For years, Natsume’s Harvest Moon series has been repeating the same old formula – grow crops, brush cows, get married and live happily ever after. The first DS release was the snappy Harvest Moon DS, which lazily reused graphics from GBA’s Friends of Mineral Town (FoMT) and the town and characters from the Cube’s A Wonderful Life (AWL). Then came the disastrous HM: Magical Melody on Wii, a barely functional release of a three-year old Gamecube game. Have Natsume stopped the rot with Rune Factory, or are they flogging a dead horse?
The most impressive HM title of recent times is the PSP’s Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon, which bolstered the series’ agricultural centre with more emphasis on exploration and a far less cutesy aesthetic. Like Innocent Life, Rune Factory is an offshoot of the main series, this time combining the farming and exploration with RPG features, including real-time combat, weapons forging and plenty of statistics.
Wait! Come back! A combination of hit points and harvesting sounds like the dullest game imaginable, but as always there’s something indescribably compelling about it. You start with very little, using two tools and some seeds to get your first crop. There’s nothing to ship, nowhere to explore and only a handful of places in town open, so your first day is unlikely to be the high-impact start to a game you’d normally expect. Within your first week though you’ll have shipped your first crops for a small profit, gained extra tools and even got a pass for the nearby cave, which is where Rune Factory differs significantly from previous entries in the series.
By heading into the caves, you engage in real-time combat, which is a simple matter of hitting B until the enemy collapses. Interestingly, you don’t kill anyone – your weapons and tools have a magic called “Retornen”, which returns anything you defeat to a far-off forest, helpfully. The combat at first is a bit clunky as you only really have a hoe, but once you’ve bought a sword it becomes more intuitive, although there’s a good range of other weapons too.
The objective of each cave is to destroy all the monster generators before defeating the boss lurking at the bottom, which is more difficult than it sounds. Each time you swing your weapon you use up Rune Points (stamina), and at first there’s no way to replenish your RP, meaning you’ll get so far and have to turn back. It’s irritating, but there’s a way around it – you can actually plant crops within each cave, and they generate Rune Points once they reach fruition, as well as giving HP once eaten. It’s a clever way of getting you to plant more crops in the caves, each of which has its own climate, meaning you can plant lucrative Autumn crops any season once you’ve unlocked the right cave.
With magic, upgradeable weapons and enemies dropping items, there’s very little here you won’t have seen before, and we'd be lying if we said the combat was hugely satisfying or very tactical. It’s a bit of hack’n’slash, which works well in the context of the game: can you imagine how slow a Harvest Moon game with turns-based battles would be? It’s not exactly Final Fantasy – in fact, it’s not even Shining Soul – but it’s quick and extremely simple, so it’s not a huge burden on the game.
Rune Factory sports some decently handsome graphics, with well-animated 3D models and some good detail in the backgrounds, although sadly the audio side doesn’t live up to its visuals, with some poor music accompanying your work in the fields. It’s certainly more pleasing than the letdown of Harvest Moon DS, though.
Brace yourselves for a cop-out now – as enjoyable and extremely addictive as Rune Factory is, it’s very much a Marmite game. For fans of Harvest Moon and RPGs, it’ll be some sort of dream game; those who find regular RPGs dull will be comatose during most of Rune Factory – after a week of solid playing you'll only just finish the first season, with just the one cave complete and no expansions, a few tool upgrades and that’s about it.
If you have enjoyed previous Harvest Moons for their longevity and aren’t particularly bothered about the reduced cuteness – all animals are gone now, replaced by monsters – then you will love Rune Factory. If you’ve always been deterred by the cuteness, it’s now perfectly acceptable to play Harvest Moon. Like previous entries, it makes an unlikely gameplay idea engrossing and enjoyable, and for that comes highly recommended to farmers and fighters alike.