When Sakuna, the spoiled daughter of a warrior god and a harvest goddess, is kicked out of the lofty realm for pissing off the celestial ruler, it’s the perfect pretext for a game that’s one part hack and slash side scroller, one part farming sim.
You control this arrogant deity as she’s forced to embark on her redemption arc to the monster-filled Isle of Demons. Your mission is to uncover the cause of the demonic scourge, after which you can toddle on back to heaven. In the meantime, though, you’ve got to ensure the misfit band of incompetent humans you’re saddled with doesn’t starve to death.
Luckily, the island contains a cottage and rice paddy all ready to go. What’s more, the demons that dwell within come in conveniently edible bunny-, pig- and fish-shaped forms, so you can kill two birds with one stone, exploring/hunting your way to success.
You’ve also got to tend to your rice, however. Because you’re a harvest god, the better your rice, the stronger your combat abilities become – stands to reason. If you don’t care for your crops, you’ll likely come a cropper (hah!) when facing tougher opponents.
Gameplay is therefore split cleanly in two. Half the time you’ll explore the island in a 2D action-platformer, the other half you’ll complete farming activities and plan meals in the 3D environment of your homestead.
The platforming is probably the weakest part of Sakuna of Rice and Ruin. It’s easy to get caught on terrain and (yes, I know this sounds unlikely) the grappling hook used in place of a wall or double jump is more frustrating than fun. It’s serviceable but lacks polish.
Fortunately, finicky jumping segments are few and far between, and the more significant side of exploration – the combat – is fast-paced, frenetic, and extremely satisfying. Sakuna is a mighty goddess, able to juggle enemies like a circus clown, knocking them into terrain hazards or one another and dispatching hordes of evil wildlife in a flurry of damage numbers.
Your repertoire starts simple (a quick attack, a heavy attack, and directional buttons that modify these). It slowly grows in complexity as new special abilities unlock, granting you additional power and mobility. Up to four can be bound at a time, but there are loads available, so you’re encouraged to experiment and customise to suit your taste.
To explore the island, you need to complete various level-specific challenges, such as finding secrets or particular resources, to unlock new stages. This creates some interesting non-linear progression: you’ll often clear a level only to loop back later to explore it more thoroughly. And as you unlock new crafting mechanics back home, the need to gather particular materials provides even more reason to revisit old locations. Levels shift in appearance depending on the season and time of day, so, visually at least, this seldom feels repetitive.
Rice is power
No game has ever taught me this much about rice. I’d go so far as to say I’ve never seen a farming game explore the agricultural process in such detail. For successful rice-growing, water and temperature levels must be monitored, weeds uprooted and insect-eating frogs collected. There’s a complex crafting system for fertiliser, for heaven’s sake, and that’s all before the harvesting even begins! Ten hours in, I’m still unlocking new farming skills. Most recently, the game had me placing seeds in muddy water to sort the good (sinky) ones from the bad (floaty) sort. It’s all done by hand, and it all takes time.
Sakuna can boast so much depth because it focuses on a single field, within which you plant a single crop. This could get tiresome, and certainly, the game gives a sense of how much patience and hard work is involved in rice-farming, but it’s actually very well-paced. You only have to do each major activity once per in-game year, so none outstay their welcome. And the painstaking, year-long process ensures you care more for your rice: you worry about whether the stalks will have time to dry before winter hits, or if a hot summer will damage the ears. You attack any weeds that dare to shoot up in your absence with ferocity. Once everything is done, even if you haven’t produced amazing grains, it’s satisfying that your efforts resulted in anything edible at all.
With the switch from 2D to 3D, Sakuna goes from pretty to gorgeous. It’s a delight to pootle about your farm, and I constantly found new details to admire, from the way water pools in rivulets on the contours of the soil, to the warm glow of sunset, to the sound effects of insects and the running stream of the irrigation system. Though you’re always busy, it’s hard not to spend a few minutes now and then just soaking up the atmosphere, which feels almost meditative compared to the rest of the game.
The divine art of organisation
You can’t cool your heels for too long though. There’s a neat time management aspect to Sakuna, wrapped up in the game’s day-night cycle and ever-shifting seasons. Though the exploration and the farming halves of the game are so clearly distinct from one another, the game doesn’t assign timeslots for each one. Exploration is dangerous at night, when demons are stronger, but some farming chores, if performed diligently, will take up most of your day. It’s up to you which tasks to prioritise, how much time to devote to each activity. Sometimes you’ll spend all day tilling the fields and not venture out at all, other days, after a lengthy bout of demon-dicing, you’ll only be able to squeeze in a brief, late-night weeding session.
The two halves of the game are tied together in another way: each year’s harvest will boost Sakuna’s level depending on its quality. Balanced meals – dependent on the amount of rice produced and the ingredients collected while exploring the world – will further increase your stats, unlocking powers such as regeneration or resistances. You can’t fight well on an empty stomach.
Conversation and company
Sakuna starts out as an unlikeable protagonist. Sure, it’s quite endearing to see this brat of a god grumbling while eating less-than-divine food or performing manual labour, but she’s frankly terrible to the group of mortals she’s been put in charge of (and uses one too many fat jokes for my liking).
However, they say hard work builds character. Over time, Sakuna starts to become a better person and begins to see the value of her compatriots (and it’s not just that they can make her nice hats, though that helps).
The story unfolds gradually. Through the character’s mealtime conversations, we learn more about the game’s setting, both the lofty realm of gods, based on traditional Japanese mythology, and the war-torn lowly realm below. Occasionally, new challenges arise, and new creatures join the farmstead.
The plot relies on well-worn tropes: the cowardly warrior, the hot-headed kid, the arrogant ruler brought low. It looks to be moving in a predictable direction too, as this bunch of misfits grow closer. But it’s an enjoyable story that’s well-told thus far, and it’s heart-warming to see this makeshift family start to care for one another, even if a few remarks seem too barbed to be taken for good-natured teasing.
A game of two halves
Overall, Sakuna: of Rice and Ruin is a delight. The two halves of the game, which might soon get stale if they were standalone, complement each other perfectly. Both farming and fighting remain interesting due to the game’s pacing and the steady stream of new abilities and equipment it rewards you with.
It’s clear from the attention to detail how much love the two-person team of Edelweiss has poured into this title. Every ingredient, meal or skill has a well-written description; every system has more depth than you initially expect. Not only can you pet the dog, but you can also pick it up and carry it around.
This world is one I want to learn more about and spend more time in. In fact, now this review is done, I’m probably going to get right back to playing. I saw ducks in the trailer; I want to unlock ducks.
[Reviewed on PC]