Rune Factory: Frontier
As someone who’s recently waved goodbye to Dorset and taken up residence in the sprawling concrete maze that is London, the pastoral delights of Rune Factory: Frontier come as a welcome addition to my new field-free existence. Its rolling green landscapes probably conjure even more distinct a sensation for players in the urban landscape of Japan, which possibly explains why developer Neverland Co. saw fit to spin-off Marvelous Entertainment’s quaint Harvest Moon series in the first place. People love nature.
Nature, conversely, does not love people. Rune Factory’s unique blend of farming, dating and dungeon-crawling is by no means a simplistic task, with a dense layering of multiple choices and options all thrown into a game that makes very little effort to educate its befuddled players. The basic gist, as is always the way, is that you follow a girl into the village of Trampoli and quickly settle into your gigantic new home with nothing but a pocketful of seeds and a rusty hoe.
Any good farmer needs a wife, so one of the main objectives of the game is schmoozing Trampoli’s collection of lovely stereotypical fillies and convincing your favourite that you never squeeze the toothpaste from the middle and almost always leave the toilet seat down. They, naturally, need a little more than sweet nothings and must be won over by offering them the correct haul of neatly grown vegetables and also the voluminous wealth obtained from becoming a master gardener.
Crafting out your destiny demands an impeccable sense of time keeping as well as mental dexterity with constant multitasking needed to progress across Rune Factory’s agrarian nights, with an in-game hour lasting one minute. Sifting through your never-ending to-do pile is very much the order of the game, with you needing to balance daily chores alongside fraternising, shopping, cooking and looking after your seasonal crop.
Occasionally it all becomes a bit stressful, with you inadvertently getting caught up in the minutiae, going to bed late and subsequently oversleeping the next day – how on Earth am I supposed to find the time to tend to the strawberry patch now, dammit? But most of the time it’s quite relaxing, with the game happily plodding by with genteel background music that encourages you to think longingly about bygone eras and simpler times.
On the side – and this is where Rune Factory most noticeably deviates from Harvest Moon’s mould – you’ll find yourself thwacking your way through Trampoli’s seasonal dungeons and turning your foes into willing farmhand slaves, which nicely gives you more time for heading off on extended dungeon crawls to murder your way through their best friends and pillage their corpses for profit.
There’s also a complex system of rune stones and ‘Runeys’, in-game spirits that cause an area of land to become more prosperous but threaten to eat each other if left unchecked. It’s just another thing you’ve got to be constantly looking after to achieve farming utopia.
Trampoli never quite manages to emulate the sense of a living, breathing community in quite the same way that Animal Crossing does – time stands still when you switch off the Wii, for instance – but there’s a large cast of personalities and characters that, when you’re playing, feel alive. They make you go about your day to day tasks with a greater sense of purpose than just flogging the end result for cash: a perfect haul of yams is even sweeter when they’re going somewhere specific.
The complexities can grind you down, however, and the ever-present sense of there being more things to do than there are minutes in the day is one part of real-life I would happily prefer to never see converted into a videogame formula.
But it’s a big, hefty package that, given enough time to settle, becomes unique and compulsive. I’m no great lover of the Harvest Moon series, but Rune Factory manages to succeed by adding in additional layers of complexity and impetus that help shape it into an experience that feels more pressing and urgent at all times.
The cynic in me leads me to believe a combination of RPG and farming simulator will have little appeal to the fans of both genres, but Rune Factory: Frontier, like peanut butter and Marmite on toast, is an unlikely combination that works in ways better than I could have possibly imagined.
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