With so many things to do in this microcosm of a game, where do you even start?
Rune Factory 4, the sixth title in Neverland Co’s hit series, is easily the most immersive and well-rounded installment yet. Rune Factory has always been more expansive than its sister series Harvest Moon, building off of the social and farming focus to include battles and broader skill sets. Rune Factory 4 is no different, adding in new elements and polishing previous mainstays. With so much to see and do within the game, this simulation is perfectly set up to sabotage any social life you have as you get sucked into the world of Selphia and all it has to offer.
True to tradition, players take control of an amnesiac hero, whose gender is determined by the player for the first time in the series. Our hero is travelling by airship on a mission to deliver a mysterious object to the god-dragon, Lady Ventiswell, in the town of Selphia. Unfortunately, no sooner have they announced their intention when looters show up, knocking out the protagonist and all their memories. The object falls off the airship, followed soon by our hero.
Usually a fall from that height would prove deadly, but luck is on our side as Lady Ventiswell’s head conveniently breaks the hero’s fall as they land in Selphia’s palace. Ventiswell, or Venti, mistakes the player for the prince they’ve been expecting and trains you to rule over the town. The real prince does show up soon, but is perfectly okay with the hero taking over, preferring to focus on his own business interests in town instead.
The role of town royal creates a perfect segue into the game’s mechanics. As a royal, players are responsible for the town’s well being, and can increase their royal power by accumulating prince or princess points by attracting tourists or helping out the townsfolk. These points can be used to throw festivals, expand businesses, open shops, obtain various licenses, increase different storage spaces, or even to decide who wakes you up in the morning.
Festivals are a fun diversion, and the citizens of Selphia certainly find a reason to celebrate on a near weekly basis. These holidays are usually competitive and wonderfully varied, so they never grow old. They can range from simple farming competitions where you advocate for your chosen plant, fishing competitions, or even fun mini-games such as the Turnip festival where you throw balls at falling turnips worth different points.
If you manage to place in a festival (and don’t think it’s a done deal, the townsfolk don’t take festivals lightly) a trophy appears in your basement. If the trophy was for a mini-game festival, you’ll be allowed to play it again any time you want by inspecting it. The trophy room also contains the high and low records for each fish you catch, the option to change the difficulty level for the game, and the winning pictures, complete with character commentary, for an illustration contest Neverland Co. had before the game’s release.
Once unlocked, farming opens up a world of possibilities as different crops can be used in cooking, forging, crafting, medicine, as gifts, or as a simple means of income through shipping. Each plant has an ideal growing season, takes a different amount of time to grow, and can be easy or hard on the soil. A good supply of fertilizer is needed to upkeep the soil’s richness, and monsters can be asked to help out with the farm’s daily chores, which of course means they’ll need a daily supply of food as well.
The townsfolk provide their own source of distraction of course, and the game does a good job at keeping daily interactions fresh and interesting. Not only are there normal conversations to have with everyone, but also optional mini-adventures to partake in. These can range from simply running around town on a comical wild goose chase, to more involved stories that take you back to previously completed dungeons as you unravel a new mystery. Characters all have their own quirks and some conversations are so surprising you may find yourself laughing out loud.
The dating scene in Rune Factory 4 has been expanded, most notably with the addition of long-term relationships before marriage. It’s a small but welcome addition, which allows you the freedom to learn more about the characters without the permanent commitment of wedlock, and there is definitely a wide selection of characters to choose from. The inevitable inclusion of rivals also serve to spice up the dating scene, as it adds a bit of challenge to winning over your chosen guy or gal.
The last heavy hitter for attention is, of course, the battles. In past games this is where the series really shines, and Rune Factory 4 is no different. The main story requires players to traverse through dungeons and complete boss battles if they hope to find out what happens next in Selphia’s saga, but there are plenty of other reasons to charge into the dangers of battle, such as completing townsfolk’s requests, finding items, and leveling up different magic and weapon skillsets.
The game does a good job at increasing battle difficulty as you progress, and even posts warning signs suggesting what level your character should be at before entering certain areas. If grinding is your thing, enemies and items do randomly respawn after you leave an area, so you can literally run back and forth between sections, including boss battles if you’re looking for really big points.
It is important to consider befriending monsters, which can be done by carefully offering gifts as they try to attack you. Townsfolk can also join your party (up to two monsters and/or people at a time) if they aren’t busy and if they like you enough. Each monster and person has their own specialties and weaknesses which can be important to take into consideration, but sometimes it’s just funny to pick someone like the sweet nurse or lazy blacksmith and force them into battle.
Dungeon crawling can be frustrating, especially when you don’t know where the next save point is. If you die, you get sent back to the clinic, and usually have to pay a steep price for your medical attention unless Nurse Nancy wakes you up instead of the doctor. Some dungeon rooms even contain magical blockades that prevent you from proceeding until every monster is destroyed, made all the harder when portals are present that keep sending out new enemies until you break it. This is an understandably smart mechanic, as it prevents you from running past the more difficult enemies in favor of just finding the boss. However, if you do get stuck, there is an escape spell conveniently located at all times on the left hand side of the touchscreen that can be used for a small amount of RP.
There are other elements to focus on, like fishing or bartering, and the game offers nearly infinite ways to feel the rush of achievement. Besides farming, battling, and socializing, players can open up their own shop, learn recipes for cooking or other crafts, and can even raise a skill level just by walking or sleeping. Obviously some skills actually require a lot of effort to raise them, but it nonetheless feels good to see “skill level up!” flash onto the screen with congratulatory music as you play. This constant reward system successfully creates an addiction to the game as you’re always achieving something and improving your character’s stats. Even something as simple as opening a treasure chest, which you might think is a reward in itself, contributes to your “searching” skill which improves your max RP and intelligence level when raised.
The game makes it very easy to view and learn about all these skills. In fact, it’s easy to learn about almost everything you want right from the touchscreen’s menus. The UI is intuitive and easy to navigate, showing the time, date, weather, money, and map on the touchscreen at all times. The map shows what rooms you’ve explored in dungeons, or if you’re in town, it shows the location of every citizen and visitor. There are also buttons for the escape spell, your backpack, and notebook. Your notebook shows active requests, but can also show the calendar or your shipping log when you hold down L or R while clicking it.
Opening your backpack is like falling through the rabbit hole into a wonderland of information. Items you are carrying are shown on the right hand side, and equipped armor, weapons, abilities, and spells are displayed on the left while the top screen shows your player’s stats. There is also a nifty tab on the side that slides out to show all available abilities and spells. The top section contains six tabs that lead to other menus: main, skills, recipes, party information, friendship levels, and general settings. Each menu contains a wealth of knowledge about everything, such as bios for the townsfolk, what each skillset does for you, and stats on all your befriended monsters.
If you want to quickly equip or use an item outside of the backpack menu, pressing the L button brings up a quick selection menu that appears at the bottom of the top screen. Gameplay is paused during this, making it easy to grab a potion or change weapons in the heat of battle. Items are also sorted into four categories, which you can view by scrolling up or down, making it easy to find exactly what you’re looking for.
The graphics are really the only thing that falls short of expectations. There are moments whenever a potential love interest is introduced where the game plays a short anime video, but for the most part you are stuck with graphics reminiscent of sprites and a static picture of whomever you are talking to. The static images are nicely drawn though (you can even hide the speech bubbles to see their whole outfit by pressing X), and character’s expressions and sometimes posture changes based on what they are saying. A nice touch is how the seasons affect character appearances, so expect to see townsfolk in swimsuits while on the beach in summer, and bundled up in winter. The time of day and weather also affects the town’s appearance, but since one real world second is equivalent to one in-game minute, you have to be quick if you want to catch someone in their pajamas.
The normal gameplay graphics have hard, somewhat jagged edges and try to cram a lot of detail in. It’s not insanely bothersome, but does make the game hard to play in 3D. However, this seems a fair tradeoff as the lack of graphical information means the game is crazy fast. Every room, store, and area seamlessly loads after an ultra-quick fade to black eliminating downtime and keeping the game going. This is very important for a game like this, as you run from place to place constantly and any lag would become annoying almost immediately.
Rune Factory 4’s soundtrack is enjoyable for the most part. Each season offers a different score for the town, and each dungeon also changes it up. Festivals, weather, stores, and time of day bring with it their own mood music as well. These tunes provide a nice variety to the game, but can also become tiresome when you hear the same town song for 30 in-game days. It’s really a built-in pitfall for any simulation game, and one can hardly expect developers to create a new melody for every day of the year. Sound effects are done well, even taking into account details like what shoes your character has equipped when you run.
The Rune Factory series has proven time and time again that it has grown from merely being a Harvest Moon spinoff into a force of its own. This latest installment is easily the best of the series so far, smoothing out any problems in the previous titles, and adding in just the right amount of content to create a fuller experience. Rune Factory 4 provides an infinite amount of gameplay that doesn’t end once the main story does.