Publisher: Xseed Games
Release Date: March 17, 2009
I never really understood the appeal of Rune Factory games until I sat down with the last DS title. I had a decent understanding that they were basically Harvest Moon games with some dungeon-crawling RPG elements, but since I wasn't the ultimate Harvest Moon fan, Rune Factory never really sounded like something that would appeal to me.
So why the heck am I so addicted to Rune Factory: Frontier? The farming portion of the title was just as addictive as the maintenance aspect of Animal Crossing and the catch-them-all aspect of the Pokemon titles — games that, at first glance, wouldn't seem to appeal to a typical 28-year-old male.
I am pretty addicted to Rune Factory: Frontier, and while it's not entirely because of the farming aspect, it does play a pretty big part. For those who have never tried a Rune Factory or Harvest Moon game, you might want to pay attention, and I'll try to explain this title's appeal.
Admittedly, the game starts off a little bland, and the approach to the story is a bit generic. Rune Factory: Frontier is deeply rooted in the realm of Japanese RPGs, so you take on the role of a hero who's an apparent amnesiac. You're nursed to health by an attractive local girl named Mist. When you take control of your hero, he's already begun his search for Mist, who has apparently walked away from her village to put down stakes elsewhere. The hero's search brings him to a small church late at night, and after spending the night there, he randomly bumps into Mist the next day, who informs him that she's living in this new village, and perhaps the hero should move too.
This starts off the game, with your character taking up residence in a small house that's attached to a long-abandoned stretch of farmland. You'll notice that the farm needs some serious renovation, since it hasn't been used in quite a while. Tree stumps, weeds, other random plants and rocks have cluttered the land, and it's your job to clear it out. Mist provides you with your starting tools, a simple hoe and a small watering can, and you're off to work.
Now, if the idea of doing chores in a video game doesn't really sound like your idea of a good time, I can't say that I disagree. That's exactly how I felt going into my first Rune Factory title, and I imagined that I would hate pulling weeds in a video game just as much as I hate pulling weeds in real life. However, everything you do in Rune Factory has a purpose, and nothing goes to waste. While most RPGs will see you grinding away or spending time killing one particular mob for the chance that a rare piece of equipment may drop, Rune Factory uses the farming mechanic as a way to build up your character's money, and it's a pretty effective way of doing so.
To the left of your farm, you have a small shipping box, and every day that you clear out plants, weeds, or harvest things from your farm, you'll drop the items in the box to be shipped to whoever is buying. After placing them in the box, this is all handled automatically, so there's no need to micromanage things or figure out the best prices for items. Every day that passes in the game, you can potentially pull in a fair amount of cash, depending on your in-game farming ability and whether you place stuff in the shipping box before the cut-off time of 5 p.m. You won't be sitting around with pocketfuls of cash and nothing to spend it on, either. Your house is centered just south of a small town, with a blacksmith, item shop, rival farmer, inn and so on, so all the RPG bases are covered here.
Farming is pretty easy, but it's also time-consuming and it'll be a bit tedious, especially in the beginning. At the top left of the screen, you'll notice that the hero has two bars, one to represent your current hit points, and the other one representing rune points. When you're performing an action, whether it's watering plants, using the hoe to till the soil, or even swinging a sword in combat, you'll be taking away from your rune points. Once those are exhausted, you'll start to dip into the health points, and once you've emptied both, your character will collapse, and then it's off to the infirmary. This can be a slight issue in the beginning because you'll go through your rune points pretty quickly, simply because your skill level isn't very high. Every time you do a specific action, you're building up experience for that particular skill, so the more you do something, the easier it gets on your character. Clearing out and re-tilling the farm can initially take up quite a bit of time, and you won't have all of the tools on hand to completely clear the farm of all obstacles, so if your attention span is going to struggle, it'll be at this point.
Once you get past that initial grind, you'll find that there's a lot to enjoy about simply tilling, buying and finding seeds, and trying to produce new crops. The seasons change, different things become available, and you'll even start to learn other skills, like cooking, which will make further use of the stuff you harvest. There's really a lot of content in the game, and just scratching the surface after the first season exposes much more than you might have thought the game had going for it.
This is just for the farming section, and we haven't even gotten into the RPG dungeon mechanics yet. What differentiates Rune Factor from Harvest Moon is definitely the combat and RPG elements. After gaining a bit of cash, you'll want to pick up a sword from the local blacksmith and attempt the first dungeon area, which is a stone flying whale that floats above the city and is connected by a huge magical beanstalk. Didn't I say that this title was deeply rooted in JRPG sensibilities?
Once there, you'll enter into a cave, which has various creatures that spawn from little warp portals. They'll spawn endlessly until you destroy the portal, and the idea is that you're clearing out the cave while collecting items, mining away rocks for materials, and even creating little mini-farms within the dungeon to maintain. (Later on, you can even have monsters harvest the crops for you.) The combat is in the action RPG vein of things, so you'll tap the attack button to swing your sword, and you can chain together small combos to take out enemies. Magic will pop up later on, and while the system isn't particularly robust, it's a really solid diversion from all of the farming activities that you'd normally be doing. There is an overarching story line involving the various dungeons that you come across, and there are more areas to explore than Whale Island as the game opens up a bit more.
Finally, there's some relationship managing between the hero and the townspeople, and in particular, you can woo some of the local girls with gifts. Everything is kept track of in the menu, so you can see your relationship standing with everyone through a small meter, which takes on a Sims-style approach to dating and character interaction.
There's a lot to see in Rune Factory: Frontier, and while the premise might sound a bit boring, it's well worth taking a look at. New players could easily jump into this title, and while certain things could be explained a bit better, it's pretty easy to figure out the basics. Don't get too caught up in maintenance, as the seasons cycle and, more often than not, you're given the opportunity to correct mistakes, so just sit down and have some fun with the somewhat-open world. The art style makes it one of the better-looking Wii titles out there, despite the slightly limited textures and hardware, and the motion controls are fairly limited, so you're not shoehorned into a control scheme that doesn't work for the game style. You should definitely pick up Rune Factory: Frontier, even if you're just curious about how these games work.
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