Review: Rune Factory 4 (3DS eShop)

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Rune Factory 4 is an open ended RPG/simulator, the ‘open’ and ‘ended’ parts being a product of its Harvest Moon origins. You’ll spend in-game time crafting and cooking, farming and fishing, all while advancing a central plot from which its RPG elements lie.

Developer: Neverland
Publisher: XSEED Games
Review Platform: 3DS eShop
Also Available on: N/A
EU Release Date: 11/12/14
NA Release Date: 01/11/13
Players: 1
Price: £24.99

Its charms aren’t obvious at first glance, then. Unless you’re well versed with your Harvest Moon, the sort of tasks you’ll be carrying out won’t sound awfully appealing. Worse still, its relatively low-fi visuals won’t be turning any heads. But spend some time playing it and you’ll find yourself immersed in a masterfully crafted game.

You see, all the various things you can do in the world of Selphia are so well designed. Even the smallest, like watering crops, feel great to carry out. Pick up several items of the same type and you’ll walk about with a stack of them, which sways about convincingly. Developer Neverland really get that the “feel” of a game is of upmost importance, particularly so when it’s a quasi-life sim.

While the would-be mundane feels great, it all slots into wider systems a game world which has real cohesion. The game opens with a distinctly goofy yet charming atmosphere. You end up assuming the role of the prince (or princess — you can now play as a female) of Selphia, despite having made your entrance to the place by unconsciously falling from an airship with, er, newfound amnesia.

This, of course, all sets you up for princely duties: you’re encouraged to get to know the townspeople (including potential bachalors/bachalorettes), attract tourists, accumulate “prince points” which let you credibly issue new orders, and tend to the castle’s crops. You’ll soon be trusted enough to venture to routes outside the town, which play host to the less open-ended RPG-side of things.

Those less princely activities you’ll be doing play directly into these surrounding goals, and this is where Rune Factory 4 really shines. There’s always a very good reason to pursue a particular activity, and being at the centre of a resource and time management system ensures you won’t be persuing a goal just because it’s a goal.

While that goofy opening hour lays down a daily routine, from there onwards every day is ripe with possibility. You’re rarely forced to engage with new activities or systems, instead you’re encouraged to mess around with them yourself. Want to try cooking? Simply use your prince points to obtain a cooking license and give it a shot from there onwards. Even when you’ve been playing the game for tens of hours it’ll still find new ways to surprise you, like when you mindlessly plant a cucumber only to later realise it will continue growing when harvested. Special side quests will eventually crop up to nudge you in the right direction, but if you’ve already dabbled in a certain activity you’ll be rewarded immediately, giving a great sense of accomplishment and not wasting your time.

Speaking of time, Rune Factory 4 feels seamless to play: nearly every aspect of the game has been fine-tuned to be as speedy and fast paced as possible. Area transitions are instant, making it easy to track down NPCs who move about as they go across their daily lives. An airship license will let you warp about the map with ease. Even screen fade-outs can be skipped. It’s refreshing in an age where even Pokémon now has brief loading pauses.

Neverland must have had some talented UI designers on the team because the menus and item management are nothing short of masterful, with superb use of the dual screens to present information and manage items. This all makes the most intricate systems — like crafting and cooking — incredibly inviting. It’s one of the most thoughtfully designed interfaces we’ve seen, and it’s certainly made the thought of micro-managing our inventory anything but tiresome.

Festivals are a nice touch to the game’s pacing, peppering the yearly calendar every week or so. These date-specific events mostly consist of obtainable goals from the beginning. So rather than sit back and watch yourself lose at the fishing competition until the next year, you have a fair chance at competing, and this gives you something to work towards a few days beforehand.

There’s a wealth of activities to be involved in, then, and the dungeons and forests outside of town are what the game’s open-ended aspects eventually feed into. Dungeons are serviceable, while it’s nice that they are hand crafted rather than randomly or procedurally generated, they generally suffer from a lack of variety. There are a few standouts though, like a haunted mansion early on in the game’s narrative.

It’s outside town that you’ll get a chance to exercise combat. It has a bit of a 2D Zelda flavour to it, only there’s no way to actively defend yourself. This encourages you to switch between weapon styles, with some weapons dealing more damage at the cost of leaving you vulnerable to attack. The downside to this is it feels clumsy at times, but there’s usually plenty of breathing room to dodge enemy attacks when they happen. The bosses are a particular highlight, offering up a fair and meaty challenge, or at least when everything fits together in a certain way…

A game hosting so many different mechanics and activities to engage with in tandem with its in-game clock was always going to have some trade-offs. It’s quite possible that you’ll find yourself either sailing through the next major dungeon and equally likely that you’ll hit a difficulty wall.

The open ended nature of the game means that how you’ve spent your time dictates how much of a challenge Rune Factory 4 becomes. If you’ve focused more time on crafting and upgrading equipment then you’re likely to find the next batch of enemies trivially easy, likewise any other combination of activities is going to return different results. You could enter a dungeon with heaps of cooked food and potions, thus rendering damage a trivial matter.

There’s an always available difficulty setting but it feels like a second best solution, perhaps an admission that an uneven difficulty is the reality of the game world that Neverland has crafted. Sometimes you do find yourself in a situation where everything’s well balanced. Whenever you unlock a new location you’re almost always guaranteed a good challenge, for example, and perhaps you didn’t go overboard on upgrading that new Cyclone Sword. It’s during these moments, where everything you’ve been doing up to a point clicks together, that the game’s dungeons are at their tense best.

Rune Factory 4 is a bespoke handheld RPG pulled off with aplomb. Its carefully crafted time and resource management aspects surround a game world that you’ll always find something absorbing to get stuck into. Inevitable balancing issues aside, this is a great, accessible open-ended game to consider, and we certainly hope Marvelous has a Rune Factory 5 is in production.

8/10

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2 thoughts on “Review: Rune Factory 4 (3DS eShop)

    • Thanks for reading! It’s a shame the Rune Factory series is currently on hold right now, I’d like to see greater emphasis on the time management aspects so things don’t feel so aimless later on.

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