Rune Factory 4 Special Review — It’s Always Been Special To Me
Rune Factory 4 maintains its full and outstanding spark, charm, and polish for the Switch audience. The new content isn't substantial, but the old content remains exceptional. This is absolutely worth your time.
Ahhh, Selphia. I missed you. It’s good to be home again.
I played the ever-loving hell out of Rune Factory 4 back on the 3DS, so getting the chance to revisit the Switch version was a welcome task. Even with this prior history, however, I’m amazed at how effortlessly it drew me in. The hardest part of writing this review has genuinely been dragging myself away from the game long enough to do so. Odds are that once I’m done here, I’ll be right back to it. Let that stand as a ringing endorsement of the game if nothing else.
For those just tuning in, Rune Factory is a farming life sim that began as a fantasy spinoff of the Harvest Moon series (and which changed its name to Story of Seasons following disputes with Natsume over the title). It sought to spice up the more relaxed series by introducing magic, monsters, and other such elements to the mix. Rune Factory 4 was the latest in that subseries, and it added the most features, opportunities, and mechanical depth to date.
The game opens with a brief introduction of the player character (you choose the name and gender but no other customization at first) on an airship. They’re on a mission, but we don’t learn what that is because they’re promptly attacked by stowaway soldiers. Moments later, it’s revealed that they’ve come down with a case of amnesia — a Rune Factory staple — and promptly get punted off the airship.
You crash land on top of a dragon named Ventuswill, who assumes you’re the prince that’s due to arrive in town. It’s quickly clear that that’s not the case when the actual prince Arthur shows up, but that doesn’t stop him from foisting his responsibilities on you to focus on other tasks. With your sudden royalty established, you’re set up to live in the town of Selphia until your memory returns.
Though it comes across as something of an excuse plot at first, there’s a lot more going on here. As you play more, new characters will be introduced to Selphia, and new plot threads are uncovered. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it’s present, and it’ll take you through several interesting arcs over the course of the game.
With that in mind, Rune Factory 4 never forces such a thing on you. Like the series it originates from, it’s a farming life sim first and foremost. Your day-to-day activities will involve you restoring and managing the farm in Selphia, growing crops, and taming monsters. Beyond that, you can wander the town and interact with the many characters. The real meat of the story is in the dialogue of this colourful cast. Even the most bizarre or bland of them quickly proves to have a lot of personality, and I found myself happy to chat with and befriend them as the days passed.
No good life sim is complete without the ability to take those friendships one step further, however. To that end, there are 12 romanceable characters among the cast: six bachelors and six bachelorettes. There aren’t any same-sex options, however, so keep that in mind if that’s something you’re looking for. And no, the dragon Ventuswill is not dateable. As you befriend your chosen waifu/husbando, you’ll get the option to profess your love, go on dates, and eventually marry and have a child. Margaret is best girl, don’t @ me.
For many, this is likely the thing they’ll aspire towards in Rune Factory 4. With all that said, relationships take time to develop, so you’ll be off partaking in the rest of the game’s activities in the meantime. Beyond farming and interacting with Selphia’s denizens, you’ll be able to roam around the game’s world, fighting/taming monsters and plumbing the depths of dungeons. There’s a hell of a lot to find in these places, and lots of materials to gather from defeated enemies or resource points scattered around.
Once you’ve got your haul back to Selphia, you can choose to sell it off or stockpile it for use in the crafting system. You can make all sorts of weapons and equipment, as well as farming implements or medicines. There’s also a ton of cooking recipes as well, many of which offer consumable buffs that will be crucial in clearing some of the harder content. You can also level up your equipment by fusing various materials to them for added effects, so there’s a use for damn near everything you find.
Leveling up also extends back to your farming, too. Better farm tools make your chores quicker, which means you can expand your operations to more fields in less time. Improving the quality of soil and seeds means the crops you grow also improve, having stronger effects and higher value. You can grow crops into giant versions of themselves, have an orchard of replenishing fruit trees, or even grow a dungeon to clear out. Everything you do ties back into farming, and in return it allows you to excel at these other activities.
One of the best features of Rune Factory 4 is the skills system. Much like an Elder Scrolls game, your character will pick up a huge array of skills that can all be individually leveled up. Your various weapons, magic elements, and crafting types all fall into these, but even basic or esoteric stuff like Eating, Sleeping, and Bathing all have a skill. Increasing these will gradually increase your base stats as well, so no matter what you choose to do, you’re making progress and becoming more capable.
Because of this, the wealth of content on offer in Rune Factory 4 never becomes too overbearing. You don’t have to rush the plot, or maximize your farming early, or any other such thing. It’s up to you to determine what you want to do on each given day. There’s a lot more to do than another game of its ilk, but the leisurely sense of playing at your own pace remains.
It’d be fair to say that Rune Factory 4 is very much greater than the sum of its parts. Part of the reason it can flood the player with content is because most of the pieces are fairly simple. There’s depth to juggling all the various moving parts and maximizing your stats, sure. But taken on its own, each mechanic is fairly straightforward.
Combat is an action-RPG affair that sees you mostly mashing your attack button with your weapon of choice. You have the ability to dash as a soft dodge, and this can combo into a different attack, but beyond this, it’s very basic. You also can equip magic abilities to supplement this, but you’ll rarely be doing anything truly complex. Dungeons are long sequences of small rooms with very light puzzles and a mix of enemies on offer. Even on the higher difficulties, it mostly comes down to moving at the right times and having higher stats or more healing than the opponent.
Again, though, this all ends up serving the package as a whole. Combat isn’t too deep, but it increases your skills and grants materials for crafting. The crafting lets you proceed further, and also helps you with the farming. The farming likewise can give you stronger materials, consumables, or produce the right items to gift townsfolk. You can even use them on some monsters to befriend them, taking them into combat to supplement your abilities or keeping them on the farm to do chores and produce materials. Simple pieces, but it makes for a very large and beautiful puzzle.
By now, you hopefully have a good idea of what’s in store for you in Rune Factory 4. Everything I’ve said so far has all been true of the original 3DS release, though. So what else is new about Rune Factory 4 Special?
There have been a few adjustments made to compensate for the lack of the 3DS dual screen on a Switch. The second screen was usually dedicated to a minimap or other information, but instead, this is now presented in a transparent window in the corner. You can resize the minimap with a press of ZL, though, so it doesn’t get too intrusive. There’s also been a number of tweaks that allow you to enlarge text boxes, while ZR has been mapped to the frequently used Escape spell. Enough care and concessions were put in to make sure the transition to a different screen size is smooth, which is appreciated.
With all that said, it’s still very much a 3DS game in terms of appearance. The resolution has been increased and many of the models or images have been smoothed out, so the game looks far less pixelated than the original. Unfortunately, this is something of a double-edged sword; many of the flat images now look dull and simplistic despite the clarity. It was a lot harder to tell how everything was compressed to fit a 3DS screen and cartridge, but now that illusion has been lifted. The 3D models look good enough, but it’s all still clearly born of a handheld game. Those expecting high graphical fidelity won’t find it here, though the developers have done their utmost nonetheless.
Beyond the presentation, a few little additions have made their way into the port. English and Japanese dual audio is now available, toggled from the menu. There’s a new difficulty mode that’s quite punishing, but I honestly just found it more of a nuisance than an interesting challenge. Some games better suit being challenged on high difficulty, but Rune Factory 4’s combat depth is too basic and stat-driven to really warrant it. It’s there should you desire, however!
As for the new content… there isn’t all that much to it. Both showcased additions to Special are available on the main menu, but you won’t be able to access them immediately. Another Episode is a series of short segments displayed and voiced like a visual novel, each one focusing on a romanceable character. There’s also a bonus one for Ventuswill, which is the closest fans of the dragon goddess are gonna get this time around. Ultimately, these are simple, short, sweet, but not a particularly large chunk of content. They’re also DLC, but will be free for the first month or so if you get the game early.
The Newlywed Mode adds more gameplay in the form of an epilogue with your partner after you get married. Again, there’s one for each, and these remain locked until you marry that specific character in a playthrough. Given the overall length of the game, only the absolutely dedicated or determined are ever likely to see all of these.
But here’s the rub: I didn’t get to play any of these episodes in the course of my review. This isn’t for lack of trying, either. I clocked up well over 40 hours of playtime on Switch, and I’ve beaten the 3DS version previously. I know what I’m doing to speed things along, but outside of rushing and ignoring non-essentials, it didn’t happen. Not only did I not make it to marrying a character, but I’m not even close! I only really just started dating my waifu of choice. As such, I honestly can’t tell you about the quality of this new content or what’s entailed. I intend to come back after the game has launched and cover it once I get there, but I just wasn’t able to get through enough to make it in time for this review.
Despite this conundrum, I think it loops right back around to showcasing just how much content there is in Rune Factory 4. This game is utterly enormous. It’s varied, it’s engaging, and it’s a great time. Whether doing chores at a relaxed pace or grinding hard to overcome a particular challenge, this holds true.
There is a major criticism I can offer, however. Town Events will spring up at random throughout your game. These involve a selection of the cast and some antics going on in their lives, and often lead to some great insight into their personality or history. Nonetheless, these events are random. On a day determined by the game (it’s not set), one of these events will trigger. Your save file will always have an event trigger on that day, and reloading prior to that day will let you cycle through events to access a particular one if you’re dedicated.
Now, this might not be an issue if these were exclusively minor little events. The problem is, these Town Events also include a number of key scenes. In order to marry your partner, you’ll have to see all their prerequisite events, and some have more than others. More egregiously? The entire third Act of the plot including the last major area is locked behind this!
If you didn’t look online and just try playing at your own pace — as I did on the 3DS — it might take you a frustratingly long time to even realize that the plot continues and there’s more to do… only for you then needing to cycle the events until you trigger the right one. It’s utterly maddening, and the largest complaint I could level against Rune Factory 4. I was hoping this would be adjusted for Special, but alas.
As major an issue as this is, however, it’s one that you can overcome with a little patience and a touch of frustration. By the time you’re likely to reach this point, you’ll have played a tremendously large chunk of video game already, with still more ahead. It really astonished me just how much content was in a 3DS game, and this is still remarkable even now on a different system. Given that this is my only problem with the game outside of small nitpicks, it’s far from a deal breaker.
So this is where we stand. Rune Factory 4 Special is an amazing game. It was my personal favourite 3DS game out of the large and varied library. It’s a game that I was more than happy to return to even if there was no new content whatsoever. I still know my way around Selphia and relish my time with it. Many love Stardew Valley, but as quality as that game is… I’ve never been able to play it without eventually going back and replaying Rune Factory 4 instead. I expect I’ll still be playing even when Animal Crossing rolls around. While no individual aspect is the best of its kind, the overall package exudes charm and entertainment that is hard to match.
If you haven’t played the original and this sounds even remotely like your kind of game, I heartily encourage you to try it. If you did play the original, you probably won’t get too much that you didn’t already experience. Should you just feel a little nostalgic for it and want to go back to one of the best farming life sims ever made, though? That was more than enough for me to adore my time with Rune Factory 4 Special, and will continue to do so long after you’re done reading this. Here’s hoping the upcoming Rune Factory 5 manages to capture that magic again.