The Harvest Moon series made quite a name for itself when it first released on the SNES in 1996, trading the typical combat-centric trappings of an RPG in favour of a much more laid-back and slower-paced focused on farming. Many sequels would follow in the coming years, and on the tenth anniversary, Marvelous produced an interesting experiment for the DS called Rune Factory.
This new title was billed by its creators as “Harvest Moon where you wield a sword” and it promised to bring in many of the traditional RPG elements that the series had previously eschewed. This balanced take on farming and combat proved to also be a hit with fans, spawning a sub-series that is due to continue very soon thanks to the impending Rune Factory 5. In anticipation of this forthcoming release, Marvelous has seen fit to release Rune Factory 4 Special – a re-released version of the 2013 3DS title – for the Nintendo Switch, which ostensibly will stand as the definitive version of the seminal outing. Fortunately, Marvelous has stuck the landing with this one; Rune Factory 4 has lost none of the charm that made it a modern classic and the additional benefits of this re-release only serve to improve on this already firm foundation.
Rune Factory 4 Special opens with your avatar arriving in Selphia via an airship to make a special delivery to the presiding dragon, Ventuswill, but things quickly go awry when the ship is accosted by soldiers. In the ensuing struggle, your character is conveniently struck with amnesia and falls off the ship, plummeting into a castle below. It is here that Ventuswill and her butler ascertain that your character must be the Prince(ss) they’ve been expecting, and you’re quickly saddled with the responsibilities and expectations of a ruling monarch. From this point, the plot slowly deepens into a larger narrative that ultimately centres on Ventuswill, but it also somewhat takes a backseat. Sure, the story is always there to progress if you so desire, but there is no sense of urgency.
Although the overarching narrative is just sort of ‘there’, the real strength of the storytelling is found in the writing. Selphia is populated by a friendly and diverse cast of characters, and each of them are integral in building the cozy and charming atmosphere that you experience throughout your stay. Whether it be the overwhelmingly bubbly personality of the chef, Porcoline, or the strongly disciplined stoicism of the soldier, Forte, there’s a nice dynamic to how all these different types play off of each other, and that’s only deepened as the months roll by and you come to understand them all better. Underlying it all is a welcome sense of quirky humour, too, often playing on how the main character is something of an ‘outsider’. For example, the letterbox where you pick up requests introduces herself to you as Eliza, but when you mention this to anyone else in town, you’re treated to funny looks and confused replies.
Rune Factory 4 Special is an extremely open-ended experience right from the beginning, granting you almost full control over what you want to do with a given day. There are no right or wrong answers about what you should be doing, especially given that quite literally everything you do will level up some obscure stat or skill. All the expected staples, such as weapon or magic proficiency, are present, but it’s the weirder ones that prove to be delightful. Case in point, you gain experience for your ‘Sleeping’ stat, just by going to bed each day. There’s even a walking stat that goes up just by you going from place to place. It’s tough to get through any given day without inadvertently levelling up at least four or five different stats as you go about your business. This, then, creates something of an infinitely rewarding progression loop, as you’re constantly progressing your character and building yourself up no matter what you do.
Most days will likely be oriented in some way around the excellent farming gameplay, which stands as your main source of income. You start out with just one plot of land (more are unlocked later) which you can tend however you like, and diligent effort must be put in daily to ensure that the plot remains clear of debris, watered, hoed, and harvested. As your character matures and furthers their connection to the town, new seed types will become available at the local store so you can diversify your crop and reap better rewards depending on the season. This also gives you more ingredients for usage in cooking, which can lead to the creation of many helpful consumables for when you go on dungeon runs or work a particularly long day in the fields.
On the other hand, if you aren’t feeling up to tasks like farming, fishing, or cooking, you can take up your sword or axe and explore deeper into various dungeons in the lands beyond the town limits. Though the environments are rarely all that interesting from a design perspective – there isn’t much in the way of puzzles or varied geography – they’re sure to be packed with all manner of treasure that can either benefit you directly or be sold off back in town.
Combat is admittedly simplistic, basically just a matter of swiping and occasionally blocking, but it gets the job done and provides just enough action to keep things interesting. There’s an impressive array of monsters on offer, and if you happen to gift them food or something else that they like, you can potentially recruit them to come live with you on the farm. From this point, you can then care for them in exchange for goods like milk or wool, and you can even have them do chores on the farm or join you in combat as an extra party member.
It wouldn’t be a proper Harvest Moon title without an element of romance to it, and Rune Factory 4 Special offers this too by giving you several people of both genders whom you can potentially marry. Through daily conversation, gifting them things like flower bouquets and favourite items, or inviting them on dungeon crawls with you, a steady rapport is built with your chosen partner that can eventually blossom into a rewarding relationship that also grants you additional gameplay benefits. Your mileage here will obviously vary depending on how much importance you place on building virtual relationships in games such as these, but it’s nonetheless a major part of the gameplay loop and a welcome feature to help build immersion in the world.
We feel that special mention needs to be raised around the striking way in which Rune Factory 4 Special executes an addictive synergy that permeates everything you do as the hours roll by. Generally speaking, games that widen the scope of their gameplay in the name of ‘variety’ do so at the risk of becoming unfocused or disjointed. Some aspects may feel tacked on or undercooked, such as uninspired ‘crafting’ systems that are rampant in many AAA releases, and the disparate parts can often feel like less than their total sum.
That issue is almost completely avoided in Rune Factory 4 Special, however, by how literally everything you do feeds into the next thing. For example, farming is intrinsically necessary for succeeding in the combat portions and the same is true for the opposite. Putting more hours into Rune Factory 4 Special is a bit like pushing a snowball down a hill and watching it build in size and momentum as it gets farther down. Despite how many different ideas and gameplay types are at play here, it’s remarkable how Rune Factory 4 Special feels like a surprisingly cohesive and well-constructed whole that continually draws you in with new goals and incentives.
Now, as for the Switch-exclusive features that necessitate that “Special” suffix, admittedly there isn’t a ton here to act as an additional draw. The main selling points are the Newlywed and Another Episode modes, which offer up a variety of cutscenes and scenarios that further the stories of various characters in their married life. Beyond that, there are the newfound HD visuals, which have been retooled now for a single-screen experience, and an additional harder difficulty mode for those who want more challenge. Although these extra features do notably build upon the core experience, it’s critical that none of them prove to be particularly substantial. Those of you that already put a hefty amount of hours into the original release will want to think hard, then, on just how badly you want Rune Factory 4 Special on your Switch. For better or worse, this is basically the same game that released seven years ago for the 3DS, just cleaned up a bit for the new generation.
From a presentation perspective, Rune Factory 4 Special manages to satisfy but doesn’t really impress. Though the visuals have certainly been given the HD treatment, it’s abundantly obvious that this title was designed with much weaker hardware in mind. Models are chunky and textures are often blurry, and such visual issues are only made even more apparent when playing in docked mode. That’s not to say that Rune Factory 4 Special looks bad, but there’s no mistaking this one for an original release built from the ground up for Switch. The soundtrack fares a little better, mixing together a slew of relaxing and peaceful music that does well to accompany the day-to-day slice of life activity, but it doesn’t have much staying power.
There’s something here for everyone in Rune Factory 4 Special, but its greatest strength is how it ties together everything into one thoroughly enjoyable package. Varied gameplay, strong writing, and an emphasis on progressing at your own pace make this one of the best farm sim games available on the Switch to date. We’d give this one a high recommendation to anyone looking for an engaging yet undemanding game for their Switch. With that being said, those of you who have already played it on the 3DS may want to pause before buying it again, as the new features alone do little to justify the cost of entry once more. Either way, Rune Factory 4 Special proves itself to be a modern classic and a shining example of how good this genre can be; make sure to give it a shot.