Farm sim games are rather difficult to mess up. Give players a welcoming town full of friendly residents, a field that they can till to make ridiculous sums of money, and a few side activities like fishing or mining to fill in any gaps, and you’ve pretty much got the basics covered. Rune Factory games have always nailed all these elements, but they’ve built their reputation on how they throw in other gameplay elements like exploration and combat to bring things more in line with a typical RPG. The good news is that Rune Factory 5 meets expectations and does everything its predecessors did. The bad news is that it pretty much only does what its predecessors did.
The story picks up with your nameless protagonist blowing into the town of Rigbarth and quickly joining the ranks of SEED, an elite military unit that maintains peace in the region. Trouble is brewing as people have begun disappearing and you’re told that the rune energy flowing from sacred places is weakening, so of course the local captain deems this mysterious stranger as the best person to solve the problem. Aided by supportive friends and allies, you thus set out on an adventure to get to the bottom of what’s been causing all the ruckus and maybe learn something about your veiled past. We appreciate the attempt to give Rune Factory 5 a little more of a story than is featured in the typical farm sim, but it must be said that a ‘fate of the world’ plot like this feels a little out of place.
You’re presented with some evidently very serious problems that threaten all life and wellbeing, yet you can simply ignore this crushing fate for as long as you want. As one would expect of this genre, the gameplay suggests a chill, at-your-own-speed pace of tending to your crops daily and flirting with the locals. Setting out on an epic quest to prove your heroic status is just another hobby of yours, then, and it’s one that you can engage with or not whenever you please. Luckily, this awkward merging of story and gameplay doesn’t get in the way of Rune Factory 5’s overall charm, it's just odd that the entire game’s plot feels like it’s treated more as if it were a side quest. But, let’s be real, who actually buys a Rune Factory game for its story? Gameplay and overall charm is the main draw of these releases, and Rune Factory 5 certainly doesn’t disappoint here.
If you want to, you can choose to play Rune Factory 5 almost as a straight farm sim. Day to day, there are fields that you can till with any crops of your choosing, and it only takes a few days for the harvest to come in so you can make a good chunk of change. When you’re running into town to buy new seeds, tools, or other materials, you’ll naturally run into fellow townsfolk who will greet and converse with you in their own unique ways. There’s quite a diverse cast on offer, and if you’ve taken a liking to any specific villager, you can eventually enter a romantic relationship with them after you’ve gotten to know them well enough. Every now and then, there’ll also be some fun festivals on display where you can participate in some rare minigames and win cool rewards based on your performance.
As you can see, that slow, but always rewarding gameplay loop the genre is known for is on full display here. Every day brings with it new goals, new interactions, and a gradually growing list of chores and activities you can choose to fill it with. Some days it's better to go fishing. Some days are spent tilling and watering a new wave of crops. It’s easy to fall into a nice rhythm with the activities here, and you increasingly feel like a valued member of the local community. But of course, this all only describes one portion of the full game.
Whenever you’re getting bored of the quiet farming life, you can easily swap out your hoe for a sword or an axe and dive into the nearest dungeon for some good ol’ fashioned swashbuckling. There are several different biomes to explore beyond the town limits, each featuring crisscrossing routes, voracious monsters, and plenty of worthwhile loot that you can make good use of back on the farm. Sometimes you’ll even come across a dungeon, offering a more linear and handcrafted experience as you descend through multiple floors of mystery.
We appreciate the openness offered by this more expansive part of Rune Factory 5’s design, but it needs to be said that the design of these environments often doesn’t hold up exceptionally well when compared to contemporary peers. We’re not expecting Hyrule from Breath of the Wild here, but it can be a little disappointing when you get to a new area and find that you can explore every inch of it in about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, there isn’t a ton of variety to find even when you do explore; biomes are mostly flat and dotted with the occasional monster gate or treasure chest, while dungeons are mostly loose collections of rooms with the occasional mandatory fight thrown in. There’s nothing to be awestruck over here, nothing that really grabs your attention and stirs your sense of wonder. Environments are fine in the sense that they manage to fulfill their purpose in the gameplay loop, but it feels like a missed opportunity that the jump to better hardware didn't come with a commensurate increase in the complexity these areas have to offer.
One element that does feel like it got a bit more of a facelift for this new iteration is combat, which focuses on fast-paced, real-time action. There’s a wide array of weapons you can buy or forge back in town, and you can equip a couple of active skills or magic spells to round out your build. Practicing more with a weapon will slowly unlock more attacks with that weapon class, while there’s a nice dodge mechanic that rewards riskier playstyles. Most enemy encounters are simply a matter of mashing away at the attack button and occasionally dodging, but there are some occasional boss fights in dungeons to push you a little harder with their more complex attack patterns. Combat can feel a little clunky in some places, especially in how simplistic and stilted some animations look and play out, but it overall feels rewarding and worth the effort to engage in a fight when you can.
If you see a monster that you especially like, you can then attempt to catch it with a Poké Ball-like catch spell after you’ve worn it down a little, and you can add it to your farm if successful. From here, you can then build a relationship with the monster in a similar way to villagers, and it’ll become more useful to you as you build up your bond. Monsters can do menial chores around the farm to help cut down on your daily requirements, or you can choose to take them into battle with you as additional party members to level them up and give yourself more support for tougher fights. We liked the thrill of finding new monsters and seeing what they can do for you, although they do start to blur together more with time. Still, monster catching feels like a meaningful part of the gameplay here, and we’re happy that this feature made a return.
Nearly everything you do in Rune Factory 5 will contribute to at least one skill, but often several different skills will be affected. Obviously, doing things like fishing or farming will raise their expected levels, but we appreciate the cheeky addition of random skills that you don’t even know exist until you get a notification that you’ve leveled one up. Wake up in the morning and sometimes you’ll level up Sleeping. Open a treasure chest and you might level up Exploration. Get hit in battle enough times and your Defense will eventually go up. These aren’t just there for the memes, either — every skill will contribute some amount to your base stats and make your character more resilient and capable of taking on harder challenges.
What’s nice about this enormous skill system is that it means that there are no wrong answers about how you should spend your day. Sure, you’re technically supposed to focus on progressing the story, but spending a few weeks to work on completing requests and crafting will still net you some meaningful progress. We haven’t made it far enough into the endgame to see if there’s any challenges that really justify fully min-maxing your character, but it’s nice to know that you’re never really wasting your time on useless activities. Everything here serves a purpose; you can play Rune Factory 5 just about any way you want and still get a satisfying experience. That kind of genuine sandbox-like breadth in a game’s design is rare to see and difficult to pull off, but Rune Factory 5 nails it.
One aspect that we felt rather let down by was the presentation, which is disappointing to say the least. The visuals—though not without charm—are rather simplistic and flat. Textures are muddy, models are chunky, environments are flat and blocky, and animations sometimes feel unfinished. It’s not a hideous game by any means, but it’s also not one that we would say has a very fetching art style. The visuals are good enough for purpose, but we would’ve liked to have seen a little more effort put into this aspect of Rune Factory 5.
Unfortunately, the middling art style is then made to look even worse by the presence of serious performance issues that sometimes interrupt the gameplay. Every time you enter a building or step outside, there’s a period of several seconds where the FPS drops to the 10-15 range as the game finishes loading everything in. Even once you’ve passed that initial chugging, there are still frequent instances where dips will happen, sometimes for no discernible reason. Meanwhile, any larger items on the horizon are often subject to some pretty egregious pop in, where whole trees or groups of enemies will simply pop into existence. These performance issues may not be game breaking—you get used to them after a while—but it’s disappointing that Rune Factory 5 consistently feels like it could use a little more polish.
As for its sound design, the voice acting cast is sufficiently hammy and really leans into the quirks of each character’s personality, while the soundtrack is comprised of a relaxing series of chipper and friendly tunes. We would’ve liked to hear a little more variety, as hearing the same tracks ad infinitum while you go about your routines can become irritating with time, but it’s hard to find much to actively dislike about the music here.
One element that does become quite grating however, is how few voice lines your character uses when doing basic tasks. For example, when watering seeds your character only has a repertoire of three or four lines, and often one or two of these will be repeated a few times in a row as you water each seed. It’s the kind of thing that’s charming for the first hour or two, but soon has you going through the settings to turn off voices.
Rune Factory 5 feels in many ways like a Jack-of-all-trades kind of game. It’s an RPG, but it’s far from the best RPG you’ve ever played. It’s a farm sim, but middle-of-the-pack caliber. It does a lot of things well, but none of them exceptionally so. Sometimes that’s enough. Nowhere else will you find an RPG that goes into this much detail on its farming system, not will you find a farm sim that integrates RPG elements so foundationally in its design. Simply put, there’s nothing else out there quite like Rune Factory 5; it may have its flaws, but there’s something to be said about how distinctly it commits to its unique approach.
Even so, it’s hard to say that Rune Factory 5 feels like much of an improvement over its predecessor. Aside from the jump to full 3D graphics—which wasn’t much of a jump and brought with it some noticeable performance problems—this is essentially the same Rune Factory experience that you could get on the 3DS nearly a decade ago. And while we can understand not wanting to fix something that isn’t broken, the lack of innovation here feels like an enormous missed opportunity. The addition of things like same-sex marriage or improved catching mechanics are nice and all, but those shouldn't be the only fruits of such a long wait. Plus, it feels like the cracks in this gameplay loop are becoming more apparent. Rune Factory 5 feels more like a re-release of a game that came out several years ago than it does an exciting new release.
Is Rune Factory 5 for you? Well, that depends. Do you like RPGs or farm sims? If you answered yes to either or both, then you’re sure to find something you’ll love in this release. Even so, it might be worth waiting for a modest sale before you take the plunge. The relaxing pace, RPG elements, and charming aesthetic make this a compelling experience, but issues with poor performance, disappointing visuals, and sometimes clunky gameplay hold Rune Factory 5 back from greatness. If 3D visuals aren’t a dealbreaker for you, we’d recommend you pick up Rune Factory 4 Special first, as it’s cheaper and oddly feels more modern in some respects. Despite flawed execution, we’d still give Rune Factory 5 a recommendation — if its precise and unique genre blend really clicks with you, you'll forgive many a flaw. Just know that it doesn’t truly excel in any area.