result, walking around town, tending your fields, talking to villagers, and keeping yourself healthy all directly help you adventure better. In turn, exploring dungeons is the primary way of earning the points required to expand your farm, inventory, and town or to find rare items to give as gifts, and both systems can earn ingredients for crafting and benefit from having better gear.
In short, there’s plenty to do, but the developers also do a great job of introducing the various engines slowly enough to keep them from being overwhelming. The lack of an overall time limit that earlier games and spin-offs have had is also a welcome feature, allowing you to tackle all of this at your own pace.
Room to Grow
Unfortunately, presentation is where I’ll have to temper my praise a bit. The sound is great, the music is charming, and there’s an all-star cast of voice actors. Though, the game is only partially voice-acted; certain cutscenes and major story moments are fully voiced, but most conversations with NPCs will have them voice their greeting and that’s about it.
The graphics are similarly quite heartwarming…at least the 3D models and character art are anyway. The smaller sprites used for items feel like they could have used a bit more work and seem like they were just passed through a filter to make the lower resolution sprites look better at a larger size.
What really bugged me, however, was the loading times. Area transitions are fast enough, but the skill and relationship menus in particular always took ages to load, and felt totally unreasonable for a Switch running a 3DS title.
A Treat to Pluck
Overall, whether you should pick up Rune Factory 4 Special comes entirely down to whether you played the original 3DS version or not. There’s a few new features: some things added to the trophy room to celebrate the series, new cutscenes, and a New Game + mode where you start off married. Plus, it being on the Switch instead of the 3DS allows for a higher resolution and a larger screen whether docked or in handheld mode. That said…there’s not a whole lot of actual content added.
If you have NOT played the original Rune Factory 4 however, I highly recommend picking this up. The writing is charming, the gameplay is a wonderful blend of pleasant and exciting, and all the interconnected systems mean even if you’re not directly working on your favorite aspect, you’re still working towards what you love.
Review copy provided by XSEED Games for PC. Screenshots provided by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of XSEED Games.