Developer: Neverland Co.
Publisher: XSEED Games
Release Date: October 1, 2013
ESRB: E for Everyone
A download code was provided by the publisher for this review
The 3DS has had a rather strong and varied lineup for 2013, especially for RPG fans. There has been the AAA heavy hitters like Fire Emblem: Awakening and the newly released Pokemon X/Y stealing commercial acclaim, to stuff like Etrian Odyssey IV and Shin Megami Tensei IV with plenty of critical acclaim. To add to the 3DS's more-than-solid RPG checklist, Rune Factory 4 finally sees a release as well, which intends to satiate a consistent and passionate cult-following.
Rune Factory is a spin-off of the long-lasting Harvest Moon series, which maintains core aspects of those titles, like farming, while bringing its own spin with action-RPG gameplay. Fans of Rune Factory have had a lengthy and disconcerting wait for the fourth installment, however, which seemed like it was going to be quietly ignored by the former publisher Natsume. Thankfully for fans, the series merely changed hands to a different publisher, XSEED, so Rune Factory 4 fans can now finally wooly-shear to their heart's content.
The narrative in Rune Factory 4 starts off with the main protagonist, male or female, being kicked off an airship, quite literally. Fortunately, he/she avoids a fatal fall by landing on the legendary wind dragon, by the name of Ventuswill. Contrasting Ventuswill's intimidating appearance, and the fact that the lead protagonist fell on her from the sky, she welcomes and mistakes him/her for royalty. The lead tells the legendary dragon that may very may not be the case, however, as they lost all memory of their prior life before falling off the airship. Even so, and after the confusion of royalty is cleared up, Ventuswill allows the main character to start their life anew among the welcoming town of Selphia while taking however long to recover his or her former memory.
Despite the easygoing setup, Rune Factory 4 tells a more in-depth narrative than you'd expect from a game of this sort. Sure, it will feel standard fare for Japanese RPG fans overall, but in contrast to previous Harvest Moon or even Rune Factory titles, where the routine of farming/adventuring is usually at the forefront, it's a rather pleasant surprise.
More than any Harvest Moon or Rune Factory title I've played, this one has a much stronger sense of community. This is due to the sheer amount of narrative context the title has with a campaign that is easily three times more than previous titles overall, but also in terms of the dense amount of dialogue each character has to say in casual conversation outside of story. In previous games, I felt like most townsfolk were completely out of new things to say after a dozen or so chats, but in Rune Factory 4 I still continuously see new dialogue by the townsfolk daily, even after an in-game year has past (which is more than 120 days in-game time.).
XSEED also brings a much higher quality localization to this entry, which adds way more character and personality to the writing. And for a game that is so surprisingly text heavy, it goes a long way in having the player feel that much more invested in Selphia and its inhabitants, while also having players be far more amused than they should be when reading item descriptions. Apparently, XSEED even decided to go the extra mile and up the overall sound quality voice acting, significantly increasing the game's cart size which, for a game with a surprisingly fitting overall dub, is rather neat.
Of course, there is much more to Rune Factory 4 than just storytelling and dialogue. Rune Factory staples like the hybrid gameplay between farming and dungeon crawling remain mostly intact in this entry with some noticeable tweaks, additions, and overall improvements from previous games.
What easily separates Rune Factory titles from its entirely farm focused contemporary, Harvest Moon, is its emphasis on the action-RPG component of the gameplay. Combat is fast and simple to learn, but progressively gains a bit more depth as your character levels-up various weapons and gains new skills. It's unfortunate that it doesn't seem to receive too much of an overhaul from Rune Factory 3 (which was a huge step up from the first two games, to be fair), though, despite some interface improvements. Actually, even despite the improvements, I still found the interface sort of clumsy to manage weapons, armor, and items in the game. For items and weapons/tools in particular, it would have been nice if you could assign different ones via shortcuts on the D-pad so you don't have to manually equip each item so often mid-battle or during farming.
While the focus on farming in each Rune Factory title has fluctuated a fair amount, it seems to have returned in Rune Factory 4 with a greater focus than recent entries. Normally, this would cause me to groan in disappointment, since I don't find farming to be particularly engaging in the long-term in either series (I know, blasphemy.). Thankfully, this entry does make farming less limited than previous installments, and less tedious and time-consuming overall. Combine that with it being outright more rewarding to utilize, and even farming-jaded folks like myself welcome its presence this time around. Even if the player doesn't feel like tending to the farm, they can still recruit/raise monsters to do most of the work, if they are so inclined.
In addition, Rune Factory 4 has a new feature I find to be oddly reminiscent of Atelier Meruru, which is the inclusion of "orders." Even though the narrative mishap of having the lead being mistaken for royalty is resolved rather quickly, the player can still issue royal orders to aid the development of Selphia. By issuing orders, players can invite new merchants to town, expand the castle/farm, increase personal inventory, and even arrange festivals. What is also neat is that after the player goes through roughly two thirds of the main story, they can unlock what I define to be a legitimized version of cheat codes to use through orders: which are strangely cool but also outright bizarre.
Going back to the community aspect, there is much more unpredictability with the daily structure in this game. Even if there are certainly holidays and events that will go as planned, regardless of circumstance, it seems like most character-related events regarding the townsfolk are completely random. So the player may be surprised to see new scenarios that flesh out the fellow neighbors of Selphia in a seemingly normal daily routine. Of course, after you spend enough time with certain characters, you can also chose to date and possibly even marry and raise a kid, if their romance/friendship level is high enough.
In general, Rune Factory 4 just feels like a much more active game than previous entries, where it is dense with things to do for both the short-term and long-term. The game also seems to respect your time more with the process of everything just being outright faster and more rewarding. Also, because of so many minor refinements, which would be hard to justify listing individually in this review, it makes the blend of action-RPG and farming that much more addicting. Still, it's hard not to draw so many parallels to Rune Factory 3, in terms of presentation.
Visually, the title looks pretty familiar to those who played the previous entry in the series. Actually, aside from a much more crisp resolution that comes from the jump from DS to 3DS, a lot of the in-game visuals look eerily familiar in Rune Factory 4. Considering how even Rune Factory 3 wasn't necessarily the pinnacle of 3D visuals on even the original DS, suffice it to say that this game being only a slight step up cosmetically is more than a bit underwhelming. Still, at least the 2D character portraits are pleasant to look at for the most part, considering how often you look at them in the story scenes and casual townsfolk conversation.
As an RPG, Rune Factory 4 more than proves its worthy place among the many other strong 3DS releases of this year. It's a title that offers a ton of things to work towards and is also deviously addictive. I do wish it made just a few more significant improvements to what Rune Factory 3 established, at least from a presentation standpoint. Still, this is, without a doubt in my mind, by far the best title in the series to bear the name. It's an endearing title, that is only punctuated by a great localization and many other seemingly minor improvements that contribute to a much more satisfying experience overall.
+ Endearing localization with plenty of funny writing
+ Absolutely dense with content, with a lengthy main story and plenty of optional content to work towards.
+ The gameplay hybrid of action-RPG/farming sim is still quite addictive
- Managing inventory and equipment can be a bit clunky
- Underwhelming presentation that is eerily reminiscent of Rune Factory 3
Overall Score: 8.0 (out of 10)
Rune Factory 4 is an endearing title, that offers as much charm as it does addictive gameplay with plenty of things to do.