“I’m flyin’ high, baby!”
“Goodness, I’m so high up!”
Believe it or not, those two dialogue choices are how you pick between a male or female character, respectively. After a bad fall in Selphia, the prince or princess lands right on top of the ruling dragon. Unfortunately, the prince(ss) also contracted a bad case of amnesia and can’t remember anything past a name. The dragon, named Ventuswill, takes pity and invites her/him to stay, beginning the (mis)adventures of our memory challenged royalty.
In Rune Factory 4, your job as a visiting princess (or prince!) is to make the town of Selphia lively and thriving. This is done by increasing the number of tourists that come to Selphia, which in turn is accomplished by actions such as holding festivals and attracting new merchants to town.
These and other actions–such as getting new sale items in shops, acquiring new licenses, increasing the size of various objects, building monster barns, etc.–are carried out when the character gives an order. Orders are new to the Rune Factory series and require Princess/Prince points, which are gained through quests and other positive actions.
As a guest of the land, (s)he must also farm different kinds of crops and befriend the villagers, while aiding in quests. There are then main story quests that progress the plot, and side quests that net extra items and Prince(ss) points. In between all of this you can craft weapons, farming tools, equipment and armor, as well as cook a variety of dishes. As a bonus you can even tame monsters, which serves three purposes: to help you farm, to get cooking ingredients and to receive rare and valuable items.
Rune Factory 4 is best described as the farming-sim and marriage system of Harvest Moon combined with the slice of life, neighbors and daily events of Animal Crossing; there’s even some nice fantasy thrown into the works, if elves and talking ruler dragons didn’t tip you off already.
Everyday you start off taking care of any self-given chores–my own routine involved taking care of my monsters, planting and harvesting crops and then taking care of any issues in and out the town while chatting up all my neighbors.
Speaking of…well speaking, remember the main reason for the massive delay in this game’s release in the first place? It was because of all the dialogue that needed to be spot checked, which becomes very apparent when you factor in the unique daily convos for each neighbor, town events, character events and of course the main plot itself.
There’s so much to discover in dialogue alone, and the best part is that, unlike Animal Crossing‘s real-time, Rune Factory 4 runs on its own special time system (a full game day equals 24 minutes), letting you discover and complete everything on your own time.
Nestled in the myriad dialogue options is the friendship/marriage system. By speaking with neighbors everyday, as well as giving them gifts they like, you can raise your friendship meter with them. Since I chose the female character, she can pair up with almost all the male characters, sans the happily married Doctor Jones, eccentric Chef Porcoline, Blacksmith Bado and Butler Volkanon.
For the male character, he can also marry certain eligible bachelorettes, barring a few candidates (and no you can’t shack up with Ventuswill). Here’s a little tease: if you manage to successfully propose or get proposed to, you’ll have a special surprise waiting for you in the end.
While the friendship system does give you far more incentive to befriend and get closer with the townspeople, your use of it is completely optional. The game never forces you to marry, nor get past a certain level of friendship with anyone. And if you really need a quick party member, Forte will always agree to accompany you no matter what your friendship level is with her.
On top of the multitude of side activities, the princess must traverse several dungeons over the course of the game–yeah that’s right, royalty can fight, and well at that. That’s where the weapons, equipment and accessories you buy and create come into play. There are many types of weapons, so you can choose one or two main ones that fits your preferred playstyle. Keep in mind that each weapon does wield differently, so switching them on the fly to suit the situation at hand is vital.
The dungeons themselves are challenging and later on can become downright grueling, in both length and difficulty. Each one is filled with winding paths, tons of enemies and ends with a boss battle. After the first pushover boss shows you the ropes, later ones really pack a punch.
The combat itself isn’t some mindless affair either; even though you can move freely around in battle as you would in the field, you must read attack patterns carefully and dodge moves while keeping your health and RP high. This is also where it becomes useful to cultivate friendships among the villagers.
Sure, you can go it alone for every single dungeon but it’s much easier to bring up to two party members along, especially for extra healing and diverting enemy attacks from yourself. And for reference, any villager who you can befriend can fight, up to and including the kind old lady, who uses her fists in battle.
On a side note, there is no game over screen if the prince(ss)’s health drops to zero, but you’ll wish there was one once you see the exorbitant costs for being revived and treated in the town clinic. The prices are far too high, particularly if you’re just starting out in the game. And if you can’t afford the price of admission, the doctor will regretfully take all of your money. Makes me wish my own princess could exploit his fear of blood and throw some from her wounds into his face.
If his wife revives you, though, she won’t charge you (bless her soul). However, I generally found myself restarting from my last save state if I died in combat, to avoid the fee in the first place. I suppose this too simulates the perils of real life medical care.
Rune Factory 4 never overwhelms you with all you can do but instead gives you the chance to try out a multitude of different tasks while letting you learn everything at your own pace. The farming is easy, never tedious and yields high rewards for very little effort. The combat is excellent as well and is easy to grasp yet takes a while to fully master.
The characters and dialogue are varied, interesting and undeniably charming. There are absolutely no complaints on the soundtrack front and the character designs are adorable and well-suited for the tone of the game.
In terms of tutorials, while some might not appreciate the long period of hand-holding, the game never once forces you to suffer through overly long and boring tutorials. There are side quests that introduce you to the game’s various mechanics but they’re completely optional. Honestly they’re worth doing due to the ease and rewards. I actually was ahead of the game in certain areas but in others, the quests came in handy. And I could work independently right from the beginning.
A special mention should go to the plot, which is simple yet incredibly effective. During the course of the story, I bonded with every townsperson, and especially with Ventuswill, whom the plot focuses on. I’ve actually teared up at some points because I genuinely felt the character’s suffering. And while the other characters in the game have their personality flaws, you never stop caring about them and their lives.
The plot makes each one of them come alive and by the end of the game, I found myself sharing an unbreakable bound with all of my precious neighbors, just as strongly as the main character does. It’s refreshing to play a JRPG that doesn’t require characters to contemplate their navels every five minutes to make them human and relatable.
The few flaws of this game are rather minor and nitpicky, but they’re still there. For instance, the aforementioned fee for revival is far too steep. The price is never balanced nor reasonable, even when you first start the game and barely have a piece of gold to your name.
Another issue, albeit a rare one, is the occasionally wonky collision physics. Occasionally, my princess got easily trapped in certain areas, thanks to either an item or even a party member blocking my way. Normally a character can go through other characters in a video game to prevent this issue but in Rune Factory 4, each character is completely solid.
One time during a dungeon, I brought alone two party members and got trapped between them and a rock. I thought I would never squeeze out because the other members refused to move. Worse, it was an area that caused continuous damage just by being there. And if I died or was forced to restart then, I would have lost a good chuck of dungeon progression. Luckily, I managed to squeeze my princess out.
I also found the ease of accidentally flying into another area while attacking in the field, which can be annoying when you’re trying to defeat an enemy. The good thing about this is that if the enemy dropped an item and you accidentally run into a different area, the item stays there until you pick it up so you’ll never lose any rare drops.
Finally, I’m fully aware of an issue in previous Rune Factory games in which a surprise typhoon would hit the town and cause players to loose an entire harvest on their farm. However, in this version you can purchase an item called Wetter that boosts your crops’ survivability rate, so having my crops destroyed wasn’t an issue for me, even in winter months when storms can occur much more frequently.
Rune Factory 4 has very little flaws and surprisingly deep mechanics. The pacing of the game is entirely up to you, as it’s possible to beat the game as slowly or quickly as possible. The optional side quests and busy work can be mastered at your own pace as well and you can choose your level of involvement. There are tons secrets to explore, which will happily keep you playing for many hours.
Overall, it may sound like Rune Factory 4 is a Jack of All Trades, Master of None type of game but it somehow combines all the separate gameplay features into a excellent, highly polished and addictive game that is greater than the sum of its parts. Even if you’re a newcomer to the series (like me) or to the genre of simulations as a whole (me again), you’d be hard-pressed to find a game as downright fun as Rune Factory 4.