IGN Review of Rune Factory: A Fantasy Harvest Moon
Despite its GBA success, Harvest Moon hasn't had the greatest start on DS. The original title released back in September of 2006 was hardly what you'd call a true DS vision, having nearly identical assets as its GBA predecessors, and adding clunky touch control on top of a sloppy interface. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the franchise, Natsume has reinvented the world of Harvest Moon in Rune Factory, a half farming, half dungeon-crawling adventure that pairs classic gameplay with the action of something like Children of Mana. And while last year's effort was anything but a worthy DS debut (if you remember, we advised readers to pick up the old GBA game and save their cash of Rune Factory's 2007 release), Rune Factory is quite a different experience, as it has become one of the most engaging and entertaining Harvest Moon titles since series birth.
Whatever Harvest Moon DS did to hurt the series rep on Nintendo's handheld, Rune Factory has fixed. Think of Rune Factory as the anti-Harvest Moon. The original used basic, tiled assets; Rune Factory uses hand-drawn backdrops that look like less like tiles, and more like a living painting. Harvest Moon used sloppy touch integration and a horrible interface, while Rune Factory incorporates smart usage and some great display features. All in all, it's just a better experience from top to bottom.
Rune Factory puts you in the role of Raguna, a young boy who stumbles into an unknown town with a serious case of amnesia. Quickly befriending a young girl by the name of Mist, you acquire a chunk of land in return for service on the farm, and begin again in the town of Kardia. The story is quick to introduce and allow you to move on, starting you this time with only a watering can, hoe, and single pack of seeds. Since the world is a mix between the hand-drawn backdrops and actual tiled art (similar to the previous HM worlds) it's extremely easy to tell where you farm, and where you can't. As an added help this time around the aiming box has been included from the console versions, and a quick toggle of the select button brings up the floating box in front of you.
As far as main gameplay goes, Rune Factory is still the same Harvest Moon world, with a few minor tweaks. We're a fan of the changes made, as players can now walk over crops instead of having to trek around them or plan for watering spaces, managing objects such as rocks, trees, weeds, grass, and herbs is as simple as plopping them in the shipment box per usual, or storing them in your huge inventory, and items can now be sold direct to any vendors, rather than waiting until the token 6:00PM time and having your shipment then go out. It's still the same farming design - hoe, plant, water, wait, and collect - so if you're new to the world of Harvest Moon it'll take some serious time to learn the ropes, or if you have already grown tired of the design you may want to pass this one up, but Rune Factory makes farming faster, easier, and less of a chore.
Along with the classic farming portion of the game Rune Factory also opens up a ton of extra activities. The world runs on a one second = one minute timer, but with added functions such as a sprint button (faster than previous games) and a seemingly larger amount of stamina overall you'll get the majority of your chores done before noon in the first year or so of work. The town is slightly larger here than something like Friends of Mineral Town on GBA, and took us a good hour just to meet everyone and check the place out. As a style change the world actually goes into a more head-on 3/4 side-view mode when in town, having huge painted buildings for your 3D modeled character to navigate. The style is amazingly beautiful, and still impresses us as much as it did the first time we saw it. Rune Factory has all the accommodations you'd expect from other Harvest Moon games, such as fishing, the bath house, and a huge amount of house expansion should you chose to focus on that, but also includes a ton of other ways to make money.
Sure you can pick herbs or find crystals to cash in, but you can also mix potions, create jewelry, sell off your crops, or cook your own dishes. To add even more depth to the already-gigantic design all items (crops, tools, weapons, food, fish, and so on) support a level system up to 100, which will actually change the price of any given good. If you've got a level 4 strawberry that normally sells at 50, it'll go for 200. This opens up a ton of gameplay, as you can not only work to create huge crops season after season that continue to get stronger, but also go on Wi-Fi or local wireless and trade seeds, crops, or items that have skyrocketed in value. There's so much to do in Rune Factory that you'll either need to make a second save file for yourself, or just come to grips with the fact that you simply can't do everything. That, or lock yourself in a room and don't come out until 2009.
And then there's the entire second half of the game. Rune Factory's farming system and general "Harvest Moon" nature truly is enough game to stand on its own, but the title goes beyond the norm and includes a full dungeon crawling adventure as well, though to be fair the game feels like farming first, battling second. Buying weaponry in shops and evolving your farms will convince the town's Mayor to give you passes to various caves, where you can then fight monsters, find area-specific farm land in controlled, protected environments (caves keep their atmosphere all year round, so a cave that "feels like spring" will allow spring crops during any season), and battle/capture monsters.
Your character works off automatic skill increases throughout the entire game - battle obviously included - and will also level up as fighting continues. In addition you can capture monsters which work as both your farm animals and battle support in dungeon fights (based on the monster), so it's essential to not only wipe out caves for farm use, but also capture these monsters to further your income, and in turn weapons, armor, and items. Overall the dungeon crawling is a nice addition to the farming portions of the game, but as far as depth and overall appeal the fighting takes a bit of a backseat to the Harvest Moon core.
What really impressed us, however, was the way Rune Factory tied the two gameplay modes together. You need to farm so you can make money and buy food, potions, medicine, and supplies, but you can also use your battle skills to capture monsters that in turn work on your farm. Rather than the traditional "stamina" bar Rune Factory works off HP and RP (hit points and rune points), and in order to fill them up you can either eat food or drink expensive potions, or find pieces of rune by farming. Every ten or so crops will yield more runes, which can be used in battle for filling up the RP gauge, allowing more spells or health on the fly. In this way Rune Factory has made both sections of the world rely on each other; you need to farm to fight, and you need to fight to farm. It's an impressive system.
Stepping away from the core gameplay Rune Factory has done a ton to ensure that gamers are getting far more of a package this year than they did with last year's Harvest Moon. The entire engine runs much better, acting more like a Final Fantasy town than some tile-based, sleep-inducing movement. As mentioned the graphical presentation is far stronger, and it really makes a difference, as Rune Factory has a beautiful, inviting feel. We've seen a few graphical oddities - often occurring when going into houses or after conversation character portraits slide down - but it's all pretty minimal. There's also some lively music teamed with snippets of VO, though speaking characters are still pretty few and far between, and all the extra time-wasters such as holidays, cooking side quests, competitions, and the whole "find a bride, build a family" mode are still included. For the record, there are ten available wives this time around.
Aside from that you've got Wi-Fi and wireless, both simple, but a nice touch. Wi-Fi works only with friend codes, and wireless is of course multi-card (it's trading, after all), but being able to work as a group either online or off is a nice touch, and something that should make the crop level system become a game of its own for dedicated fans. Also included is a screenshot taker which we found to be an awesome addition, allowing you to hit L and Select together to save a screenshot at any time in the game. From there you can bring it home and doodle on with stamps and colored markers (via the touch screen), and then send them to friends Wi-Fi or wirelessly. It's the little things like the screenshot tool that really show off how dedicated the team was to making a truly worthy Harvest Moon game this time around.
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