Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin Review — Farming Hard
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin delivers a remarkably in-depth set of mechanical systems. The interplay is impressive, even if the execution is somewhat flawed.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is an ambitious project by a small studio, and there’s a lot to respect about the depth of its design. On the surface, Sakuna looks like a relaxing combination of 2D action/RPG/platformer and farming sim. As it turns out, the genre is correct, but the “relaxing” part is not.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin does nothing in half-measures, and the systems on offer are remarkably deep. This game will demand a lot more effort than something like Animal Crossing or Rune Factory. In practice, Sakuna is far more akin to in-depth titles like Farming Simulator combined with Vanillaware’s works (particularly Muramasa and Odin Sphere). The result is certainly an interesting experience, though one that I respected more than personally liked. So let’s dig into this fertile soil and see what’s growing here.
The titular Sakuna is a spoiled princess of a goddess, ejected from her home as punishment. She’s forced to cooperate with a handful of mortals and tasked to investigate and subjugate the mysterious Isle of Demons. In order for Sakuna and her charges to survive, they have to turn to farming rice to supplement foraging in this dangerous land. As the offspring of a warrior god and harvest goddess, Sakuna’s abilities are directly tied to this rice. The more effort spent to ensure a high quality harvest, the stronger she’ll become, and thus the better able to explore the isle and defeat the demons.
In essence, the game is split into twelve-day cycles, with each season taking up three. You balance your exploration, hunting and foraging with the rice farming chores back at your home base. Every season has its own steps required to see a bountiful harvest, as well as determining what items and enemy modifiers might be found when exploring.
The game’s levels are small areas set in a 2D plane. Sakuna possesses a Divine Raiment, which lets her launch a cloth arm to grapple onto suitable surfaces. You’ll use this to navigate through the levels, looking for hidden items or forage points. Each area will have its own exploration goals to complete, and finishing more will open new stages on the world map. A good majority of these will see you fighting various demons, however.
Combat is a remarkably intricate affair. Sakuna has two weapons (which double as her farming tools) assigned to a light and heavy attack button. Different combinations of input strings result in different combos, with directional modifiers adding to the options. On paper, it doesn’t seem too different from basic action games, but a little time with it makes the depth apparent. Sakuna gains new combat skills as her harvest progresses, and you can map up to four. You begin the game with a single ability that will launch enemies forward, damaging both enemies and (sometimes) terrain. These skills can be quite varied, leaving combat hazards or flinging enemies behind Sakuna. Finding good combinations of these to mix in with your combo strings can see you developing impressive setups.
It only gets more impressive when you add your defensive options. Double tapping your movement control will let you dodge, and moving forward into an attack at the right time will trigger a parry. Further, your Divine Raiment can be used in combat to latch onto enemies or terrain, allowing Sakuna to swing behind enemies and resume combos. Attempting to rush in and button mash will likely see you struggling, but careful timing, movement and skill usage can see the tides turn quickly. I was able to get some serious combo juggling together, and launching a handful of enemies at high speeds into a mini-boss for huge damage was immensely satisfying. If that’s not enough, your Divine Raiment also has skills attached to it. Latching onto an enemy and holding the button can trigger these, allowing Sakuna to drain an enemy’s stats, fling it around, or even tackle them directly.
Honestly, the combat potential in Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is really a lot of fun. There can be situations where it becomes frustrating though, and this is tied in to the game being an RPG instead of a straight action game. You’ll very quickly start reaching areas or bosses that prove quite punishing. Styling on them with skill will only get you so far; eventually, you’ll just not be doing any real damage to them. This is compounded by the onset of night, during which your foes become markedly tougher and visibility drops dramatically. Aside from having the patience of a saint, the only way to progress is by farming…literally.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin goes far beyond the life sim aspects of other games like it. When you farm rice, you seriously farm rice. It’s not simply a case of swapping to tools and hitting a couple of buttons. Instead, each stage of the complicated farming process is experienced in detail. You’ll clear and till the field, plant seedlings individually, constantly adjust the water levels and temperature as needed, pull weeds, keep the soil fertilised, and then finally reap the harvest.
That’s one half of the process.
From there, you take the bundles of rice and set them up on drying racks. Once dry, you then have to thresh the stalks off and polish the rice, finally giving you a usable harvest. Even then, you’ll want to keep nourishing the soil during winter, remove the lower quality seeds for the next harvest, let the seedlings grow enough before planting them in the main bed, and only then are you ready to repeat the process. Each step here is fully detailed from start to finish.
I admire the level of fidelity that Sakuna has for the rice growing process. It’s very clearly back breaking labour, and it certainly feels tedious and tiresome the first couple of times through it. You’ll get skills to speed up the process once you’ve done it a couple of times though, and you can always opt to leave the task to NPCs if you really hate it (though quality will drop as a result). The farming process isn’t exactly fun, but it can be satisfying to get everything just right. Besides, you’ll only be doing one or two steps at a time, so it serves as a means of varying up the action sections.
Harvest is when you’ll be rewarded for your investment by gaining levels and stats proportional to the rice’s quality. In order to boost Sakuna’s stats considerably, you need to enrich the soil appropriately to let the rice absorb the nutrients. This makes fertiliser creation crucial. What this entails is dumping the various materials you gather in explorations into it, then (ideally) spreading a new batch on your field every morning.
This is where the two core gameplay aspects of Sakuna become so well intertwined. Exploring and killing monsters in combat will lead to all sorts of different items. You’re encouraged to revisit areas to accomplish side goals, or return to areas at night when you’re stronger to gather additional materials. You’ll also need a bunch of different items to create new gear, which can provide additional bonuses or change up your weapons dramatically.
But with all this farming talk, there’s a big thing to point out: food plays a huge role in your progress, too. Eating dinner every night refills your hunger meter, which serves as your health reservoir. Stay out too long or take enough damage, and your fullness will run out, meaning you no longer regenerate health until you eat again. Further, you can select multiple dishes to eat each dinner, all of which can provide temporary stat buffs or effects. What you don’t eat or otherwise preserve will spoil over time, so you constantly need to be managing your stocks. But, thankfully, rotten food or soon-to-spoil food can be mixed in with the fertiliser. Everything is useful and has a purpose.
Once again, I really have to admire just how in-depth all of Sakuna’s systems and mechanics are. Even the more intricate life sim style games rarely go to a fraction of this, and it’s clearly been a labour of love to get everything linked up just right. I greatly respect what Edelweiss has done with this. But despite this respect, I have to address the elephant in the room: I didn’t really like playing Sakuna all that much, or at least not consistently. That’s not to imply it is a bad game or anything–not at all–but it might not appeal to everyone.
When the combat is firing on all cylinders, Sakuna is a real badass and the action sequences are a joy. But this isn’t Devil May Cry, and so execution and style isn’t rewarded quite as much as just having higher raw stats will. Areas in which I struggled or outright couldn’t progress ground the action to a halt and sent me back to the farm. The farming aspects aim for long-term satisfaction over immediate fun, but skipping over the tedious tasks would slow my stat gain and see the roadblocks appear faster. Getting a good harvest from all my effort felt satisfying, certainly, but I couldn’t quell the sentiment that the process stymied the strong action.
It’s almost ironic: if Sakuna’s action wasn’t so strong or in-depth, this wouldn’t be an issue at all. But because it’s so intricate, the RPG mechanics almost feel like roadblocks to good action more than it might in a simpler game. It almost feels like the feature creep just ended up hampering the highs of one genre choice to facilitate the others. So while I didn’t mind going through the motions, I rarely got to experience consistent highs in the process.
Still, there is no denying that there is seriously an impressive set of systems under the hood here. For those who are willing to put in the time and effort despite the inconsistency, there’s something quite special here. I would absolutely understand if Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin produced some die-hard fans for its niche appeal. Ultimately, the balance and tuning of it all was just off enough to frustrate and hamper my personal enjoyment.
All of this hasn’t really touched on the presentation and story. Playing on the Switch, the game ran fine, and there’s quite a lot of variety in environments (furthered by seasonal changes). The levels can occasionally be drab and grey, but more often than not are vibrant and beautiful. The voice acting was mostly good, though I did find the repeated combat barks of Sakuna herself to grate at times. The music is very traditionally Japanese-sounding, with lots of wind instruments and soothing tones. It didn’t exactly stand out, but it never hurt the experience in any way.
As for the story, it’s quite good! Sakuna presents a world heavily inspired by Japanese mythology but with its own execution and flair. The various NPCs that accompany Sakuna have their own personalities, quirks, and moments. In addition to various events at home, you’ll often have group conversations at dinner. These will often expand on worldbuilding, detailing a surprisingly rich backstory and mythos to Sakuna’s world. It’s a solid experience, and quite satisfying to watch Sakuna go from being a spoiled princess to a more grounded badass.
Honestly, I wish I could bring myself to give the game a higher score. Alas, I can only review based on my own personal experiences. This is a very niche game with some well-realised systems that are hampered ever so slightly by balance and execution. I’m certain that there are people out there who will love it and really get something from Sakuna, but I’m sadly not in that niche.
Still, this is absolutely a title worth supporting. I respect that Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin was made, and can appreciate how much of a dedicated passion project this is. If any of this sounds like it’s up your alley, I strongly urge you to check it out. There’s certainly nothing else quite like it in this genre combination, that’s for sure, and hopefully you’ll get more out of it than I did.