We'd given Rune Factory 4 up for lost. The latest farming sim/RPG hybrid released Stateside nearly eleven months ago, but us Brits were left high and dry at the last minute. As such we've had to make do with the mediocre Hometown Story and decent if grindy Fantasy Life, shooting our transatlantic neighbours envious glances all the while.
But now, at the death, Rune Factory 4 has quietly released on the 3DS eShop thanks to XSEED and Marvelous Games... and I'm delighted to report that it was absolutely worth the wait. Each individual facet of the varied experience works brilliantly, from the farming to the dungeon crawling, life simulation, in-depth crafting and romance, but fit together so well that it feels like a cohesive single package rather than a jumble of random gameplay ideas.
In a Christmas that brought us Persona Q and Pokemon, Rune Factory 4 feels like a surprise present; as if I'd unwrapped the gifts under the tree only to discover a brand new bike waiting outside.
Rune Factory 4 opens with your avatar, either male or female, being ambushed on a mysterious mission and falling from an airship into the town of Selphia. Directly onto a dragon, no less. You're quickly hailed as a prince(ss) and welcomed into the village, tasked with improving its infrastructure, taking care of the palace farm and embarking out into a surprisingly expansive overworld. Though the story is incredibly trite by RPG standards, excellent self-aware writing and superb localisation sells the plot on the strength of its characters and upbeat personality, making it an entertaining delight rather than a millstone as the hours pass. Plus it's nice to have an overarching objective beyond just farming for the sake of it.
It's a shame that we can't customise our avatars, however. Considering that Rune Factory 4 allows you to read yourself into the main character to an impressive degree, having to play as one of the two impossibly fey presets is is a little galling.
Never mind, though, because you'll soon be put to work in the castle's farm, turning a fallow field into a enormous sprawling farmstead. It's built on the Harvest Moon template, meaning that you'll graduate from rows of turnips to enormous multi-field arrangements of rare flowers and bulk crops, not to mention tamed monsters that can be put to work. Streamlined and convenient yet impressively deep due to weather, seasons, harvest forecasts, Runes, limited stamina and your constantly-expanding range of seeds and tools, this core pillar of the game remains satisfying and rewarding throughout, constantly adding to your coffers with each successful harvest.
However, unlike Harvest Moon, the days are your own and you're free to head out into the dangerous overworld in search of adventure, exploration and rewards. Rune Factory 4 is underpinned by fun fast-paced hack and slash combat with multiple weapons and spells, plus a Skyrim/Final Fantasy II-inspired 'learn by doing' skill system that increases a dizzying range of abilities just by using them. Including 'sleeping,' 'bathing' and 'love,' because this is a life simulator that actually takes the 'life' bit seriously. It's a blast to genuinely explore, finding fishing holes, new fields to till with unique effects, raw materials galore, treasure and hordes of monsters our for blood (all of which can be tamed if you have the right incentive, including bosses!).
You'll also find the story by reaching certain dungeons, told through visual novel-style portaits and bolstered by some enjoyable in-engine cutscenes. It's involved without being heavy, longer than you might expect and can be ignored for hours if you so choose. After all, the days pass quickly in Rune Factory 4 and you'll sometimes need to tend to a bumper crop or hang out with Selphia's inhabitants. But when you feel like it, you can step out and resume the narrative in an organic way rather than being bullied into following the rails.
The crafting system adds another mechanical layer to an already intricate mechanism. Raw materials of all kinds can be assembled into weapons, clothing, armour, accessories, farming tools, medicine, foodstuffs and consumables. You can upgrade existing kit using items found on the farm or in the overworld, bringing both sides of the split personality together in a seamless way. Perhaps you'll use the ore you mined while out on yesterday's adventure to create a new sickle, which in turn will get you the seeds you need to afford a new sword? It's brilliant, and yet another rock-solid gameplay pillar that props up this deeply impressive experience.
But what ultimately makes Rune Factory 4 so special is Selphia itself. Rather than a static unchanging backdrop à la Fantasy Life, you'll find yourself living in a real community. All of the colourful and likeable inhabitants scurry around doing their daily routine, doing errands, work, sleeping, chatting to each other and bustling about depending on the time of day. There are loads of random events to keep you on your toes, from odd little mini-stories to grand festivals that you can participate in and even organise, making the town feel like a real and delightfully unpredictable place.
As the prince or princess, you can issue all manner of orders that directly affect Selphia, from moving in new shopkeepers to expanding your farm, increasing vendor stocks and attracting tourists, all of which improves your standing and makes you feel like you're really making a difference, not just going through the motions. It's intoxicating.
A town is nothing without its people, and you'll soon discover that the expanding cast all have a relationship meter that can be increased via dialogue and gifts. The more they like you, the more likely they are to accompany you on adventures (yes, you can take a posse with you!), trigger new events, offer discounts, improve your standing with their friends and housemates (there's a whole web of interconnected relationships at play) and even form a romantic relationship with you -- potentially ending in marriage. Again, it feels like you're really making a difference and interacting with people, not NPCs. What could have been grind feels fantastic as a result.
It's a crying shame that Rune Factory 4 took so long to make its way to Europe, especially since the digital-only release locks you to paying full price. In this case, however, it's a price worth paying. Though each individual element of Rune Factory 4 might be found better elsewhere -- the farming from Harvest Moon, skills from Skyrim, combat from Secret Of Mana, relationships from top-flight visual novels, laid-back management from the Atelier series -- but together they form a game that feels complete, whole, and an utterly brilliant use of dozens of hours.
In fact, and I can't believe that I'm about to say this, I might actually prefer Rune Factory 4 to Animal Crossing: New Leaf. I honestly don't know if it will have the same long-term appeal, but having played countless hours myself, I still can't wait to go back. Despite some fearsome end-of-year competition, Rune Factory 4 manages to secure its position as one of the best and certainly most compelling games of 2014... and I'm not just talking about the 3DS.
- Farming is deep yet streamlined and satisfying
- Fun combat, compelling exploration and strong skill system
- Massively versatile crafting, town simulation, life simulation and romance/relationships to explore
- Great characters, impressive localisation and self-aware writing
- Selphia feels like a real community over dozens upon dozens of hours
- No cosmetic avatar customisation/editor
- Trite and super-saccharine if entertaining storyline
- Digital-only release
The Short Version: Rune Factory 4 is an unlikely masterpiece. Its in-depth farming, hack & slash RPG action, exploration, crafting, life simulation, romance and great characters are all rock-solid individually, but together they'll steal your heart and an astonishing amount of your time.
It's a shame that us Europeans had to wait so long and that Rune Factory 4 released right on top of Pokemon and Persona Q. Even so, make sure you don't miss what is ultimately and unexpectedly the 3DS' game of the year.
9 – EXCELLENT: Only the exceptional need apply here. There might be one or two slight blemishes, but overall games that score a 9 are genre-leaders: must-have titles with perhaps the odd imperfection. You won’t be wasting a single penny in buying a game that scores this high. A few games of this calibre will make it worth spending hundreds on a console or powerful enough PC. Killer apps, indeed.
Platforms: 3DS (eShop, reviewed)