What’s the opposite of cream of the crop?
Farm-sim games have historically had a hard time maintaining my attention. Though their soothing atmospheres and laid-back pace are nice reprieves in between more intense titles, I find that I bounce off them quickly once I’ve had my fill and something more exciting comes along. So when I had the chance to review Rune Factory 5, the newest entry in the action RPG spin-off of the legendary Story of Seasons franchise (previously known as Harvest Moon in the West), I was eager to see how I’d respond to being a green thumb when I had a sword in hand. Unfortunately, that enthusiasm wilted rather quickly and only began to rot the more I played.
You play as an amnesiac boy or girl working as a ranger for SEED, an organization that acts as a more formally structured neighborhood watch, in the border town of Rigbarth. You are charged with farming crops, solving local problems, and fighting monsters, at least at first. The story eventually propels your character into a world-saving plot to stop a malevolent force from tampering with the balance of runic power, the life force of this world. This setup is fine, though the amnesiac protagonist trope is eye-rolling at this point and there is a growing disconnect between the main plot of the story and the daily life of Rigbarth as it progresses. My main issue with the story is that the vast majority of it is told within the confines of an office where you and your field captain Livia discuss at length the who, what, where, and why of it all. There is very little variety in the presentation of the story to keep you engaged while also demanding a lot of time as the characters discuss the finer details. I wouldn’t mind a barebones story; likewise, I'd be happy to experience a rich narrative. To have to sit through reading dialog as characters discuss exciting events and ideas while rarely being able to actually witness them is simply a chore.
Speaking of chores, Rune Factory 5 features plenty of them. There are systems upon systems in this game. Farming, socializing, and adventuring are the building blocks certainly, but you can also capture and tame monsters, harvest ore, chop wood, expand facilities, decorate your room, participate in seasonal events, maximize your crop yield, train up weapon proficiencies, learn recipes, craft items, and of course go fishing. The combination of farm-life sim and action RPG means that there is no shortage of meters to fill, levels to grind, or mins to max. It can be a little overwhelming at first, but the early game tasks doled out by the task board do a nice job of easing the player into the swing of things. Still, there is a lot to keep up with and so much of it is just tedious busywork.
But that’s to be expected with these sorts of games. I’ve played enough Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing to know that the mechanics rarely go deeper than running around town and occasionally pressing A to do a menial task. And there is an appeal to that simplicity, to that deliberately designed monotony. All the little mundane tasks are excuses to routinely escape from our often scary, harsh reality to a friendly, comforting fantasy. Cozy ambience, pleasing aesthetics, relaxing music, likable characters; these are the reasons we play these games. Sadly, this is where Rune Factory 5 fails the most.
There’s no other way around it: Rigbarth is ugly and stiff, and I don’t want to live there. We’re deep enough in the Switch’s lifecycle to know that not all its games are lookers. But Rune Factory’s issues run deeper than graphical fidelity. Objects and buildings are blocky, textures in the environment are muddy, and branches and leaves of trees are flat and lifeless. Even the crops that take up so much of the focus of the gameplay are unappealing. Beyond the border of the town there is some much needed variety in the kinds of locales, but these are often just as unpleasant to look at. What's even more distressing is that despite the uninspired visuals, performance is noticeably rough. The most glaring example is the framerate dips right after loading into a new environment. And beyond that there are pop-in issues with grass and objects on the ground. Companion characters routinely teleport behind you since they can’t keep up even when simply running in a straight line.
The music is decent and fitting for the most part, with one fatal flaw. Most places have one track associated with them and one track only. This isn’t too bad when adventuring in the different biomes that surround Rigbarth, but in Rigbarth itself this is disastrous. Three tracks are essentially all you will hear when in town: one song when indoors, one when outdoors during the day and one when outdoors at night. Since you will spend a significant amount of time in town tending the farm, shopping, crafting and socializing, these tracks become unbearably annoying. Only when you progress from one season to the next does the outdoor daytime track change. This may seem like a minute detail, but I was overjoyed to hear anything different when summer came after hours of hearing the same bouncy accordion in spring. Even then, the indoor track, which has never changed during my playthrough, is almost just as bad.
Models for characters and monsters are nice and detailed enough and stand in stark contrast to the bland world around them. However, the monsters and animals are similarly lifeless. None of them, save for the oddly singular exception of the wolves, make any sounds whether roaming around or in combat. Goblins, fairies, and orcs are mute, the chipmunks do not squeak, the sheep do not bleat, and most bewildering of all for a farm sim, the chickens do not cluck and the cows do not moo. In fact, the creatures seem barely animate, staring blankly as if they walked into a room and forgot what they were looking for as you slaughter their friends mere inches in front of them. The enemies and wildlife in Rune Factory 5 are less inhabitants of a world and more just another resource to be harvested.
And yet combatting the enemies is the most engaged I ever was throughout my playthrough. The action RPG elements are simple and the battles repetitive, but there is some enjoyment to be had on a surface level. The different types of weapons present options to suit your playstyle and building a party of friends from town or your own tamed monsters has its charm. It's far from being genuinely great, but dodging and managing groups of enemies, especially those that are slightly higher in level can be exciting. I did plenty of that in the game’s many dungeons. Most story missions are punctuated by dangerous treks into woods, caverns, ruins and more. These dungeons are combat-heavy and puzzle-light, so don’t expect anything along the lines of a Zelda-style experience. Still, there are some switches and chests to keep things varied, but the most you’ll be doing is fighting hordes of enemies until you reach a boss at the end of the line. Boss encounters are pretty good on the whole; most can be easily beat when properly leveled, but even when I was under leveled I was able to eek out some hard earned wins that felt satisfying. Towards the end, the dungeons started to overstay their welcome and I was very upset to discover enemies that can one-hit-KO you in the latter parts of the endgame. In general, the story drags too long and I was all too happy to roll credits, but I would be lying if I said I had no fun with several of the early and mid-game dungeons.
Farming and socializing, the other two game play pillars alongside adventuring, are fairly standard. You buy seeds for crops that must be watered everyday and after a set amount of days you reap a yield that can be used for crafting, or more often selling since farming is one of the more lucrative activities in-game. The controls for farming are rather slippery and the auto-lock-on is very touchy. When it works as intended, it's fine but more times than not I had to fight the controls to make them do what I wanted them to. Socializing is maybe a matter of taste. I can imagine an audience that would dig the cast of characters. Although the boiler-plate anime designs are not exceptional, they do a good job in portraying each character’s personality and demeanor. The occasional voice acted moments are a nice touch but personally, none of them clicked. If you are so inclined, there are six bachelors and six bachelorettes that you can pursue romantically. And it's worth noting that all of them are available for courting regardless of gender. I never made it past a couple of dates with Martin, but things didn’t work out. He was married to his work anyways.
When designing a farm-sim there is a line between quiet cozy routine and abject tedium. Rune Factory 5 lands squarely in the latter. The occasionally enjoyable combat cannot make up for the unreliable farming controls, repetitive music, poor performance, ugly visuals, and lifeless world. One or two of these shortcomings could have been forgiven if Rigbarth was a world worth soaking in, but it's simply not. The mountain of issues amounts to Rune Factory 5 being lesser than the sum of its faults and one of the year’s biggest disappointments so far.