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Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: XSEED Games
Developer: Edelweiss
Release Date: Nov. 10, 2020


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Switch/PS4/PC Preview - 'Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin'

by Thomas Wilde on June 28, 2019 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin offers a genre-defying mixture of side-scrolling action with the complexities of rice cultivation set against the mystical backdrop of Japanese mythology.

Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin has been in development for quite a while, and it's shown up at E3 a couple of times before this year. It's a two-person production by the independent Japanese studio Eidelweiss, creators of Astebreed, and they've been chugging along on it bit by bit for over three years now.

It's not hard to see where the work has gone. At E3 2019, I played it at publisher XSEED's booth, and it's a straightforward, smooth 2D action game. Visually, it's a bit of a throwback; if you'd told me this was an HD remaster of a particularly ambitious PlayStation game, I'd have to believe you.

The gameplay's there, however. Sakuna is easy enough to pick up, especially if you have any platform or brawler chops whatsoever. You have a light attack, a heavy attack, and a special attack, the last of which takes chunks out of a meter that steadily replenishes on its own whenever it's not being used. The available moves with each attack button change based upon the direction you push with the directional pad, whether you're in the air, and if you string them together into combinations. Within about a minute of touching the game for the first time, I was pulling off reasonably stylish moves, like popping up monsters so I could baseball-slam them across the room.

You also have access to what I can only assume is a magical scarf, which you can throw out at any time as a short-ranged grappling hook. It's initially used for traversal, so you can snag branches and ceiling beams to get over obstacles in your way, but if you hit an enemy with it, Sakuna instantly catapults herself behind it. You can also latch onto the ground to zipline around at high speeds, or use it to dodge attacks by firing yourself into the air. It works surprisingly well and intuitively, although the scarf's short range is a bit of a buzzkill.

What really got me interested in Sakuna, however, was that your special attack also launches enemies backward. If a flying enemy hits anything else, it does more damage in a single hit, as displayed by handy pop-up numbers on-screen, than any other attack in Sakuna's arsenal. Sakuna is a fun enough game on its own, with responsive controls, fluid graphics, the scarf, and a healthy amount of RPG-style character mechanics under the hood, but it really came alive for me when I realized how much it was incentivizing me to beat monsters to death with other monsters. Not enough games let you play full-contact death pinball.

The E3 demo of Sakuna ended with a big boss fight against an enormous skeletal monster that kept summoning additional enemies, causing the ground to explode into pillars of purple flames, and throwing homing orbs at me. Initially, it seemed like the key to winning was to keep switching sides on it, letting the projectiles collide with the boss and dissipate while I pummeled it with aerial combos. Eventually, though, it turned out that the easiest way to deal with the boss was to wait for it to try to sic its minions on me, and then smack them back into the boss's face like golf balls.

Sakuna, in the final version, will apparently feature a lot of cooking, as all the drops and treasure I found across the course of the level were various raw or preserved ingredients: fish, herbs, rice, etc. I also found a lot of farming equipment, like fertilizer. Whatever mechanics those were there to support, they weren't in the demo, so I can't really comment about them. I also never found any additional equipment for Sakuna, although she did come equipped in the demo with an ability that let her rapidly heal if I could park her somewhere for a few seconds without taking any additional damage.

There are a lot of X factors, then, about Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin. All I got a chance to play at E3 was a basic introduction to the game. I get the feeling it'll probably get a few dings from critics once it comes out on the basis that it really is a bit of a throwback title, but to my mind, there's always room for some well-done retro experiences. Sakuna feels like an upgrade to certain old-school side-scrolling action-RPGs like Faxanadu or Zelda II (or, more recently, something like Shovel Knight), but with enough modern-day speed and mobility to keep things feeling interesting.

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