I’m not much into farming simulators of any sort, as the concept never really excited me in a video game setting. Because of this, to this day I have never played a Harvest Moon game. I guess that might not totally be true because I did review Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns for the 3DS almost three years ago to this day, which as many know is actually Harvest Moon with a different title. While I had a decent time with it, I wasn’t won over by gameplay mechanics. Really the only series that has captivated me that is even somewhat close to this genre has been Animal Crossing, and that only has shades of shared gameplay ideas, like fishing and planting trees and flowers.
When it comes to the Switch I dabbled for a few hours in Stardew Valley and while I loved the 16-bit graphics and amazing soundtrack, it failed to fully capture my attention. This could simply be due to me playing other games at the time, but whatever the case it’s a game I wanted to fall in love with but didn’t (although I’m open to booting it back up and trying again). I had heard the Rune Factory series was a good blend of the farming and character relationship building of the Harvest Moon games and a sort of action/adventure element. So when I took on the review of Rune Factory 4 Special I really didn’t know how much I’d like it, but went in with an open mind. Much to my surprise and delight I absolutely fell in love with the game. Minutes turned into hours and hours into days and before I knew it I had sunk 50 hours into my save file, and I’m still logging in every day to play more!
You begin the game by selecting your gender and then the adventure opens up atop an airship where you are captured by some bad dudes who want something you have acquired. A brawl breaks out and you end up getting pushed off the side of the ship and plummet to the ground, where you fall is broken by a green dragon named Ventuswill. Of course, this being a Japanese RPG you have now lost all of your memories and for now the dragon insists you must be the new prince (or princess) and instructs you to meet all of the people around town and start making it a better place. Sure it’s a little light on story and to be honest most of the story beats throughout the game aren’t that spectacular, but there are a few twists and turns along the way.
It’s not the story that’s important here, it’s the gameplay loops, and there are a ton of them. Right outside your bedroom is a field where you can plant seeds and grow flowers, vegetables, and fruit. To do so you must first clear the land of debris, then use your hoe to till the soil. Next up you must buy some seeds and plant them and then every day make sure to go out there and water the plants. Each type of seed takes a certain amount of days to fully grow. Once ready you can harvest them and then you can either ship them off for money, use them in recipes to create dishes, or even use them as gifts to increase your reputation with your friends in town.
Once you form strong enough bonds with other NPCs you can ask them to join you on an adventure. If they have the free time they may do just that, and you can take them out into the world where you battle all sorts of creatures. They’ll level up just like you do with experience and become stronger allies in due course. It’s here where the game really takes a fascinating turn because it’s so much fun to go out and explore the world. Defeating monsters will often result in material drops, which you can then use later on back in the town to create new items. As you progress through your adventure you’ll eventually gain enough resources and money to purchase things like a forge, a crafting table, and even a frying pan. These stations can then be picked up and placed anywhere you like. By purchasing and eating magical bread you’ll learn new recipes and then you will be able to create your own weapons, armor, potions, accessories, and a much more.
My basic gameplay loop throughout most of my adventure was waking up in the morning to check on the crops, water them, harvest them, and plant new ones. Then running around town talking to all of the residents to learn more about them, progress the story, and increase reputation. Then I’d often go out and fight some more monsters or search for specific resources so that I could make myself even more powerful for the next day. There is much more to this than I’m touching on right now, including things like monster taming where you can utilize them as helpers in the field (so you don’t have to worry about watering and planting seeds every day) or even as combat companions to help you through some rough spots.
Every single day in the game passes by quicker than reality (a big difference from Animal Crossing), but unlike some other games I’ve played the daily clock seems to last long enough to the point where I didn’t become frustrated by constantly having to go to bed. Stardew Valley always seemed like I was out of time every day I played, and that led to some frustrations. Even Dragon Quest Builders 2 had the issue of having to fight off enemies at night, which got old very quickly. In most cases the time midnight rolled around I was ready to rest and start a new day. And rest you must, otherwise you risk getting sick and that’s a whole other can of worms we don’t want to deal with.
That leads into probably the biggest constraint the game has: stamina. Almost every action you take uses up your stamina meter, and if that falls to zero you begin to lose HP. Three ways to replenish the meter are to stand completely still and watch it slowly fill back up, eat a dish that you’ve prepared or find a resource out in the wild that restores some of the meter, or warp back to your bed and call it a day. There was always so much more I wanted to do in the game (especially at the beginning), but I was constrained because of this meter. Several times I accidentally died because I didn’t keep a close watch on how exhausted my character had become. I completely understand the reasoning for this gameplay restriction, but it was a constant thorn in my side during most of my time playing. As you grow and level up you have more to work with, but at the same time a lot of the things you want to craft use more too. Obviously knowing what dishes to make (usually a lot of the fish-based ones) to replenish stamina will go a long way toward keeping you sane.
For the most part the controls work great throughout, but there are some odd design choices that kept on bothering me. One is that you can’t map you tools to some of the face buttons. The way the game works is that you can either have a weapon equipped or a tool equipped, but not both. Well, when you’re out in the thick of things you’ll come across monsters that need to be dispatched with a weapon, and then sitting on the same screen you’ll see rocks that need to be smashed with a hammer or wood that needs to be cut up with the axe. This requires you to pull up a sub-menu and cycle through to the tools tab, grab the item, use it, then cycle back through and equip the weapon again for the next screen that’s sure to have more enemies. You can map special abilities and magic to two of the other face buttons, but I’d have liked the freedom to throw my axe and hammer on two other buttons so I didn’t have to keep messing around in a menu.
Other little annoyances include lining up your tools to do their jobs and picking up items. Sometimes it appears you’re in the correct spot, but it doesn’t quite land. This is better emphasized with a red down arrow appearing when you’re in the correct spot, but oftentimes I found myself just slightly off from where it wanted me to be. Combat is a bit cumbersome at times as well, especially when you button mash and perform a combo that turns into a long animation sequence that can’t be broken. I do appreciate the very different play styles for each of the different types of weapons. I had a great time with the spear because of its longer reach and the ability to keep enemies at bay. The short swords and dual daggers are a lot of fun if you want to get up close to the monsters and destroy them that way.
The game has difficulty spikes that are quite obvious as you play through the action sequences. You’ll often get to a boss and be completely wiped out, meaning you must go spend some time in the town, growing new crops and learning new recipes to create stronger items. Literally everything you do in the game has a progress bar that can be leveled up. Simply crafting more farming tools over and over again will raise that level up so that you can then learn new recipes for more powerful items. I found that I’d eat some recipe bread and it would say I wasn’t ready to learn more because my level wasn’t high enough. That meant I had to use those items more or create a bunch more that I didn’t need (I usually just sold them or gave them as gifts) so that I could learn new ones and grow stronger.
Walking around, watering, planting, fighting with different weapons, fishing, etc. all have their own progress meters to level up, sort of like Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim if you’ve played that. The more you do something, the better you get at it. So, back to the challenge thing, I often found myself getting through a dungeon and beating the boss and the next story beat would start up and I’d get by butt handed to me. That’s basically how the game balances itself out so you don’t just completely focus on the combat – you must spend time in the town to proceed.
Rune Factory 4 Special is far from a perfect game and perhaps that shines through the most in the graphics department. This is a remaster of a 3DS game and it really shows. Some of the characters and monsters are comprised of so few polygons that they literally look ripped out of a Nintendo 64 game. Now, I’m not a graphics snob and I can appreciate art design so some of these blemishes didn’t bother me at all. However, it’s disappointing to see the power of the Switch not being utilized for better visuals. Luckily a game like this doesn’t require high definition textures to be successful. I just hope that Rune Factory 5, which is built from the ground up for the Switch, will really improve in this area.
The music is fantastic throughout and that’s a good thing because you’ll be spending a ton of time in the town. Thankfully the music changes with the seasons so you shouldn’t become too annoyed by it. For the most part I really enjoyed all of the tracks, some more than others, and because I spent so much time farming and in various menus the music often got stuck in my head – with me humming it days later. Voice acting is often relegated to just a sentence or two at a time, but what’s here is fine.
This game has an additive quality to it that’s hard to put into words, but suffice to say every single in-game day that passes by there’s always something more to do the next morning. I often had to force myself to quit the game because I’d often play longer than anticipated because there were so many tasks I wanted to complete (just one more day!).
I had a great time with both the simulation aspect of the game (fishing, growing crops, relationships, etc.) and the exploring and fighting segments. The action part of the game is broader than I anticipated and although it’s not as refined as something like Zelda, it definitely reminded me of something like Secret of Mana. In fact, I wouldn’t be opposed to the idea of them adding in multiplayer support for the sequel as I think it would be fun to play two player co-op. This game sort of alludes to it by allowing you to bring companions into battle with you. Think how much more fun it would be with a friend!
Despite some small issues with the game design and the subpar graphics, I had a great time with the game. If you’re even a little bit on the fence regarding Rune Factory 4 Special, don’t hesitate; dive in headfirst and get ready for a captivating experience!
Rune Factory 4 Special Review
- Graphics - 5/105/10
- Sound - 9/109/10
- Gameplay - 8/108/10
- Lasting Appeal - 9.5/109.5/10
Final Thoughts: GREAT
Rune Factory 4 Special is one of the most addictive games I’ve played on the Switch so far. There’s always something to do, whether it’s growing more crops, crafting new gear, forging new relationships, fighting off monsters, or exploring new realms. Average graphics and slight control issues aside, this is a pleasant surprise and one of my favorite games of the year.