Review: Rune Factory 4 Special is fantasy farming RPG bliss

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Few games are quite as relaxing as farming simulation RPGs. Growing crops, raising livestock, and getting to know—and eventually marry and settle down with—charming townspeople is such a soothing way to pass the time, especially in a medium that’s so obsessed with grand adventures and saving worlds. That’s what made the original Harvest Moon so charming in the first place, and that legacy carries on strongly with the Story of Seasons series and the likes of Stardew Valley.

Still, sometimes you want a little bit more action to go with your agricultural life; that’s where Rune Factory comes in. Conceived as “Harvest Moon where you wield a sword”, Rune Factory put a fantasy spin on those farming elements, and mixed in a dose of action RPG as you ventured out into the wilderness in search of materials and monsters to tame.

Rune Factory 4 Special—a Switch remaster of 2012’s Rune Factory 4 for 3DS—is proof that when the balance between those elements is just right, the results can be sublime.

Taking place in a fantasy town ruled over by a benevolent dragon, Rune Factory 4 Special casts you as an amnesiac hero who gets mistaken for a visiting princess (or prince)—a mistake that’s soon realised, but everyone decides to run with the charade anyway. For reasons, among the princess’ duties is taking care of the castle’s farm, growing crops for the townspeople and to sell, and so forth. The “princess” has no objection to this, but she’s also a plucky sort who soon winds up venturing beyond the town gates, and finds herself embroiled in a strange situation where defeated monsters keep turning into people—further amnesiacs, to boot.

So is Rune Factory 4 Special‘s game loop set up: each in-game day will typically start with tending to your farm, harvesting crops, and deciding what you want to box up for sale and what you want to hold onto. Once that’s all sorted, the rest of the day will likely be spent either exploring the forests and dungeons outside the town, undertaking quests for your fellow villagers, or participating in one of the many festivals that crop up.

What makes this work so well is how closely these seemingly disparate systems integrate. Farming alone will only get you so far; if you want materials to craft better tools, monsters to act as livestock or farmhands, and new seeds to plant, you need to go out and find those things. Likewise, your capacity for adventuring would be limited without the agricultural produce that feeds into things like healing items and stronger weapons and armour. There’s an elegant ebb and flow there.

At the same time, you’re not rigidly locked into a forced split between the two sides of the game. How you spend each day is ultimately up to you, and some days will naturally lean more heavily (or completely) to one thing or another. You might spend all your stamina—which is shared between different activities—on the day’s farming, and decide to have an early night. You might wake up, see that none of your crops are ready to harvest and that they don’t even need watering thanks to a bout of rain, and dedicate your day to exploring and monster hunting.

The other piece to Rune Factory 4 Special‘s puzzle is a greater emphasis on plot than is typical for these sorts of games. It’s clear from the opening—which has been updated for the Switch version—that there’s more to both the town’s dragon matriarch and the hero you play. Through a few twists and turns, that develops into a tale about the strength that lies in true friendship and the lengths that people (and dragons) will go to for those they care about. It’s familiar JRPG fare, sure, but it’s moving nonetheless, thanks in no small part to the delightful characters the story revolves around and an English localisation that’s brimming with personality.

With the original Rune Factory 4 being limited to the 3DS and its low resolution, the most obvious improvement in Rune Factory 4 Special is the improved display. Everything’s been upscaled to fit the Switch screen, and it looks fantastic—the bright, pastel-hued world really pops at the higher resolutions. The most pleasant surprise in all this is how well the many 2D assets look in their upscaled form; pixel art tends to look like a blurry mess if those crisp pixels aren’t kept intact, but Rune Factory 4 Special uses smoothing filter that makes all the item icons, plant sprites and the like look almost like they’ve been hand-painted.

This new release also includes new cutscenes and illustrations, an additional difficulty mode to challenge Rune Factory 4 veterans, and a “Newlywed Mode” that sees you playing through an additional storyline alongside your spouse.

All these things help to make Rune Factory 4 Special a wonderful addition to anyone’s Switch library. If you’ve never played Rune Factory (or any other farming RPG) before, it’s a perfect introduction to one of the most relaxing genres in videogames; if you have, it’s a great way to re-experience a delightful series that’s been on hiatus for a while now, and get ready for Rune Factory 5 on the horizon.

Score: 5 stars

The publisher provided a copy of Rune Factory 4 Special to Shindig for reviewing purposes.

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About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.