Thanks to Rising Star Games, gamers in Europe have finally caught up on the Rune Factory series — until Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny launches on Wii in North America next week, that is. Rune Factory 3: A Fantasy Harvest Moon on DS is the third and so far final portable instalment in the Harvest Moon spin-off, and the strongest so far.
If you've not picked up a Rune Factory game so far, it's an initially strange blend of farming and real-time action-RPG. You own a large plot of land in the shadow of the mystical Sharance Tree, letting you cultivate crops and, later on, raise animals, using the results to make money that can be used to improve your farming tools.
That's really only half the story, though. Aside from the day-to-day grind of running a farm, there's a completely different grind lurking in the game's dungeons, when Rune Factory transforms into an old-fashioned hack and slash action game: goblins, iron ore, hit points. You know the drill.
So far, so familiar to RF veterans, but how does RF3 innovate? For one, your lead character — an amnesiac, naturally — can transform into a monster after collecting a magical leaf from a raccoon (that's right). Your monster form has totally different statistics and attacks, and you'll need to switch between both forms to progress during the story, which involves you needing to unite humans with monsters for some reason.
Combat is quick and clean: there's no complicated button commands, just B to attack and a double-tap on the D-Pad to dash in that direction. A dedicated evade button would have worked better, particularly as the R button's only purpose is to slow your character down, but generally a good slashing will put away most adversaries, though boss characters vary from laughably easy to unbelievably frustrating.
Speaking of combat, you're not alone this time, with the ability to team up with other characters; become friendly enough with townsfolk and you can invite them to tag along in combat but their AI is often appalling, turning them into little more than walking shields.
The box art boasts a familiar blue Nintendo WiFi Connection button, but you'll be disappointed to know this isn't online multiplayer. There's local multiplayer in a series of quick-fix dungeon attacks, and you can compare your best results for this and festivals with others over WiFi Connection, but that's all, folks.
The biggest problem with Rune Factory is that it doesn't sound like much — farming and fighting? — yet anyone who's played it can testify to its addictive qualities. Just as level grinding is addictive in the right context, watering and harvesting crops is a hypnotic and never-ending routine: as your crops improve they make more money, which lets you buy better equipment to progress in the action element of the game. It's powerfully addictive stuff, and there's no shortage of content to plough through depending on your preference: crafting the best equipment will take countless hours, or you can concentrate on finding a wife, raising a barn full of premium livestock or catching every fish in the sea.
Of course, that's been the case for the past two entries, and RF3 does little to rock the boat here: the new additions are intriguing without being essential. Graphically it's faithful to the series' style, with some nicely detailed buildings and well-drawn anime portraits for each character, although the frame rate noticeably chugs when the screen gets busy, whether it's villagers or monsters. The audio side is pleasant too, with decent (if forgettable) music and occasional voiced dialogue from townsfolk as you pass by them or stop for a chat.
If you've played the previous entries, you'll probably already know you'd enjoy Rune Factory 3; it's a prime example of "if it's not broken, don't fix it" at work. The new features are bullet points rather than game changers, but it's the biggest entry in the series so far and a must for fans of farming and fighting.