Rising Star Games’ Harvest Moon series has lived a healthy life under the radar for a good few years now – never kicking up enough of a fuss to get itself noticed, but always providing enough quality ‘farm sim’ entertainment to build up and satisfy a decent audience. A game based on the life of a farmer – including all of the necessary manual labour and time management skills – was never going to set the world on fire, after all. With Rune Factory: A Fantasy Harvest Moon, some effort has been made to pep up the formula a little bit with the introduction of some role-playing elements. This time ‘round, your little farmer friend can battle monsters, explore caves and look tough with a sword. Dramatic.
A surprisingly good introduction movie (with full anime graphics and even a song) manages to completely avoid setting the scene in that vague way that movie trailers do. When the action calms down, you are placed in the shoes of an amnesiac who wanders into the small village of Kardia. Sound familiar, Final Fantasy fans? Hey, if the plot ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This guy (you can choose the name) has no idea who he is, but he knows he’ll die pretty soon if he doesn’t get some food and water. Luckily, he meets Mist – a perky, if somewhat strange, young girl who is willing to take him in. She offers him room and board if he works on her fields, sowing seeds and reaping the crops. A brief encounter with a rather underwhelming critter shows that, even if the lost boy doesn’t remember it, he seems to be a trained fighter. He’ll need those skills if he plans to head to the caves outside of the village, but we’ll take a look at those later.
Once you’re settled, you’ll be tasked with a field which needs tidying up and looking after. This is where you’ll be growing your crops. Tending to the farm can be a repetitive, dull experience at first, or at least it is for a gamer who leans more towards frags and QTEs for his kicks. This element of Rune Factory’s gameplay combines the manual labour aspects of Animal Crossing with the resource management of, say, Theme Park or Sim City. Clean up a patch of soil, plant some seeds, water them daily, pick the crop, sell it in town, use the money to buy more seeds and better supplies. Be careful that you don’t use up all of your stamina though, or you’ll collapse. Manage your Rune Points (your energy levels, basically) carefully and get to bed early.
While the clunky control system takes some getting used to, and the stylus is not utilised to the extent that it should be (looking at Animal Crossing’s controls really puts this to shame), it should not take too long for you to finish up all the chores your Rune Points will allow you to do. When you get bored of hanging around the farm, a trip into town will reveal to you the interesting characters and storylines that you can get yourself involved in, along with the merchants you’ll be trading with. Impressing the girls can earn you their hand in marriage, while doing a good job for the King will get you passes to the caves outside town.
This is when the RPG elements come in. Exploring the caves is a lot more fun than toiling in the farms (at least, it is for this gamer). Plenty of old school dungeon crawling is mixed with a responsive, real-time combat system that will get you tapping on those buttons like a loon. If you can manage to capture a monster, you can force it to work in your farm and take care of all the naff stuff that you don’t want to do, and there’s magic to dabble in too. This sideline RPG is an excellent improvement to the standard Harvest Moon template. While Harvest Moon DS bored me to tears with its endless dialogue, dangerously bad controls and harsh, boring tasks, Rune Factory kept me hooked. Not only was that due to a massively improved game engine and stylish graphics, but the dungeon crawling provides escapism from any potential tedium.
In all honesty, Rune Factory will require a great deal of patience. I was very nearly put off it at first as it seemed to be harder work than actually looking after my own garden. But, while it might start off slow and restricting, it will eventually blossom into a fun, rewarding experience – your labour will pay off and provide you with some worthwhile benefits, improving your house and finding yourself a bride will make you care about the game world, and once you’ve got your farm in proper working order, the caves will provide a compelling alternative to the standard game play and also, the actual plot. It could do with better controls and having to manage your stamina and making sure you get to bed on time can get awfully annoying, but you will grow used to these bugbears in time and you will learn the true meaning of hard work paying off. It will eat up a lot of your time and sometimes you’ll forget this is supposed to be a fun game, but it’s an ambitious, detailed, witty adventure with a protagonist who wields a watering can in one hand and a long sword in the other. Brilliant.
Harvest Moon fans – grab this now, the RPG elements have not watered down the core experience. RPG fans – if you really enjoy developing your characters and helping them grow, this will be great for you. Sim fans – managing your money, time, energy and crop is a tasty challenge. This is not a perfect game but you will get back what you’re willing to put in. 8 out of 10.
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