Rune Factory: A Fantasy Harvest Moon DS Review
The Harvest Moon franchise has been going for over 10 years now. It first featured on the Super Nintendo back in 1996. It has appeared on pretty much every major Japanese console from the likes of Sony’s Playstation to recent consoles such as the Sony PSP and Nintendo DS.
Every Harvest Moon to date has had a basic premise. You play as a character and are given a piece of land that you have to turn into a farm, which you then have to look after over a period of years throughout the different seasons. Essentially playing the role of a farmer, you will have to grow different types of fruits and vegetables and sell them to generate money to grow other products and build improvements to your house and farm. It’s not just limited to farming, Harvest Moon also has you getting friendly with the townsfolk, so you can pick up one lucky girl and marry her, and in some cases even have children.
Whilst including updates to the basic formula, all the Harvest Moon games have been similar in style until now. Created to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Harvest Moon, Marvelous Interactive, the Japanese owners of the Harvest Moon series, hired Neverland to create a new take on the Harvest Moon formula. What the company ended up with was Rune Factory, a new spin on the series, along with a new title to boot.
Rune Factory is a drastic change for the Harvest Moon franchise. It is now no longer about just looking after your farm and making friends in the village. Instead Neverland have added fantasy elements, hence the title. Rune Factory is Harvest Moon with role playing game elements thrown in to the mix.
Players take on the role of a young boy called Raguna, who walks into the town of Kardia and collapses in front of the first house, only to then get up and suffer from amnesia, an affliction that seems to affect a suprisingly enormous proportion of RPG protagonists. The house belongs to Mist, a young girl who you quickly become friends with, as she asks you stay on the farm and help revitalise the abandoned piece of land. It’s the player’s role clean up the mess of stones and weeds, and then to spice up the land by planting whichever crops you feel you need to grow.
To veterans this isn’t anything new. Harvest Moon has always been about growing vegetables and improving your farm by hoeing, planting, watering and plucking. Thankfully Rune Factory adds some much needed new elements for the first time in the series. These new additions turn the Harvest Moon franchise into a game that is now part farming, part dungeon crawler. The RPG elements aren’t just limited to dungeon exploring; everything now can be levelled up. Raguna gains skill increases if he keeps repeating the usage of that skill. For example when you are hoeing or watering the crops, your farming skill level will increase. Skill levels range from combat to little things like fishing and cooking. Raguna also has a general level too, which affect stats like HP, strength and defence. Crops also have different levels, so it adds extra incentive to keep playing to unlock high level quality products to grow.
The dungeon exploring doesn’t open up straight away. Instead you first have to do some farming to unlock a pass that the Mayor of the town hands out to you. This progression is the nearly the same throughout the whole game when unlocking new caves to explore. This results in you hoeing the ground in the cave to meet the requirement given to you by the Mayor, which in turn nets you a pass onto the next cave, which might open up in one of the other seasons. Only the last couple of caves open up by defeating the boss inside of them. Progression of the story is related to the completion of the caves as you find out why the monsters are appearing and who Raguna really is.
Exploring caves leads to encountering monsters. Monsters in dungeons actually spawn from shiny metal machines that allow the monsters to keep reappearing. To stop them from inhabiting the cave you need to destroy these machines, this also works towards unlocking the boss for that cave.
Battling foes in Rune Factory isn’t the most exciting activity. Fights are done in real-time, but the mechanics are simple; there isn’t much to the fights apart from hammering attack to deal a combo of damage or release a spell you might have gained.
The features don’t stop there; getting hold of a monster hut on your farm enables Raguna to capture dungeon monsters. It’s one of the major game design changes when compositing for the fantasy setting. You no longer purchase any sort of animal for your farm, instead you have to befriend the monsters. These new buddies act as the animals on the farm, if you look after them and increase your relationship, it leads to them producing goods for you to sell. Some of them can even be assigned to help you with farm work such as watering or harvesting your crops.
As you can see, there is so much more you can do now than what you would be able to do in a typical Harvest Moon game. The best thing about all of the new features is that they don’t feel like they are tacked on, like a rush job or an afterthought. You need to tackle the caves to progress the story and get monsters. You need to farm to help you get money for new equipment and healing items to help you progress through dungeon exploring. This is just one example of how all the features work in harmony together and how they rely on one another for you to get the most success out of Rune Factory. It has an open world feel to it, as you aren’t limited by time constraints, you can do stuff when you want within the game’s four seasons and years.
Neverland didn’t just stop at adding all this new stuff; they also went back and updated some of the traditional features of a Harvest Moon game for this iteration. Fans will remember the shipping box that was part of your farm. The shipping box was used to allow you to sell your grown goods to gain money. The box is still there in Rune Factory, but you don’t have to use it to sell anything in your inventory. Stores in town allow users to sell any of their goods to them, so you no longer need to wait for money if you are in desperate need of some cash.
After playing Rune Factory for a while, you start to get into this routine of waking up, taking care of your farm, then going off to increase your skill in a category that you need to improve your tools and weapons. At first it can be a little time consuming because you’ve only got poor tools that farm a square at a time. Upgrading your tools allows you to farm more squares, this stops you wasting the precious time you need for doing other things. Also the Nintendo DS touch screen is in use here. It’s an optional feature as you’ll most likely keep moving with the D-Pad with the R button held down to run. The touch screen however, is great for when you want to let the game automatically hoe or water your plants. Simply tap the tool you want to use on screen and tap the squares on your piece of land and your character will use that tool on the square. The game allows you to program up to twelve squares in advance; it really helps to speed up the process of farm harvesting. It’s not without its problems though. If you have a rock or some other obstacle that is at the bottom of the piece of square you are trying to use, the character ends up getting stuck on the obstruction, so you have to manually do the square area yourself.
Everything you do in Rune Factory, be it farming, slaying monsters, mining or even fishing, all require the use of Rune Points (RP). Raguna starts with 100 rune points but this bar can never be increased. Once you’ve run out of the rune points and you continue to carry on working, then your health will slowly start to decrease as it takes the place for your empty RP bar. Your Health bar can be increased though, so you can use more of your health to carry on working. It’s annoying that you cannot improve your RP, because if you run out of HP while fighting in a cave, you get a game over and have to load up your last save. It’s a strange decision to keep the RP at 100.
For a game that is over two years old, Rune Factory still looks pleasant to the eyes. The art style for illustrations is an anime inspired look. The 2D locations that are the backdrops for the game are pre-rendered in an artistic paint style that looks splendid, especially when the sun comes down. The character models are 3D, but haven’t been given the same amount of detail as the backgrounds. The models look a little bland and really stand out on the screen because of that. It would have been nice to have them fit in with the rest of the game’s art style.
For people interested in the agriculture/RPG genre, the game will supply plenty of hours of gameplay with farming, fighting, exploring caves and capturing monsters along with using Nintendo’s Wi-Fi to trade items with fellow Rune Factory players. Rune Factory is just what the Harvest Moon series needed. The gameplay was starting to become repetitive, so along comes Neverland to give the series a welcome rebooting. For fans this is a blissful release for them as they get to experience a new take on the franchise they’ve been playing time and time again. For people who aren’t fans of Harvest Moon, I don’t think this will change your vision of that, even after all these improvements and RPG elements. Farming is still a big part of the game and if you didn’t enjoy that before, you still won’t now, but for the Harvest Moon players, this is the upgrade they’ve been waiting 10 years for.