Original blog post here.
You may be wondering what a Greatest Living Author plays when he’s not writing. Well, how about a Fantasy farm simulator?
This has come up in passing when I talk about Stardew Valley, and to recap: the series of which Rune Factory is a spinoff has always been called Bokujō Monogatari — it means something like “Farm (or Ranch) Story “— in Japan. It was originally localised as Harvest Moon, until the developer (which has itself changed several times thanks to various buyouts and mergers) changed publishers in North America. The previous publisher retained the rights to the “Harvest Moon” name and essentially started its own series of farming games under the old name.
It’s sort of like how WWE tried (poorly) to continue using the Razor Ramon and Diesel characters after Scott Hall and Kevin Nash went to WCW.
Conversely, the actual continuation of the series formerly called Harvest Moon is now localised as Story of Seasons.
And, again, the Japanese name has always been Bokujō Monogatari.
It’s all fairly convoluted and not particularly important to the discussion of Rune Factory.
And perhaps further complicated by the fact that Harvest Moon is also a Neil Young album…
Really, the one thing to take way from this is that Rune Factory is a Fantasy-flavoured spin-off of the Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons series. To the point that the first Rune Factory was subtitled “A Fantasy Harvest Moon.”
At the expense of coming across as a pretentious Japanophile, I’m going to refer to the original series as “Bokujō Monogatari” for the rest of this post.
I swear it’s not a “the original Japanese version is better; I order all my video games direct from Akihabara” thing; it’s purely because it creates the least amount of confusion while referring to the original series.
Full disclosure, I have played every game in the series to some degree, but the only ones I’ve played to a meaningful extent are 4 and 5. Out of necessity, I’ll be focusing most on those two. If you’re interested in a deeper dive into the other games in the series, you can find that information easily enough the Internet elsewhere.
In brief: Rune Factory 1 is a decent game, but a little rough around the edges, 2 is an improvement on 1, 3 is generally regarded as when the series got good, Frontier is 1.5 in terms of world and story and is the first fully 3D game in the series, Oceans (variably called Tides of Destiny depending on market) is also a full 3D game and has one of my favourite casts in the series but the dungeons were a slog, 4 is probably the best game in the series mechanically and was the last game before the original developer went bankrupt, leading to a nine-year hiatus between releases.
Incidentally, I, uh, I literally started crying tears of joy when they first announced Rune Factory 5…
Rune Factory 5 is catching a lot of flak on the Internet, but I’m personally quite enjoying it. The biggest complaint are the technical aspects, specifically the frame rate and the animations. And, yeah, they’re there, but they’re not significant enough to really bother me.
Honestly, I think I liked 5 more than 4, which is going to be a near-blasphemous statement to most of the fanbase.
For one thing, the re-release of 4 didn’t really handle being ported from a handheld to a home console (which is, of course, also usable as a handheld…) very well. 5 have may technical issues, but at least it feels like it was designed as a console game — as good as the art direction and character design is, it gets more chances to shine in full 3D than the isometric style of the portable games.
Though, mechanically, it didn’t quite stick the landing in terms of transitioning to full 3D. Incidentally, Oceans didn’t quite, either, but I wouldn’t be surprised if most of 5‘s issues are the result of being the work of a new developer.
More substantially, though, way too much of 4 was dependent on completely random events that the player had minimal ways of actually influencing and mostly just involved waiting around for the RNG to cut you a break.
Incidentally, we’re sort of in a golden age for Rune Factory right now. Especially considering the original developer went bankrupt.
5 has proven popular, with the fanbase warming up to it as time goes on — if not beloved. As of Fall 2022, a new Rune Factory is in development, though I’ve read that it’s going to be a spinoff rather than a next number entry. 4 got re-released on Switch, 3 is getting a re-release, there’s talk of 1 and 2 getting re-releases.
And even other developers are putting out games that really owe a debt to the Rune Factory concept.
The North American ad campaign for Rune Factory 5 centres around the slogan “Fight. Farm. Fall in love.” And, yeah, that about sums it up.
Although Rune Factory is very much a JRPG and have become more story-driven as the series has progressed, it’s never entirely discarded its origin as a Bokujō Monogatari spinoff. And whereas Bokujō Monogatari is a farming game, Rune Factory is an RPG with a prominent farming subsystem.
You don’t necessarily progress the game by farming, but the farming is your most stable source of both income and skill/stat improvement, especially in the early game.
It’s not necessarily the main point of the game, but it’s important enough that you can’t really play a Rune Factory game without also farming.
Incidentally, it does sort of tie into the lore of the games. All of the playable protagonists (with one with ambiguous status) are something called an Earthmate.
Really, it’s exactly what it sounds like: basically a person with a special connection to the earth and a unique ability to utilise the magic that keeps the natural world in balance — the runes that I’m assuming are the reason the series is called Rune Factory…
So, there is ultimately a plot-relevant reason why you’re farming.
The stories of the Rune Factory games have never been great, but they’ve always been serviceable.
Usually, it boils down somebody or something disrupting the balance of the runes and it’s up to you to stop it and restore the balance. The series has had an ongoing story around the conflict between the Sechs Empire and the Kingdom of Norad (which doesn’t have an article of the wiki), and although the Empire is usually the bad guys, most of the geopolitical details and implications of the conflict are consigned to the background.
You’ll be making your way through a series of dungeons that tend to cleave to recurring themes and settings. Both Rune Factory 4 and 5, for example have a Forest dungeon, a Lava dungeon, and a Vaguely Gothic Horror-themed dungeon.
Mechanically, the gameplay is pretty simple but well-executed for what it is. At the baseline difficulty, the games — at least as of 4 (the oldest game in the series I can still remember in details) — aren’t particularly difficult and it’s very easy to become over-levelled relative to your progress through the story.
My one complaint in regards to difficulty isn’t even about the difficult itself, it’s that a lot of the bosses in 4 had way too much health/defence and took forever to beat. A problem, incidentally, largely solved in 5. On the other hand, 5 runs into the opposite problem, with a couple of exceptions, even most of the bosses can feel like pushovers if you’ve been working on levelling up.
Also, it’s way too easy to get your hands on a weapon that’s hilariously overpowered and can take out even most of the bosses in a couple hits.
As of 5, if you give characters five gifts in one day, they’ll reciprocate by giving a gift in return. These gifts are related to what the character in question: the doctor gives you potion, theflower shop lady gives you flowers, the apprentice blacksmith gives you forging material, the actual blacksmith gives you weapons.
Now, what exactly they’re giving you is random and there’s no ceiling to the level of stuff they give you, so it’s entirely possible they’ll be giving you stuff completely out of proportion to your progress in the game, meaning it can be ludicrously easy to make a whole bunch of money in a short time or end up with a weapon that will absolutely wreck everything right up to the endgame.
You also can’t really die in Rune Factory as of 3 (again, 4 is where my clear memories the series start, so don’t quote me on that). There are a couple places in 4 where you do die if you run out of health, but it’s not a major threat at those points. Most of the time, you just wake up in the given game’s town clinic with slightly lighter pockets.
It makes sense. Rune Factory is a pretty laid-back, low-stakes, low-pressure series aimed at a youngish audience. There are some legitimately emotionally powerful scenes and the games do touch on heavy themes like loss and mortality. For the most part, though, it’s at about the level of a typical Disney movie and has a pretty Realmgard-ian sense of humour and one gets the sense that the localisation team had a lot of fun with their jobs. Now, maybe a script full of memes and Pop Culture references won’t appeal to everyone, but I think it’s enjoyable.
All in all, there are probably better games than Rune Factory, but there aren’t many that fill the same niche. The original Bokujō Monogatari has the farming, but not the Fantasy aspect, and there aren’t many laid-back, idyllic, approachable Fantasy games out there.
Copyright 2022-2023 J.B. Norman
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