Rune Factory 4 is probably my favorite Rune Factory and preferred Harvest Moon spin-off. Not to say that it’s flawless (few things are) but what new ideas it does bring to the table help tremendously.
For starters, it gives the player something to do with the rather soul-crushing amount of free time these games provide. In other derivatives, my free time was largely spent meandering around town trying to endear myself to my neighbors so they’ll give me free stuff. Rune Factory 4 mixes the traditional grid-based farming RPG of Harvest Moon with a top-down hack and slash dungeon crawler. So now, whenever I find myself done tending to my farm, I can delve into whatever new and mystical landscape the game has to throw at me. Uncovering new materials and loot that either helps unlock a new tool to make farming more efficient, or create a more powerful weapon to smite a boss with.
However, as in most Rune Factories, the combat isn’t really all that deep. Yet with the addition of a dodge button, equitable magic and a unique plethora of play styles, it can be a lot of fun running around trying to punch out everything before something knocks you flat. That being said, the penalty for death is rather high. While you don’t lose anything in your inventory, you will quickly go into debt thanks to the racket the lone town doctor is running, so get used to save scumming.
Con-artist doctor aside, Rune Factory 4 has a pretty great cast of characters to get to know around town; in the Shonen sense of the word, meaning there is a wide variety of personalities and designs that will entertain and engage but not on a very deep level. So if you don’t have some deep-seated hatred of anime tropes, you’ll find someone in the cast likable enough—a task made rather simple thanks to the easy way for unlocking conversations with all of them. Unlike Harvest Moon or other Rune Factories, just talking with non-player characters will get you a decent amount of affinity so you don’t have to memorize four wiki articles on your favorite characters’ preferred gifts.
With that all in mind, I can recommend the game, however, if you do play it and have an interest in narrative design then you are going to be disappointed. As Rune Factory 4 aspires to tell an epic fantasy story alongside its quaint farming centered gameplay, a notion that I appreciate and admire. However, that will not excuse certain mistakes made, most glaring of which is a clear disconnect between game and story.
These kinds of games at their core are about creating a sense of comfort and ease, something the plot constantly clashes with as it rips you from your established relaxed routine. It is very jarring to wake up one morning expecting to do nothing but gather up the potatoes, check on the cows and maybe pop round and see what the lazy blacksmith is up to and instead be told that fantasy Nazis are preparing to level the town and you must go NOW and put a stop to them. That's quite a lot of pressure to put on the new farmhand.
This, of course, is also not, in any way, enforced in gameplay. So, if you chose the ignore the looming evil empire, they won’t take the opportunity to advance but rather wait around for you to come vanquish them. This removes the bite from any danger they may have posed in the first place.
And yet, if the opposite were true the problem remains. What would have worked better is a much more gradual wean onto the evil empire stuff. If the plot started out as us just exploring the world on our own and running across this bigger story on our own terms, it would have created less friction.
In all honesty, the best story to tell in this kind of game is a more personal one with the center being on characters instead of world-ending threats. For example, it could be about your character integrating into a new place or retreating from modern life to live a simpler country life. Either one would be more driven by the player’s actions and their interactions with the town instead of being stopped every once and a while for characters to explain why everything is doomed.
However, mistakes are very informative, making Rune Factory 4 still worth playing. If you disregard the story, the game still is an absorbing and tranquil little happy place that is easy to slip in and out of without much catching up.
Wolfgang Westdorp is a game production management major with a passion for storytelling in games—a passion he'd hoped be his major, but a minor in it is good enough. Originally from Frederick, Maryland, he now attempts to make something of himself at Champlain College.