Rune Factory 4
Even though Rune Factory has seen steady releases on multiple consoles since 2007, it still hasn’t become a household name. Instead, the franchise has a dedicated following of gamers who love the engaging blend of dungeon crawling and simulation elements. At this point, hardcore fans know exactly how they want to play and what to expect – it’s a shame that Rune Factory 4 forgets that and acts more like a tutorial for hours on end.
Rune Factory 4’s overbearing hand-holding is the biggest issue this entry faces. As a longtime fan, I already had my strategy in mind, but instead of diving in, I was in tutorial mode for many hours. The basics are delivered through the sidequests, showing how to befriend animals, farm, and fight. As a seasoned player, I was completing quests well before the game even thought I’d dive into the content. I ventured outside the city walls quickly and I bought products before quests required me to. This is an annoyance to veteran players, as you’re always several steps ahead of the game without the freedom to do your own thing. On the other side of the coin, this entry is by far the most newcomer-friendly, though even some newbies might find themselves growing tired of the nonstop guidance. Even at the 10-hour mark, the game still doesn’t trust you on your own, still offering mundane quests.
As the prince or princess (with amnesia) of the town, you bring more villagers in by sprucing up the place. You earn points to unlock extra festivals and expand your facilities, but they are scant – especially early on. The other problem is that these points are your sole currency for upgrading your abilities and your town. This forces players to choose between the main objective (making the town bigger) and the more enjoyable character progression. If you love cooking, you need to devote points to better cooking licenses, but you also pay a hidden cost of not being able to use your precious few points on better festivals to draw in more townspeople. This feels like a bottleneck to keep players from progressing quickly, holding them back from the activities that they enjoy most.
The trademark quirky townsfolk are still the game’s stars. One of my favorites was the brother/sister dynamic between the playful bookworm Kiel and his super-serious knight sister, Forte. The characters aren’t as animated as, say, Rune Factory 3’s family that spoke in opposites, but interesting personalities make their way in. For the record, having a giant dragon as your bantering guide during the adventure adds something special.
One positive thing this time around is how group conversations emerge if you engage certain characters while they’re hanging out with others. These scenes are especially funny; one has some of the younger men contemplating, “What is love?” Another refinement is having special character missions pop up, where you might follow a character to a special place or find a clue for them. The important part is that they always lead to a new scene and fresh dialogue, keeping things from getting too mundane.
Dungeons are bland, focused solely on fighting and gathering. Like previous games, you locate levers and open up previously inaccessible areas with mind-numbing predictability. Boss battles also follow suit; enemies have large health bars and usually several forms to grind down. Instead of keeping me engaged, bosses feel like unnecessary time sinks. To add insult to injury, the combat is still clunky, and the moves you unlock can end up costing you matches; the margin for error is thin, making it easy to take a hit and get stuck in a combo.
Although Rune Factory 4 is not as refined as I would like, it still has an engagement level that’s hard to ignore. Settling into a routine while balancing farming, monster recruiting, dungeon crawling, gathering, and socializing provides you with something to always do – and plan for. Much of the fun I had was discovering new areas, like coming across a fresh fishing spot, or finally earning the requirements to unlock new meals to cook. The vast area Rune Factory 4 provides gives you plenty of these little moments that can completely change up your strategy. For instance, as you explore, you might find fields where it’s always summer to grow certain crops.
Additionally, what you find when revisiting fields is often unpredictable. As I was scavenging, I found everything from better swords to new fruits to better crafting items. This is also the game’s biggest strength – all the parts complement each other well. Recruiting monsters becomes more thrilling because monsters can also lend you a hand on the farm and some even produce items such as eggs and fur for profit, cooking, or crafting. Even when I roamed dungeons, they weren’t just about fighting and advancing the story; I found tons of resources and rare rocks to mine. The satisfaction comes in discovering a new item and realizing you can cook a new dish or craft new armor with it. This is the most engaging part of the experience; I lost myself maximizing my success each day.
At times, I couldn’t put Rune Factory 4 down, at others I found myself disappointed, wanting more than small tweaks. The lackluster dungeons and bosses and the hoops veterans have to going through for many hours isn’t fun. The series has had plenty time to advance beyond what Rune Factory 4 provides. Still, the formula is still entertaining and I found myself enjoying my daily chats with locals and finding ways to increase my profits. I even appreciated the small enhancements, which are steps in the right directions. Unfortunately, the areas that need the most improvement – like dungeons and the core battle system – are relatively untouched.