Review: Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin – ‘For the glory of rice!’

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In my first few hours with it, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin felt like it was shaping up to be something truly special. A couple of dozen hours later, and it’s one of my favourite games of the year. Here’s why.

Sakuna is about as spoilt as any goddess can be. She’s a harvest goddess, but having lived her entire life in the capital of the Lofty Realm, with an inheritance of enough rice to live off for multiple lifetimes, she’s never so much as glanced at a paddy field. The annual offering she has to give to Kamuhitsuki, the queen of the Lofty Realm, is barely a dent in her hoards. With that kind of upbringing, it’s no surprise that she’s grown into something akin to Veruca Salt.

That all changes with a fateful encounter with a group of “children of men”—mortal humans—caught trying to sneak into heaven. An already tense situation gets ten times worse when Sakuna starts throwing her weight around, and the ensuing chaos wreaks havoc across the capital and brings the full wrath of Kamuhitsuki down on the group. Their punishment: exile to Hinoe, a demon-infested island found somewhere in the mists between the Lofty Realm and Lowly Realm, from which they can’t leave until they bring the demonic presence under control. And if they’re going to do that, they need to be able to fend for themselves. Sakuna, this spoilt harvest goddess who’s never worked a day in her life, is going to have to learn to cultivate rice.

So begins Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin, a game about a young goddess from learning humility and the value of hard work, about a group of misfits finding their place in a world in turmoil, and about the cultural importance of rice to Japan.

A screenshot from Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin

Of Rice

Rice is much more than just a type of food in Japan. One of the country’s many classical names is the Land of Abundant Rice—Mizuho no Kuni. Rice has been used as offerings to ancestors, as a part of religious ceremonies, and as currency. Rice has influenced the very structure of Japanese society, from the Yayoi period’s agrarian shift brought about by the introduction of wet farming techniques to a stratification of wealth tied directly to people’s ability (or not) to grow rice in large quantities and store it. To this day, blessing rice crops is an important part of the enthronement ceremony for Japanese emperors.

It’s this tradition that Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin looks to explore and to celebrate, and achieves brilliantly. Through a story about someone who takes rice for granted as just a readily-available food, who then finds herself in a situation where she has no choice but to painstakingly learn those cultivation techniques that came to define Japan’s ancient history, it’s a beautiful showcase of everything that makes rice such a culturally, historically important grain.

Related: If you like Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin, you might also enjoy God Wars: Future Past, a tactical RPG that delves deep into Japanese mythology. Here’s our review of the updated Switch release.

These are lessons that, for Sakuna—and, by extension, the player—are hard-earned. Rice is a labour-intensive crop to grow, especially when you’re doing everything by hand, and Sakuna involves you in every step of the process, from tilling fields and preparing fertiliser to finally harvesting, threshing, and hulling your rice. There’s plenty of laborious work that goes into these systems, but that’s deliberate—growing rice is about discipline, focus, and attention to detail.

A screenshot from Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin

To start off with, you’re planting individual seedlings by hand, one at a time, trying to be mindful about even spacing. When you’re threshing the rice you’ve grown, you’re doing that slowly and manually, a handful of stalks at a time. When you’re hulling your crop, it’s a slow, monotonous (or oddly meditative, depending on your mood and perspective) process of pounding the grains, over and over again, until they’re sufficiently polished.

“Growing rice goes beyond just being a way of producing food or currency; it’s a philosophical outlook and a way of life.”

But this is all important and necessary for the point that Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is trying to drive home. A good harvest doesn’t come from shortcuts and rushing the job; it comes from discipline, from care, from being methodical. With a bit of knowledge and a lot of care, you can grow a masterful crop of rice: every action you take as part of the cultivation process, from how close or far apart you plant the seedlings, to the water levels at different stages of growth, to when in the cycle of seasons you choose to harvest your crop, affects the yield, taste, aroma, and other qualities of your rice. Knowledge will come with practice and guidance, but discipline is something you have to bring to the table.

Sakuna’s own personal growth from spoilt brat to a goddess worthy of the adoration her more immature self demanded, is reflected in her growth as a rice farmer. In the beginning, she’s brash, careless, and lazy, but by the time the credits roll, she’s grown into a humble, disciplined, hard-working character who’s always ready to do what needs to be done for the people around her. Growing rice goes beyond just being a way of producing food or currency; it’s a philosophical outlook and a way of life.

A screenshot from Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin

You see this in the people around Sakuna, too. They’re a bunch of outcasts—a cowardly samurai turned bandit, a boisterous kid who ran away from home, a shy and awkward young girl, an adventurous soul trapped in a toddler’s body, and a missionary from a foreign land who found little welcome in Japan. They don’t help with the farmwork directly, but they all contribute, be it preparing food, smithing new tools, or helping to gather food and materials. They’re a mismatched bunch who struggle to get along at first, but over time, they find their place in this world and what amounts to a surrogate family. They’re each on their own journey, but going in the same direction and learning to work together for the good of the whole group.

What’s particularly impressive is how Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin‘s reflects this growth in the game systems, too. As Sakuna grows more experienced, she learns new skills that help make the whole cultivation process a little quicker and a little easier: the ability to plant two (or three, or four, or more) seedlings at once, nicely spaced apart; the ability to thresh more stalks at once; incremental little increases to the animation speed for every little action you take.

New tools and machines help speed up the process further still, but not before you’re well acquainted with the manual ways of doing things, and can appreciate the benefits those machines bring without taking them for granted. By the end of the game, your annual cultivation process runs like a smooth, well-oiled machine, both because of Sakuna’s growing abilities and your own experience with these systems—a perfect metaphor for the personal growth at the heart of Sakuna’s story.

A screenshot from Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin

Of Ruin

But Sakuna’s life is not one of simply toiling away in the rice paddy. Hinoe is an island overrun by demons, and as the only god in the group, Sakuna’s the only one who can fend them off. Foraging beyond the safety of the group’s mountain base is vital for things like ingredients—rice, important though it is, can’t be an entire diet—and materials with which to craft new tools. There’s also the question of the ultimate task given to Sakuna by Kamuhitsuki, to investigate the source of the infestation and rid the island of demons once and for all.

To that end, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin sees you venturing across the island, armed with your farm tools and a grappling hook-like “Divine Raiment”. Each new area is a 2D platformer-style level, with a light exploration element but a focus on fast-paced, combo-heavy action. Demons are plentiful, but Sakuna is a more than capable fighter, especially as she gets stronger.

Which brings us back to rice. Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is an RPG, but Sakuna doesn’t level up through experience points in the traditional way. Instead, she levels up with each harvest, the qualities of the crop directly corresponding to her combat stats. Want more HP? Focus on developing your rice’s yield. More strength? Improve your crop’s taste, and so on. Sakuna’s special combat skills also come directly from reaching certain milestones in her agrarian growth. 

A screenshot from Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin

Without delving too much into the details for the sake of not wanting to spoil anything, the demon infestation is, in its own way, also tied to rice—or the lack thereof. In Yanato, Sakuna‘s ever-so-slightly fictionalised version of Japan, the Lowly Realm of mortals and the Lofty Realm where the gods reside are closely intertwined. When there’s war and conflict in the Lowly Realm, demons appear in the Lofty Realm; when there’s peace and prosperity above, that begets peace and prosperity below. 

Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin takes place during a time of great famine in the Lowly Realm, bringing with it poverty and fighting over scarce resources. Though it’s never outright stated in the game, all signs point to the game taking place around the early Edo period—or at least, Yanato’s version of that. This is a time when rice was already scarce for most people, due to the heavy taxes the Tokugawa bakufu collected from the various domains as a way of maintaining control and preventing an uprising, and the situation only made worse by events like the Kan’ei Great Famine. There’s more to Hinoe’s demonic infestation than the famine, but Yanato’s version of Kan’ei (or something like it, at least), is at least a catalyst in everything that’s going on. Rice is a source of life; its absence, a source of struggle.

Though it doesn’t go into any great depth, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin doesn’t shy away from touching on some of the other troubles of the Edo period—inequality in particular. Through Sakuna’s human companions and their tales that slowly come to light, the game questions the power imbalances between wealthy and poor, between samurai and peasant, between native and foreigner, between ruler and subject. It’s not a deep dive into any of these things, but enough to at least question the status quo of the day—and, by extension, the inequalities  that persist today. Unsurprisingly, given everything so far, this too comes back to rice: when it’s not hoarded or weaponised, a good harvest and the prosperity that follows can be an equaliser that benefits everyone.

A screenshot from Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin

That all sounds heavy, and it is, but what might be one of Sakuna‘s most impressive achievements is how it’s able to weave such nuance through a story that is, for the most part, lighthearted and cheerful. It’s full of hilarious little interactions between quirky characters and genuinely heartwarming moments, made all the better thanks to a stunning translation effort. And, as deep as it goes into a topic that you could dedicate a whole lifetime to studying, it’s never pointy-headed or dry. Endearing characters, a gripping story, and beautiful presentation help make the world of Yanato, even with all its demons and troubles, a warm and inviting one. 

Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is utterly sublime. A game about the cultural and historical importance of rice, as seen through a comical twist on Japanese mythology, delivered by a mash-up of farming life sim and action platformer might sound like an odd concept, but Sakuna takes this wholly unique premise and delivers on it to perfection. 

Score: 5 stars

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Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is developed by Edelweiss and published by Marvelous / XSEED. It launches on PC, Switch (NA), and PlayStation 4 (NA) on November 10, and on Switch (EU/ANZ) and PlayStation 4 (EU/ANZ) on November 20.

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.

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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.