The Harvest Moon series has become something of a standby over the last decade or so, so it's easy to forget just how revolutionary it was when it first hit the Super Nintendo back in 1996. An RPG where players progressed not by fighting battles or banishing evil, but by tending gently to the land, caring for animals, and finding true love; there was nothing quite like it. It seems odd, then, that Natsume's ten-year anniversary gift to the franchise was the beginning of the Rune Factory spin-offs, famously described as "Harvest Moon with swords".
It sounds incongruous, but somehow it works - if Harvest Moon showed us that the spade was just as mighty as the sword, Rune Factory proves that they're even better together, and this latest instalment absolutely perfects the message. Rune Factory 4 combines Harvest Moon's joyfully fulfilling fusion of farmwork and flirting with the slice-of-life storytelling and andante tempo of the Atelier series, and adds in a generous helping of Zelda-style action-RPG combat on the side, making for one of the freshest feeling farming games in years.
You'll first take control of your hero (or heroine, after answering a mildly patronizing question to determine your character's gender) aboard an airship, and following an untimely skirmish with unfriendly stowaways, plummet earthward towards the kindly kingdom of Norad. One amnesia-inducing impact and colossal case of mistaken identity later, you've been sworn in as the new prince or princess of the realm and find yourself suddenly entrusted with the town of Selphia - its development, the hearts of its residents, and a little garden plot behind the castle. Aside from the horticulture, the game's opening minutes pack in so many JRPG clichés it's almost silly, but trust us when we say it's worth sticking with - another ten minutes and you'll be completely enchanted.
The core of the Rune Factory experience is a unique blend of three main gameplay styles, taking Harvest Moon's tried-and-true formula of farming-meets-dating sim, and adding in action-RPG elements and an overarching adventure. It's quite a mix, and it means there's always plenty of fun things to be doing. From daybreak to dusk (where each in-game minute lasts a real-world second) you might choose to work in the fields, harvesting crops and planting new ones in their place, gathering resources, and shipping out your prince(ess)ly produce. You could also concentrate on wooing one of the game's six bachelors or bachelorettes, giving them gifts, taking them out on dates, and eventually getting married. You might decide to set out exploring, braving the baddie-filled field map as you discover new dungeons, monsters, bosses, and plot-points. Or you could take up various requests from the townspeople, helping them out by learning to cook, bringing them an item they need, or clearing an area of monsters.
It seems like it would be easy to feel overwhelmed by the options, but one of Rune Factory 4's best features is that you can choose to spend your day however you see fit - there really are no wrong choices - and no matter what, you'll be suitably rewarded with visible progress. There are specific experience points to earn in dozens of different areas, with surprisingly encouraging "Skill Up!" messages appearing on-screen every time you move up a level. This might be the only game that lets you methodically level-up in 'Sword', 'Love', 'Fishing', 'Walking', 'Sleeping', 'Bathing', and 'Throwing' categories - among many other important abilities - and we love it for that.
All these different deeds also help you to earn Prince(ss) Points - a merit-based system you can use to commission new buildings, expand your farm plot, schedule festivals, and generally improve the town. Festivals, by the way, have come a long way since the original Harvest Moon, in both interactivity and creativity, and they'll definitely keep you on your toes - an early event sees your character running around the town square as the townsfolk pelt you amicably with different types of beans, like some sort of seed-based bullet-hell shooter in reverse.
A big part of what makes Rune Factory 4 so much fun is that all three of its main activities - farming, flirting, and fighting - intertwine into one incredibly addictive cycle. You might start out planting flowers to sell in the shipping box, but hold on to a few extras at harvest time to make a bouquet for your beloved. After handing over the flowers, you could ask them to join you on an adventure into the field - both to raise their all-important Love Points and provide some much-needed backup. While exploring, you'll invariably come across new materials, plants, or seeds you'll want to try out in the garden, and find yourself rushing back home to whip out the hoe and get tilling.
Each system is also polished and engaging on its own terms. Farming is as fun here as in the original Harvest Moon - refined, streamlined, and as involved as you want it to be - conversations with prospective partners are sweet, funny, and characterful, the bachelors and bachelorettes are genuinely likeable, with something for everyone, and the combat is satisfyingly simple hack-and-slash, with plenty of different weapons and spells to pick up along the way.
Fitting for a game about time-management, Rune Factory 4 also values your time. The dialogue bubbles above characters' heads turn yellow if they have something new to say, and a handy, ever-present touchscreen map shows you exactly where everyone is in town. The interface - which could easily have been a mess of menus - is speedy and beautifully presented: a quick tap of the 'L' button brings up your inventory for easy access, while pressing Start will show you an expanded view with well-organized tabs.
First-rate gameplay and a smooth presentation go a long way, but this game's appeal is about much more than mechanics. Sure, you'll fight monsters, fall in love, and grow an unholy amount of turnips, but more than any of these things, playing Rune Factory is all about the atmosphere. Whoever named the series obviously never made the "factory farm" connection, because in both its outlook and presentation, Rune Factory 4 is as organic, idyllic, and cage-free as they come.
The plot is driven by themes of friendship and renewal, with love, hard work, and the power of agriculture saving the day, rather than brute strength or violence. Sure, you'll whack an awful lot of monsters over the head along the way, but they're never really hurt and certainly not killed - bashing them with your magically merciful weapons simply sends them back to the Elysian-sounding Forest of Beginnings from whence they've strayed. Alternatively, once you upgrade your farm with a Monster Barn, you can befriend them - just as you would the townsfolk - and have them give you a lift, fight alongside you, or even help out on the farm.
It's charming, genuinely sweet, and wonderfully optimistic, and all comes together to form a refreshingly welcoming world. Early on, a guardian figure tells your character that "You're always welcome here", and you get the sense that they're talking to you, the player, as much as the white-haired heroine (or hero) on-screen. Selphia's quirky inhabitants are truly memorable characters you'll be happy to interact with day-in and day-out, and the town itself feels like a living, breathing place; everyone simply goes about their business independently of your actions - waking up, walking around, talking to neighbours, eating lunch, relaxing in the baths, and running across town carrying giant strawberries over their heads (as one does) - always happy to see you, but never waiting around.
That feeling is certainly helped by the fact that the writing here is absolutely top-notch. XSEED's legendary localisation team takes a +2 Broadsword to the game's fourth wall with meta-jokes galore, surprisingly timely Pokémon references, and utterly fantastic item descriptions. You might not have thought much about all the trivial trinkets you pick up in resource-heavy RPGs like this before, but after reading the copy for a few of Rune Factory 4's finest, you'll be spoiled for life. There's the Safety Lance ("We can stab if we want to!"), Green Grass ("Trying hard to change so people will stop calling it boring"), and our personal favourite, the Turnip ("The king of all crops. It has been through many hardships to stay in this position. Bow down to the turnip."), to name just a few.
The excellent writing isn't limited to the subscreens, either. The dialogue is just as fun, running the gamut from cheerful chit-chat to cheeky innuendo, and your character's inner monologue as you poke around the townspeople's homes never fails to raise a smile. If you've played previous games in the series, you're in for a real treat; along with plenty of subtle and overt references to the earlier titles, the interactive trophy room (incidentally one of the best implementations of an achievement system we've seen) holds a fan-art gallery with endearing, in-character commentary by the pictures' inhabitants.
Rune Factory 4 feels like a throwback to its 16-bit inspiration in more ways than one, including its graphical presentation. That's not to say the visuals are poorly done - they can actually be breathtaking at times - but rather that they appeal to an old-school aesthetic, with chunky, 3D models walking over flat, two-dimensional backgrounds viewed from a top-down perspective. The 3D effect is unusually shallow, but definitely welcome - the anime cutscenes are especially stunning in 3D - and seeing flower petals or confetti pieces floating in front of the action adds an alluring snow-globe effect to Rune Factory's world. Sadly, every transition in and out of dialogue scenes triggers an awkward layer-jump with the stereoscopic effect turned on, and the framerate isn't always as solid as it could be. It's not much of a showcase for the 3DS' graphical muscle, but then again, that's not the point - this is still a gorgeous game, with lovingly painted backgrounds that pack a pastoral punch and beautiful, detailed character portraits that can be viewed in full with a press of the 'X' button.
The game's audio toes the same line between new and nostalgia as the graphics, and to equal success: the soundtrack is comprised of charming, catchy synth-orchestral melodies you'll find yourself humming through your daily chores both in-game and out, and the sound effects evoke a comforting retro-RPG soundscape. Excellent voice acting helps bring the townsfolk to life, and the entire game abounds with lovely little audio touches - like the music-box save jingle playing itself out even after you've closed the menu.
Rune Factory 4 might not be for everyone, but if its unique combination of fantasy farming, dating sim, and action-RPG sounds like your cup of tea, you'll have an absolute field day with this gem of a game. It's bursting with bucolic charm, backed up by masterful writing and an irresistibly positive outlook, and plays like the pinnacle of a genre it invented itself. Whether you come for the adventure, the romance, or simply the turnips, Rune Factory 4's inviting world will draw you in and give you plenty of reasons to stick around for many, many seasons to come.