From tending cows to slaying monsters, it's all in a day's work.
I've quickly grown a fondness for the way Japanese developers smartly use time as a mechanic to bond players with their characters and those in the game. I've plumbed TV worlds, I've led campaigns against the forces of darkness, I've hunted monsters, and now I've tended bovine. Rune Factory 4 is a special blend of Harvest Moon and active-battle dungeon crawling, but players may need to brace themselves for more exposition than they want.
Fans and series novices will have to learn all the basics and start from scratch with an amnesiac Prince or Princess as their avatar. There's a ton of dialogue and a long road to anything resembling a conclusion, but a commute or plane trip will fade away as the gameplay hours tally up. Rune Factory 4 will soak up more time than it actually takes to run a farm and slaughter monsters, but the franchise seems determined to remain insular and averse to risk.
This sounds really weird considering Rune Factory's history. It was born of a desperate need to radically evolve Harvest Moon, but after five different games across PlayStation and Nintendo platforms, this one seems a little stubborn. Players can tend to animals, crops, and fight through the story, but more often than not the game will follow in lockstep instructing them through the motions. I'd forgive anyone who can't stay entertained by the plot, which only exacerbates the time for a sweet grind.
Where other games do a better job layering plot with an excessive tutorial section, Rune Factory 4 just lays it on thick. The light voice-acting and cheery music keep things on the humorous side, but any given character might annoy the bejeezus out of players. Earning points to unlock festivals and expansions, upgrading abilities, and upgrading the town are all still motivating, but it'll take a while before players see a lot of variety in any one area.
Allowing dedicated, knowledgeable players a larger variety of unlocks would work better and keep tutorial hours more interesting. Again, if the plot wears thin early, the writing will quickly wear on your nerves and hours will feel like days. As someone more a visitor than a Princely Mayor to the Rune Factory franchise, it felt like I had fallen out of the joke. Eventually more of the town opens and the social elements help you form a stronger bond with your character.
Some characters speak with each other, while others will require you to complete side objectives, both without too much repetition. Certainly, Rune Factory 4 is the distracted Japanophile to Animal Crossing's more abstract and by-the-numbers life simulation. Dungeons don't really help, as they feel like a complete sideshow to the steady growth of your town, but that also means they're only as fun as mashing buttons can be. Boss battles might feel like they take too long as enemies transform and feature lots of health, but it does end up feeling like conquering a mountain.
The franchise's matchmaking elements return and let players get down to business with all kinds of folk. Before anyone asks if the player can take someone to the barn house, Rune Factory 4 is rated E10+ which means players of all ages and backgrounds can enjoy the game so long as they like animé-styled art and big talking dragons.
For the next game in the series, I hope Rune Factory can strive to radically reinvent itself, because this entry's biggest weakness is that it can feel too refined and set in its ways. In keeping the door open for newcomers, it loses sight of breaking new ground.
Code provided by publisher. Exclusive to 3DS.