Harvest Moon but even more anime
Rune Factory 4 Special is an enhanced port of the original 3DS version from 2013 that debuts the series on the Nintendo Switch. Your character is quite literally dropped into the forest town of Selphia, home to a number of quirky inhabitants and ruled over by a lively dragon. You are suffering from amnesia and are mistaken for the prince of the kingdom Selphia belongs to, resulting in a fancy accommodation and royal duties to be done. From here, your day-to-day life consists of fulfilling requests for the townsfolk and exploring the monster-infested woods that lie beyond the main gates.
As the acting prince of Selphia, you earn points for performing noble acts such as helping people out or killing monsters, which can then be redeemed for upgrades that benefit the residents of the town. For example, you can unlock new items at the stores or hold festivals to bring in more tourists. Overall, this is the main chunk of your progression throughout Rune Factory 4, and as you get better at being a prince, the game expands by giving you more to do.
To break that up, farming is also a huge aspect of the game as well as the main way to earn money. Players familiar with Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley will be comfortable with this, as it works very similar to those. You plant seeds in your farmland and harvest them once they’re fully grown. Since you’re doing this busywork on a daily basis, performing these daily errands when they require attention, it helps to curb the pacing from the rest of your activities which are far less mundane.
Making pancakes, making magic pancakes
This also applies to other errands you can do such as crafting, cooking and mining. When I started my playthrough, I found myself running into a repetitive grind by focusing on only one task at a time, especially when I worked towards a specific request or milestone. But layering these activities on top of each other helps to break up the pacing into smaller chunks, ultimately allowing it to keep your interest for a lot longer.
This gets easier to manage as you play more of the game, but there’s a severe pacing issue in the first few hours that overloads you with a lot of different tutorials in quick succession. Not only is it tough to keep up with everything you’re told to do, but the stats screens also provide you with too many numbers that may deter newcomers. It’s only from learning the mechanics and playing naturally on your own that you can learn the ropes properly. It can be overwhelming to have all this information dumped on you at once, but luckily Rune Factory 4 doesn’t pressure you to complete everything quickly. You’re free to do it at your pace.
Besides that, another huge chunk of the game involves you venturing outside Selphia to battle the monsters that inhabit the forest. The presence of an RPG combat system sets it apart from Harvest Moon (and was, in fact, the pitch for the original Rune Factory), but it also leaves a lot to be desired. Utilising a traditional hack-and-slash fighting style, the rigid positioning and quirky animations leads to difficulty in perfectly landing your attacks. It’s not that the battling is entirely bad, as the use of magic and a large variety in different weapons offer you multiple options, but it feels wholly unremarkable as a conversion from a 3DS control scheme.
Medicare for all
The frustration becomes exacerbated by the difficulty and dodgy checkpointing. While the save points are placed generously – often before boss battles and in dungeons – large amounts of money gets deducted for medical fees every defeat in battle. There’s an early game encounter that particularly gave me a hard time, which culminated in me losing thousands of gold over the course of several defeats. Hasn’t Selphia ever heard of the NHS?
It eventually clocked that a way to avoid these heavy medical fees would be to reload an earlier save, except the game doesn’t include an option for this. If you want to load a save, you must close it down entirely and boot up again from the Switch home screen. Not only is this counter-intuitive to the previous problem, but it also prevents returning to the menu if you wanted to switch to a different mode.
Even with these quibbles, Rune Factory 4 Special has so many layers to it that you can’t help but be fascinated by its charm. The town has a tight-knit feel to it, where each character has a unique, delightful personality. The variety in your side quests and the depth of each system can enthral you for hours. And while its combat is perfectly flawed, it’s a decent change to the life sim formula that other games haven’t quite nailed.