I’ve been eagerly looking forward to Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin for what feels like forever. The concept of an action platformer / farming sim hybrid based on Japanese mythology was enough to get my attention when it was first announced back in 2017, but the way developers Edelweiss have talked about it more recently—describing it as “an ode to the artistry of cultivating rice”—have easily made it one of my most anticipated games of the year.
A few hours in, I’m delighted to say that Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is shaping up to be everything I could have hoped for, and then some.
The spoiled Princess Sakuna is the daughter of a harvest goddess and a god of war, though a pampered life in the palaces of the Lofty Realm mean she’s never had to even think of turning her mind to either. But when she gets caught up in a ruckus with a group of humans who somehow crossed the bridge from the mortal realm, she finds herself banished alongside her new companions to an island overrun with demons.
And so, in order to survive, Sakuna has to learn to grow rice. Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin goes to meticulous detail in its rice-farming system, putting you in charge of everything from planting the seedlings and minding water levels in the paddy to harvesting the crop, drying it out, threshing, and hulling the rice. The process itself is not overly complex (though it’s satisfying to see your way through the whole, end-to-end process for each harvest), but there’s also a lot to learn over time about how every little detail affects the quality of the final harvest.
But this rice-farming is more than just busywork, or labour for Sakuna as some form of punishment. It’s symbolic of a way of life that she’s never known, where care and attention to detail are fundamental, and where you have to put time and effort into things if you want to get something worthwhile out of it. She also has to learn to cooperate with the “lowly” mortals she now depends on—Sakuna can’t do everything by herself, after all.
She also has to learn to fight. Venturing out across the island in search of materials and ingredients is just as important to the group’s survival, and clearing out the demon hordes is their one shot at getting back to the lofty realm. This is where Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin takes on its action platformer shape, as you fight your way through a variety of side-scrolling levels armed with your (rather deadly) farming tools and a grappling hook-like divine raiment. Combat is fast and frantic, and though each area is largely linear, there are plenty of hidden areas to uncover and opportunities for clever platforming to lead you to some exciting treasure.
But fighting, too, is about rice. Sakuna doesn’t get stronger by fighting, as you’d expect from a typical RPG; instead, it’s the crops that she grows that bolster her stats. The quality of each harvest directly feeds into Sakuna becoming a stronger fighter.
Everything comes back to rice. Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is a game about the cultural significance of rice, and the traditional processes of growing it. It’s a game about growing as a person, with rice-farming as a metaphor for that. It’s a game about social disparity—between classes, between gods and humans, between foreigners and locals—and rice is an equaliser, both literal and symbolic. I’ve only played a few hours so far, but I can’t wait to see where the rest of the game takes these ideas.
“An ode to the artistry of cultivating rice” indeed.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin launches November 10 for PC globally and for PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch in North America, and November 20 for Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 in Europe and Oceania.