A schism occurred back in 1998 – a divide resulting in wounds that have yet to heal, even to this day. My 12 year old self took a recently purchased copy of Brave Fencer Musashi and traded it for the action packed classic; Legend of the River King. In my brother’s eyes, this was a betrayal beyond measure – why would anyone trade this fancy new action RPG for a freaking fishing game on a near decade-old handheld system? Though I may not have a logical reason for this decision, I will say this: Legend of the River King introduced me to the world of Natsume, and eventually, the Harvest Moon series.
That brings us to today, and the Rune Factory franchise – a long-running spinoff to an even longer running series, Harvest Moon / Story of Seasons. Like December’s Star Ocean: First Departure R, I’m now kicking myself for not giving this action RPG / life / farming sim a go sooner. It has some issues – potentially significant ones for some – but from a sheer enjoyment standpoint, Rune Factory 4 has crazy potential to consume your gaming schedule; much like it has for me in my 60+ hours played thus far.
Story and Story-Centric Gameplay Components
The story begins when our protagonist – player chosen male or female – is ambushed while making a delivery via an airship. Being ill-equipped to combat the sheer number of usurpers onboard, the player is overwhelmed and thrown overboard to the lands below. Thankfully, the landing is softened by Ventuswill – a Dragon God of great importance to the world, though particularly the town of Selphia. Though landing on Ventuswill saves the player’s life, it’s not enough to thwart the cultivation of a tried-and-true JRPG trope: amnesia. This proves to be a boon for both parties, however, as the player goes on to support the development of Selphia – temporarily assuming the role of “royalty” – while being able to reap the benefits of this safe haven throughout their recovery process.
The story in Rune Factory 4 Special is spread across three separate arcs, though many would argue that the third arc is “an optional expansion of the narrative” because of the RNG involved in its activation process. Word on the street is that starting the final arc on the original 3DS version often required divine intervention, extreme luck, or a combination of both, with many people pouring dozens (if not hundreds) of hours into the game before even being able to play it. With that in mind, they either fixed this problem in the Switch version, or I was extremely lucky, seeing as it triggered just two weeks after the conclusion of the second arc in my own playthrough. Either way, it is concerning that a portion of the story content is tied behind RNG – some may never see it if they aren’t patient enough to deal with this baffling gameplay decision. Admittedly, the bulk of the narrative lies in the first two arcs, but the final one really helps bring everything full circle.
Collectively, the narrative itself is just OK, but the wide and varied cast of characters are what really keeps you invested in the world. There are close to two dozen unique villagers for the player to build friendships with – some can eventually be married, depending on your gender of choice. These individuals have their own likes, dislikes, motives, and personalities that are fleshed out naturally as you speak with them on a daily basis. These conversations can also change based on location, time of day, and even whether or not other villagers are nearby. In addition, scripted events can sometimes trigger that will further develop these characters. The most impressive part here is the sheer amount of unique dialogue, which won’t start repeating for quite a long time, even if you make it a point to speak with everyone each and every day.
Like the third arc activation, marriage is gated behind some RNG. You can even take that marriage to the next level by having a child or taking part in the newly-introduced newlywed mode, which is a Rune Factory 4 Special exclusive. This new feature is meant to expand on spousal relationships, if you are actually able to trigger marriage in the first place. The problems are both the hidden marriage prerequisites and the proposal event itself, which can take the player forever to achieve thanks to the RNG factor. As a result, these type of things aren’t always goals one can strive for, instead just becoming a waiting game of RNG that could take weeks, months, or even years of in-game time to complete.
To put things into perspective, let me summarize my own pursuit of Xiao Pai’s hand. According to sources, there are two pre-marriage events that must be seen prior to any proposal event – another random occurrence – and I’ve only been able to trigger one of these in three years of in-game time. Bollocks, I say. RNG isn’t inherently bad, but when an entire portion of content hinges on a specific set of events to occur beforehand, there’s a problem. Because of this crap, I was unable to experience the newlywed mode for myself – though reports suggest the content is easily complete-able in under an hour – and it could easily take many more years for me to unlock if the RNG gods have truly abandoned me. I can only hope that you, the potential player, will not share the same fate as I have here.
Whether you put much stock in the narrative or not, gameplay is where Rune Factory 4 Special ultimately shines. Some of the primary activities, beyond the aforementioned relationship system, include farming, combat, exploring, gathering, monster taming, crafting, flexing your leadership muscles, and participating in festivals. It is important to understand how base character progression works in Rune Factory 4 Special. Almost every action the player performs consumes rune points, with more strenuous actions demanding an equal measure of RP to perform. While somewhat limiting at first, the good thing is that performing these RP draining actions also INCREASES your max RP, among other stat and performance bonuses. What this means is that you may tire a little easily in the beginning, but before long it becomes a non-issue because your RP grows alongside almost everything you can do. Essentially, anything you do in-game will benefit your character in multiple ways- even bathing, sleeping, and eating have their own skills to master!
Farming, like most other systems here, is valuable in a variety of ways. A myriad of seeds can be purchased or found and then be placed in tilled soil, and will eventually develop crops if you keep them watered each day. Most crops flourish in specific seasons, but can still be grown out-of-season at a reduced growth rate. A harvest report is available that provides further insight on which crops will be most (or least) bountiful for the next two weeks, giving those that crave min-maxing an additional incentive to go all the way with their farming tycoon. There are even more ways to play with and improve your crops, like soil quality, size, and growth rate, but none are mandatory for casual play. Basically, if you plant crops, keep them watered, and you’ll grow in power, efficiency, and wealth.
Rune Factory 4 Special features an action combat system that feels satisfying in an “arcadey-like” sense, despite being mechanically shallow . There are a number of weapon types at the player’s disposal, like axes, hammers, spears, swords, gloves, and staves, all of which perform differently from one another. Take short and long swords, for example: where the former strikes fast at limited range, the latter is slower but provides a longer reach. Each weapon type is capable of a few abilities – some being tied to actual weapon skill progression while others are simply equipped, and can even be used across multiple weapon types. Cyclone, a glove ability, was one of my favorites and could be used with any weapon.
Rune Factory 4 Special boasts an impressively sized world that takes you on a journey sweeping through all four seasons in addition to more tailored locales, including forests, mountains, valleys, caves, ancient ruins, and floating cities. Traveling abroad is painless thanks to an ever-expanding network of fast travel points. Beyond these locations lies some optional points of interest in the form of crop dungeons, and a massive post-game dungeon – both of which feature randomly generated maps, loot, and enemies. Whether farming, fishing, exploring, or fighting, most endeavors provide materials to fuel the surprisingly deep crafting system. You can also tame monsters to do your bidding on the farm, or to act as a helping hand in combat. Most equal level enemies can be wooed by throwing a serving of food or two their way, others – like boss enemies – require far more coercing to earn their trust. And, like everything else mentioned thus far, monster taming has its own set of skills that can be leveled, providing bonuses that go beyond just that specific activity.
For better or worse, Rune Factory 4 Special provides a deceptively deep crafting system that is as rewarding as it is time consuming. Crafting is split up into several subcategories: cooking, forging (weapons and tools), armor/accessory crafting, and chemistry. As is the case with literally everything else, each of these have their own skills to level, providing access to more and more recipes while also granting permanent statistical bonuses to your character. On the surface, crafting appears to be pretty standard fare; fulfill the material and RP requirements – with recipes way above your current skill level requiring substantially more RP than the norm – and you’ll craft at a 100% success rate. What isn’t completely obvious, however, is how certain unique properties can be carried over into other items, eventually allowing one to create an arsenal of super items that can serve multiple purposes.
Depending on your own skill and chosen level of difficulty, this somewhat hidden feature could very well become a mandatory part of progression – especially in the much more difficult third arc. Even on easy – which I bumped down to after beating my head against floor 5 of Rune Prana on normal – most monsters are capable of one/two shotting you, in addition to assaulting you with an array of debilitating status effects. Eventually, I cleared the dungeon by crafting the best vanilla gear possible, and lucking out on an extremely powerful plant sword – randomized weapons that can be grown on your farm. Your mileage may vary though, as there are alternative, extremely cheesy tactics to circumvent Rune Prana outside of the previously mentioned strategies by exploiting the post-game dungeon as early as possible. All of this is from the perspective of a normal/easy mode player though – these “clever use of game mechanics” could be all but mandatory on the higher difficulty levels. Regardless, the game would have benefited from a steadier progression of difficulty rather than piling everything on at the final act.
Finally, there is the town itself. As the temporary stand-in official for Selphia, the player will accrue prince/princess points (or PP) through most activities that are key in developing various components of the city. Expanding the farm, building monster barns, adding square footage on to your personal quarters, and even controlling the weather can be done with this currency, but one of the most notable unlocks are the town festivals. These require a one-time fee before becoming available every year thereafter. Festivals range from a seasonal crop challenge – pitting the town’s best green thumbs against one another – to more interactive (and often hilarious) events, such as the de-fluffing festival, fishing frenzy contest, bean toss contest, and much more. There’s even an event that pits your tamed monsters against others in a fight to the death(?)! And yes, there are traditional holidays, like Valentine’s Day and Christmas, to look forward towards, as well. Whatever your interest may be, there is likely a holiday or two devoted to it.
Clearly, Rune Factory 4 Special has a lot of content to offer despite some RNG aggravation, at times, tarnishing the overall experience.
Part of what makes Rune Factory 4 “Special” are the visual refinements made to the near decade old 3DS title, though this may not hold water with everyone. Most assets look undeniably better here, but the “up-ressed,” occasionally fuzzy backdrops may be off-putting to some. The location and biome variety absolutely helps with this though, and the visuals do look better in person, so don’t come to the previous conclusion by glancing at screenshots / second-hand footage alone. Still, it is clear that this is a marginally dressed up version of a game that originated on an aging handheld.
While Rune Factory 4 Special doesn’t feature complete voice acting throughout, there are bit and pieces thrown into certain conversations and events. Reactions and declarations tend to be voiced, occasionally adding some flavor to conversations. Though some may consider this cutting corners, I actually think it works out well considering too much voice acting – especially of the subpar variety – can do more harm than good. The soundtrack is pretty good, with a few tracks easily standing out above the rest. Although it may not go down as “one of the greats,” it does have its moments.
When it comes to content variety and rewarding the player for their time – no matter the activity – Rune Factory 4 Special comfortably sits with the best in its subgenre. On the other hand, the RNG gated content can very well punish those that want to see or experience something before the game “deems you worthy” – and I don’t mean the difficulty spikes in the third arc, rather the activation of said arc and the marriage fiasco. It is all fun and games until you want to wrap things up, then you could very well be at the mercy of the RNG gods – a huge oversight on the developer’s part, in my opinion. That said, I am looking forward to the next installment in the series, but sincerely hope that the RNG nonsense is resolved, too.