For as much as I've enjoyed and respected the Harvest Moon series over the past 15 years, the last handful of entries haven't done enough to keep my attention for more than a few seasons of horticulture. I've maintained my taste for the joys of virtual farming, but the "good for you" nature of Natsume's sim doesn't fit my life as well as it once did; the amount of time and attention required to build a produce empire might lead to a more meaningful feeling of accomplishment than most games, but it's been getting harder and harder to start from scratch yet again whenever the newest sequel rolls into town.
So it's at this point I have to admit my ignorance, because apparently Rune Factory -- spun off from Harvest Moon seven years ago -- has been quietly smoothing over all the problems of its parent series for close to a decade, and with me none the wiser. Part 4 might not change your mind if you find the SimFarm premise inherently boring, but developer Neverland certainly presents these dusty, old mechanics in their most intuitive, rewarding and accessible form to date, housed within a Secret of Mana-style action-RPG that helps reduce the tedium of watching grass grow.
If you've ever played a Harvest Moon game, you'll find those same parts here, more or less. Like HM, Rune Factory 4 features the same basic cycle of planting your crops, attending to the rich tapestry of your social life as they bloom, and finally, plucking fresh produce from the ground to profit and start the cycle anew. And if attending to the needs of a small tract of farmland isn't your thing, you can always fish, cook, mine, and craft various objects to line your pockets in alternate ways -- not too different than your average Harvest Moon. Where Rune Factory differs, though, is in its overworld, replete with monsters and dungeons, offering a more action-based way to keep your farm solvent.
While Rune Factory 4 retains all of the basic elements of Harvest Moon, it's their vastly improved execution and presentation that makes all the difference. And in a game focused on repeating the same cycles over and over, Neverland does its best to make the experience as seamless as possible. Menus are slick and snappy, and offer all of the shortcuts you'd expect, while the game as a whole features absolutely no loading time, ever -- sure, it might look like it came from the DS as a result, but that's a sacrifice I'm willing to make for the sake of efficiency. Rune Factory 4 also provides an astounding amount of information to the player that would otherwise be found menus-deep in a lesser game; though the GUI can get a little cluttered, everything you need to know -- from the price of that pink turnip in your backpack to the location of the townsperson you're currently trying to woo with fresh sashimi -- can usually be found right in front of your eyes, without having to press a single button. Plus, you can navigate the entirety of your town in under half a minute, which renders all of the necessary errand-running completely painless.
In an attempt to make the slow-but-steady game play of Harvest Moon even more addictive, Rune Factory 4 dishes out plenty of smaller rewards that at least make it seem as if you're accomplishing something during the long stretches between shipping days. Following through on the game's RPG premise, your character has several stats to level up, as well as crafting abilities that improve with experience; basically, everything you do offers some math-based RPG reward, and though the improvements may be imperceptible, it still feels good to see "SKILL UP!" appear more than a few times during every in-game day. Your actions also contribute to a separate kind of currency, one that allows you to buy crafting licenses, make various improvements to your farm, improve the stock at local shops, and hold festivals and special events in your village. If Rune Factory 4 excels at any one thing, it's making each action of your vast micromanagement plan feel rewarding, if only in the tiniest ways.
Of course, Rune Factory 4's main gimmick can be found in an attempt to be a real, honest-to-god RPG, and while Neverland's efforts are admirable, the results are rudimentary at best. The game offers a variety of weapons and skills to outfit your character in any way you see fit, but the action rarely gets more complicated than hacking and slashing your way through adorable critters in your path. That's fine though, because Rune Factory 4 is as much of an RPG as it needs to be, and these basic mechanics fall in line with Neverland giving equal attention to each style of play within the little world they've crafted.
Simply put, you'll never have a shortage of things to do in Rune Factory 4, and each of your possible activities is breezy enough that you won't mind jumping from mining to fishing to crafting to slaying at a moment's notice -- and given all your options, there's always something you'll need to attend to just around the corner. Now that's a recipe for addiction if I've ever heard one.
- Visuals: Rune Factory 4 sacrifices visual fidelity for speed, and while it might not be the prettiest 3DS game out there, the results certainly make up for its last-gen looks.
- Audio: The soundtrack isn't entirely offensive, but the fact that you'll be hearing the same song for all 30 days of each in-game season means that Rune Factory 4 is best enjoyed with some podcast accompaniment.
- Interface: Neverland put an amazing amount of thought into how a sluggish interface could break a repetitive game like Rune Factory, and their efforts have definitely paid off -- everything you can do in the game is completely user-friendly.
- Lasting Appeal: There's a lot of game to work through here, and given that each of the game's seasons will eat up a dozen hours of your time, Rune Factory 4 is definitely an RPG-length experience.