Developer: Neverland Co.
Publisher: Rising Star Games
You might think a game was a little odd if it tried to things off with you being found in a forest, having lost your memory, by a flower seller, before turning back from a form resembling a sheep into an androgynous man-boy, being given a massive tree to live in by an incredibly gracious and open village society, being quickly accepted into community games and learning home improvement, cookery and how to flit between your human and woolly form to as to broker a piece between your kind benefactors and a tribe of unicorn/human hybrids that live in the desert.
But then again, this is a Rune Factory title. So that's all perfectly normal really.
Indeed, for much of Rune Factory 3: A Harvest Moon Fantasy it's business as usual. You start off as an amnesiac protagonist named Micah, found by Shara - the daughter of a local village mayor. But Micah is a bit special: he's not entirely human, you see, having an uncanny ability to transform into a fluffy sheep-like creature. It's an ability that will come in handy, and one that players need to master early on, because at the crux of this latest instalment in the series is something of a social disagreement.
You see the villagers, pleasant and charming though they may be - although the rotund Sherman and his family, all of whom talk in opposites, get tiring very quickly - used be good chums with the Univir people - a tribe of 'monsters' who live outside of the village of Sharance, with telling horns protruding from their brows. However, the relationship has soured, for reasons that neither tribe can really understand, and the grand tree which sits at the centre of the village, the tree in which Micah now dwells, no longer bears the beautiful blossom it once did as a result. Both would have the tree bear fruit once more, but neither are prepared to really talk to the other. And that's where you come in, able to act as a go-between from human to monster and back again, transforming to suit your needs.
Of course it's not all diplomacy. This being a Harvest Moon spin off, you can expect to get down to some serious earth-tilling to furnish yourself with enough cash to upgrade your home and get yourself back on your feet. Over the first few hours, you'll be able to set up your kitchen, pharmacy and workshop so can experiment with the various forms of crafting in the game. Beneath the tree in which you live you have two fields to play with, a large chest in the centre providing a depository for whatever crops (or junk) you wish to sell. It's simple, mildly addictive stuff, though tempered by the occasional bout of tedium that comes as a result of only really being able to deal with one small square patch at a time. The four dungeon areas that surround Sharance offer up fields that can only grow seasonal crop; what this means, though, is that should you receive a request for an out of season crop, you can trot off to one of the dungeons and sort that out without too much bother.
To do that, though, you'll have to be prepared to fend off the unfriendly advances of the various wildlife that occupies that lands outside of the village. These range from killer ants to orc warriors, from pesky spiders to walking apples. It's quite easy to get overwhelmed if you go exploring early on without any medicinal items whatsoever, but rest assured that when you perish you're simply revived at the local apothecary's. The combat has been vastly improved for this instalment. There's no slowdown, everything's very nicely worked indeed, with a variety of weapons and magical attacks that add a nice bit of customisation into proceedings. For the first time in the series you can dual-wield, although you'll need to watch your back if you do as you won't have any defensive capabilities and there's no evade button as such. It's simple stuff, but fast, enjoyable and to the point, and fighting certain monsters can be made easier if you transform into your Wooly form, which is unavoidable at times.
The same cannot be said, however, of friendly AI. Micah can recruit both humans and Univir to his cause, depending upon which form he's in, but their behaviour is largely similar no matter which race they are. You'll find that your companions, no matter how much you might wish them to be otherwise, are idiots. They serve as simple diversions rather than active helpers, merrily soaking up punishment as you try and dispatch their assailants with relative speed as, if you fail in this task, your companions have a rather frequent knack of falling unconscious. Most of the time, in fact, it's better to actually go it alone.
Even this, however, somehow manages to seem endearing. The presentation is gloriously colourful, the backdrops and vistas beautiful to behold, even if the character models themselves rather resemble the fluff and hair that collects down the side of a couch. The soundtrack and occasional bites of voice acting are filled with youthful whimsy and Romantic idealism. The allure of the rustic and the rural shines through, the simple pleasures that have come to define the Harvest Moon series shine brighter in this game than all of the previous Rune Factory titles, and the beauty is that you can spend your time however you want it. The village festivals - so often simple cookie cutter repetitions in previous games - now each have a flavour of their own. Coming back to the merry community of Sharance after a long day is almost like being given a comforting hug. No, really.
But there are negatives. Although the game does shake things up a little bit, the farming and the crafting, the long stream of fetch quests and backtracking, and the priogression of one's skills in any capacity require much repetition. This shouldn't come as a surprise, it is a trait that has long since been a staple of the wider series, but even with the improved combat, it's still noticeable here. JRPG characters are never usually the most fleshed out individuals, but the inhabitants of Sharance, particularly your prospective love interests (dating and eventually marrying one of the village's eligible young women forms a major sub-plot to the game), are all essentially cardboard cutout tropes. Finally, the item interface and inventory prove to be really quite cluttered and fiddly to use, which can often break the flow of the game substantially.
At the end of the day, Rune Factory 3 probably won't win over genre haters. But it will provide an excellent starting point for anyone who's had an interest in the series before but has never quite taken the plunge. The improvements in terms of action should not be understated, although if you took umbrage with the slow pacing or repetitive nature of the series in the past, then this will do little to win you over. That said, it's a deeply charming game, one that will keep you coming back if you spend enough time in its company. Unashamedly Romantic (and I use the capitalisation to denote an almost Keatsian personality), there's enough here to warrant a recommendation to series fans, who'll absolutely love it.
- That feeling when you rake in an awesome harvest
- Combat is the best in the series to date
- So. Many. Romance options!
- Interface could be better
- Can be confusing for the newcomer
- Can get a bit repetitive
The Short Version: Probably the best Rune Factory game to date, number 3 still has issues with a clunky inventory, occasionally frustrating farming and is rather too open ended for its own good at times. But, if you let it, genre fans will find an utterly charming, Romantic tale that cannot fail but put a smile on your face.