Review: Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin
A game like Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin feels like an eventual inevitability.
I’ve noted before that Demon’s Souls is a game that’s spawned a lot of imitations, largely because… well, it has. But it seems like Stardew Valley has also spawned a number of imitators in a similar vein, and it’s honestly not surprising why. While that title itself is in many ways a love letter to the Harvest Moon games (which has a weird history vis-a-vis titles and publishing rights that I’m not getting into here), it’s fairly recent that people have started taking that basic formula of “farm then dungeon crawl then back to farming” in a more serious direction.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is in that vein in a fashion, but it’s also a very distinct entity for one specific reason: unlike most games of this type, this is not a game in which you get to manage your farm to produce whatever you want however you want it. It trades in some of the wide-open customization these games often have for a more targeted approach.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin releases on November 10th, 2020 on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and Steam. The Switch version was played for this review.
Rice, Rice Baby
The setup for the story is pretty straightforward. Sakuna, the daughter of a harvest deity and a war god, is a spoiled brat who meets a group of humans fleeing war and famine on a bridge from the Lower Realms (where humans live) into the Lofty Realm (where the gods live). After completely failing to stop them getting into the divine city, she finds them snacking on her hoarded rice for the chief goddess… and, being an impulsive and spoiled brat, she winds up blowing up her entire storehouse whilst trying (and failing) to catch up with them.
Hello, plot setup for why the playable character is exiled to the Demon Isle to render it livable for herself and her unwanted allies, forcing her to act as both a martial force and the root of all the farming in the area.
If the plot sounds kind of boilerplate, trust me, that’s just because it kind of is. But that’s perfectly fine. Anyone who has played any farming sim-style game knows that these things usually have an almost entirely player-driven plot, and while this game has a lot more story going on than those (to the point where there is indeed a “main plot” to be following), it’s clear that the main point here is to get you to like these people, first and foremost.
And it succeeds pretty well at that. Sakuna herself is a tricky character to write right from the premise, since she both has to be arrogant and deific while also still remaining likable… and she manages to just hit that. She definitely deserves her punishment, but you also can’t help but feel for her. She’s literally never had to take responsibility for this much in her life before; it’s not hard to believe that she would be struggling to suddenly decipher how to do so.
The supporting cast, meanwhile, is similarly fun. I’m particularly fond of Yui, the little girl of the group; she’s demure, but she’s also kind of a brat and makes it clear that she doesn’t really like the people she’s wound up joined at the hip with. And as the game steadily progresses, you get the sense of all these characters growing closer, gradually relying upon one another and serving as a found family.
Of course, there’s a larger plot humming in the background, but in many ways the game feels like it’s easing you into that. It’s one of those stories that lets you just gradually grow to like these characters and then eventually gives them some stakes to worry over. That’s to its credit.
Ruin Down The House
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is a game of halves. This is not surprising; most games of this genre are. And the first half is… rice.
No, really. It’s rice. It’s all rice. Where most games in the farming life sim let you plant whatever you want and offer you a generic sort of farming experience, this is a game that knows exactly what it wants to be about and thus devotes all of its energy into making a detailed simulation of farming rice. It’s abstracted, of course, but your core farming mechanic is about all the hard work necessary to prep a rice paddy, from working the soil to planting the seedlings to keeping the water level just right.
This isn’t just an abstract thing, either. Since Sakuna is a deity of both war and agriculture, her own strength is directly linked to the rice harvest. Do a better job of harvesting and planting, and you wind up with better stats to face the coming year.
It also means you have more food, which is important. Every night, you and the humans in your care need to eat. Rice can be used for a lot of things, but since rice can only really be obtained once every year, you want as much of it as you can get. And that frees you up to make more ingredients for more elaborate dishes…
Of course, I have no knowledge of how to actually plant or manage a rice farm, so I can’t say with certainty how accurate it is. But it is certainly detailed, and since Sakuna herself is barely supposed to know about rice farming, the whole thing winds up hanging together very well. And it’s fun as you keep working at the rice crop, in the vaguely frustrating way that a really loving sim of this sort tends to be fun. You know you’re probably not doing this quite right, but you also feel like you’re kind of not supposed to be doing it right at first.
But you won’t get far unless you also spend your time out in the world, at which point the game switches to a side-scrolling view and becomes a solid platformer of running, jumping, and slashing. While you don’t get experience from beating on enemies, you do get ingredients and materials used to make new armor and weapons. You also have specific combat skills that level up, allowing you to hit harder. So there is a definite sense of progress even if smacking enemies won’t level you up per se.
If that weren’t all good enough (and it is), the platforming segments have Sakuna’s divine raiment, a sort of lengthy sticky line that she can use to clamber up to higher spots like a grappling hook, pull herself to enemies, or yank enemies around in throws. It’s a remarkably fun little tool, one that makes the platforming feel great just as you hop around.
Usually with titles like this, one side feels far more developed than the other in terms of overall development effort, and I think that the game does slightly tilt toward being more of a farming sim with platforming than a solid platformer with farming as a side activity. But it’s a very near thing, and neither side feels like it got the short end of the stick. That’s a positive in my book.
This game is freaking gorgeous. The whole thing just oozes with the sort of naturalistic affection for rural Japan that you’d expect to see in something out of Studio Ghibli, with a loving recreation of sunsets, sunrises, caves, forests… it’s notable that the game manages to make even dreary rainstorms look somehow inviting. I’m particularly fond of the water effects, since (obviously) maintaining the water level in the paddy is important.
Of course, that does bring up a slight problem – a lot of the elements of the game, at least to start with, are not given any sort of UI to guide you. How far apart should you plant the rice seedlings? I don’t know! And the game barely tells you. How high should the water be in the paddy? Well, you get some vague tips, but there’s no gauge or sign that they’re overfull or anything.
This does change as you put more work in, but it’s still kind of frustrating to me. Similarly, some of the tedium of finishing the rice harvest feels unnecessary and hard to follow the key prompts. It’s a minor but persistent issue.
Musically, the game is nothing special. The tunes are all solid, but they’re not terribly memorable at least to me. Voice-wise it’s another story, though; I feel like everyone is well-cast with the English voices and carries a real weight of personality through their interactions. They’re alternately funny and endearing all the way through, which means that spending time with them is pretty uniformly a joy.
The biggest mark against Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is that this is a game which requires you to love it in its entirety. You cannot play this game solely as a farming simulator or solely as a platforming action game; you have to be willing to fumble through the rice farming as you do the platforming you’re much better at.
Or maybe fumble through platforming to get back to that hardcore rice farming sim you wanted, to be fair. I don’t know your life.
But the whole thing is presented with such care, patient attention to detail, and downright love that it’s impossible not to enjoy the heck out of this game. It’s the sort of game that I highly recommend to people who may naturally only be inclined to one side or the other of this particular melange, because you might find yourself enjoying it more than you expected. Sit back, relax, and let the game soak over you. Take a breath. Plant the rice. Watch the water.
Don’t ruin it.
Game provided by XSEED Games for purposes of review. All screenshots courtesy of XSEED Games.