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Rune Factory 4: Special review – fun revival of a retro franchise

Patrick Lum

The Rune Factory franchise was thought long dead when its developer, Neverland, declared bankruptcy in 2013, but last year it was revived by publisher Marvelous, with many of the original staff attached. The first new game, a remake of Nintendo 3DS’s Rune Factory 4, is finally out on Switch, and in many ways it’s like pulling on an old, comfy blanket: it’s not the most beautiful thing out there but you’re glad to see it anyway.

A fantasy-themed spinoff from the slightly more grounded Harvest Moon franchise, Rune Factory is part farming simulator, part dungeon crawler, part life sim. Unlike the superficially similar Animal Crossing, though, Rune Factory is more about time efficiency and constant micro-goals of progress than simply enjoying the pleasures of small-town life.

Certainly there’s joy to be found in routine – waking up, watering your crops, tending to your animals, saying hi to fellow villagers on your way to whatever tasks you’ve chosen for the day. But with a clock slowly counting down to midnight every day, there’s always the keen awareness that there is more you could be doing.

That’s because Rune Factory delights in granularity. Almost every action you make – from hitting stumps with an axe or throwing objects to eating – fills its own experience bar, which feeds your overall level bar as well. Every food item, vegetable or crop has its own value, which can be altered by applying fertiliser or formula, rotating crops and so on. From filling out a catalogue of possible recipes, or completing your shipped items checklist, or running your own shop, or winning its various festival mini-games, Rune Factory is stuffed with things that give you a tiny dopamine rush of progress.

The story, involving a cast of eccentric and endearing characters, largely serves as an excuse to set you up with a farm and run you through increasingly difficult dungeons. Rune Factory’s gimmick has always been the addition of top-down action-role-playing game combat in the style of a Diablo or Ys, though the joy is not so much in the combat as in its interaction with the rest of the game’s crafting, farming and levelling systems.

You need, for example, top-end armour and medicine to beat the more challenging dungeons, which might mean you need to harvest good crops, which requires better farming tools. But you need good loot to craft those tools, which necessitates a trip to the dungeon for the day, perhaps with a companion or two in tow. The way the game’s systems fold into one another is masterfully compelling, at least while the loop holds.

But once the (somewhat rote) story loses steam, once credits roll, you might be at a loss; the game doesn’t feel as strong when you’re simply existing in the world, trying to figure out your own goals. The writing is fun, and there’s a lot of character- and world-building to uncover, but once you’re used to the escalating challenge of exploring more and more dungeons, it’s difficult to return to mundanity. The game does have post-credits content (whole story arcs, in fact) to kick the loop back into gear, but it doesn’t address the problem.

Rune Factory 4 is a near-direct port of an eight-year-old game for a handheld system, and it shows. Though frame-rate and resolution are greatly improved, it’s still mostly upscaling relatively blocky characters and art, which is obvious on a TV and on the Switch’s built-in screen. The user interface in particular is not built for the system, a fact made most apparent by ridiculously tiny text on item descriptions and the like – thankfully, there is a button to awkwardly zoom in, but it’s not exactly an elegant solution.

There are a handful of other additions for the Switch version – dual Japanese and English audio, a more challenging difficulty mode, a Newlywed Mode and Another Episode skits/minigames. Unfortunately for veterans, much of the latter two modes are locked behind end-game goals like marriage (which remains irritatingly heterosexual only, for the moment) and DLC downloads not available at time of review, though they’ll at least be free for the first month from launch.

In some ways, then, RF4:S is a fun revival of a unique franchise, but it’s very much a product of its time – and of its original system. One hopes that Marvelous is saving true innovation for the sequel, Rune Factory 5, out this year.