If there’s one thing guaranteed to liven up a good hack-and-slash dungeon crawler, it’s a bit of farming. There’s many a Zelda game that could have been saved with a bit of ploughing, yet the combination has been mostly ignored by cultivators of digital goods, with only the snack-sized Rune Factory on DS reaching fruition. Now European gamers may chow down on the finally ripened Rune Factory Frontier for Wii, and what a delicious feast of vegetables and animal slaughter it is.
Okay, no animals get slaughtered. Whenever you defeat one with your weapon or farming implement – yes, really – they get returned to the First Forest where they live happily ever after. You’re doing them a favour, see? If you don’t want to return them you can enslave them on your farm instead, as the critters replace the cutesy livestock from previous titles in producing eggs, wool, milk and more.
Despite the addition of combat, plenty of the traditional Harvest Moon elements survive: seasons come and go, crops need watering, animals need tending to and you have to find yourself a wife. Series veterans will feel right at home, but the addition of more exploration and combat elements helps to reignite the recently flagging series.
Other under-developed areas of recent titles get a much-needed boost here, too. The script is noticeably smarter and sharper than, say, Tree of Tranquillity – although that’s damning with faint praise – and there’s far less of the awkwardness about character movements. It’s also worth saying that Rune Factory is one of the more beautiful games on Wii, with a great palette and fantastic design, not to mention the well-drawn animated cutscenes and portraits. There’s a lot of the traditional Harvest Moon character to the game’s design, but it also feels authentic to the fantasy leanings of its combat system. The audio is of a similarly high quality, with some amusing voice acting and soothing yet catchy tunes accompanying you wherever you go.
Although they may seem disparate gameplay types, the farming and combat dovetail beautifully. Growing crops not only earns you money to spend on new weapons, harvesting them in the dungeons lets you restore your stamina, letting you explore further. Defeating – sorry, returning – enemies also earns you materials you can use to improve your tools and weapons. Stack onto that plenty of skills to improve, from cooking to chemistry, special attacks and magic weapons and you’ve got a streamlined battle system that’s surprisingly enjoyable.
There’s no combat above ground, meaning you always have the option to remain on your farm and relax a bit, but due to good map design you’re never more than a few minutes from the next slice of action. The two disciplines are so well integrated that although you may start out with the mindset of playing only one of the two halves, you find yourself more and more drawn to the other side until you wonder why farming and fighting haven’t been merged before.
It’s not all delicious and healthy, though: within the first couple of seasons you’re introduced to Runeys, one of the game’s major new introductions, and it’s likely you’ll be completely thrown off by them. Essentially, Runeys are magical floating spirits that influence the prosperity of your land: the more of them you have, generally the quicker your crops will grow and the more productive your animals will be.
So far, so fair, but the problem lies in the amount of time you’ll spend organising your Runeys: to maximise one area takes days of game time you’d much rather be spending bashing enemies or dutifully tending to your turnips. It isn’t absolutely essential to your progression to understand Runeys, but their addition is off-putting and does detract from what is otherwise an exceptionally accomplished package.
Rune Factory Frontier is both the best Harvest Moon game of this generation and an enjoyable dungeon-crawler too. It may not have the battle depths of its competitors but the two elements blend seamlessly to create one of the most addictive games on Wii to date. Fans of farming and fighting may not have much to choose from, but it’ll be a long time until something comes along to match Rune Factory Frontier’s quality.