|Dev: Neverland Co.|
|Pub: XSEED Games|
|Release: October 1, 2013|
|Screen Resolution: N/A||Fantasy Violence, Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Use of Alcohol|
by Becky Cunningham
More gamers ought to discover the Rune Factory series, especially with Rune Factory 4's entry onto the scene. Although it's traditionally been described as “Harvest Moon plus RPG dungeons,” that doesn't do justice to the addictive, fun, and high-quality experience to be found in this game. In its fourth portable installment, Rune Factory has elevated itself from a niche series to an experience that can be enjoyed by just about anyone.
For the first time in the Rune Factory series, players start off choosing to be either a male or female character. Despite a mildly sexist dialogue choice that determines the gender selection (choose the excited option to be labeled male and the prissy one to be female), both the male and female character are portrayed in the game as kind, courageous, and powerful. Better yet, the gender choice means that there's a balance between male and female non-player characters, so the game's town feels more real and less like the player's personal harem. It's nice to have plenty of same-sex friends as well as love interests; though unfortunately, same-sex romance still isn't allowed.
An amnesia plot device has become Rune Factory's calling card, so it's no surprise when the player begins as a messenger who gets a bump on the head and literally falls out of the sky onto the friendly dragon god who protects the magical kingdom of Selphia. This dragon mistakes the player for a noble who was supposed to assist with Selphia's development, and having no memories, the main character agrees to live in the castle and act as royalty.
The prince or princess of Selphia has two major responsibilities: running a successful farm on the fields behind the dragon's castle (yes, the game addresses how silly the concept of a farming ruler is), and issuing orders that improve life in the town, such as establishing new festivals or expanding the stock at the local stores. These orders require Prince or Princess Points, which are accrued by completing missions issued by the town's request box. What's great about the request box is that the quests teach the player how to play, give out all the basic tools needed to start work in the game, and provide access to new kinds of crops as the player's farm develops. It's an all-in-one quest and farm development system that takes the tedium out of tutorials and the guesswork out of agriculture.
Farming itself has been improved by the requiring of very little stamina, allowing the player to do plenty of work on the farm and still have tons of energy left to log, mine, or go out adventuring. There's still a bathhouse that restores the player's stamina for a price, but it's hardly necessary until later in the game. Rather than being restricted to a particular season, crops have seasons in which they grow well and others in which they grow poorly. You can grow crops out-of-season if you really want a particular harvest, but grow them at the right time and you'll harvest a huge pile of veggies from a single seed. There's also a soil-quality system that can be exploited by detail-obsessed farmers or largely ignored by more casual players. The farming system's flexibility is just one example of how the game gives players tons of choice in how they play the game.
Adventurous players need not fear, because the dungeon-crawling aspect of Rune Factory 4 is available from the outset. In fact, veterans or curious newbies will find themselves completing the first dungeon before the end of the first week. Rune Factory 4 boasts an extensive and beautiful maze of outdoor areas, which link to bite-sized dungeons. These dungeons gradually increase in length and difficulty level, but it doesn't take long to train up and craft better weapons and armor in order to meet the next challenge. Friends and tamed monsters can accompany the character, and this time around, they can level up and become formidable allies who complement the player's preferred combat style. For instance, magic-using players should try out the knight Forte as a companion, while melee players will love the magical backup that the scholar Arthur brings to the table.
Combat is simple and accessible, requiring a single button for weapon use and easy hot keys for spells and special abilities. Attacking monsters uses as little stamina as farming, so the cumbersome “rune factory” system that required players to grow crops in dungeons has been eliminated. Simply cooking and bringing along a bit of food gives the player enough energy to get through entire dungeons (or dungeon segments later on), making exploration far less tedious.
That lack of tedium extends to many aspects of gameplay. One early development order establishes a hot air-balloon system that transports the player instantly between save points and important locations such as fishing holes and dungeon entrances. Crafting has been streamlined by often requiring general categories of items instead of specific items, reducing the need for backtracking to hunt for elusive item drops. Farming can be largely automated by befriending monsters and setting them to work the fields. Friendship levels with townsfolk and monsters go up quickly, so only players who are in a big hurry to woo a particular romance option need to spring for gifts every day.
With a major cutback in repetitive daily tasks and tedious processes, Rune Factory 4 has concentrated on a longer storyline and more extensive relationships between townspeople. Regular “town events,” which can be scanned for at the player's bedside diary, deepen those relationships and draw the player into town life. An impressive number of interactive festivals keep things lively, and the three-part storyline gives the player lots of motivation to move forward and keep playing from day to day.