IGN Review of Rune Factory: Frontier
We're quickly moving into the era of Rune Factory. While the series started as a spin-off from the traditional Harvest Moon franchise, we've seen nothing short of complete domination by the series since its start here in the US three years ago during its DS debut. It's all part of one big happy family (although Natsume isn't publishing it, so it isn't all happy, I'd imagine), with the two designs being extremely similar, but with no serious Harvest Moon effort in the last few years we're now seeing a shift to the farming/adventure experience found in Rune Factory. In its latest move, the "Fantasy Harvest Moon" has moved from DS onto the console scene, bringing Rune Factory Frontier exclusively to the Wii, and it's a great one to have on Nintendo's system.
Rune Factory Frontier is a great merging of numerous elements from both the Harvest Moon and Rune Factory designs, and it makes for a game that feels like an impressive, polished first effort for the franchise on Wii, and given the team's track record and obvious passion for their product, I'd assume it won't be the last Wii title with the Rune Factory title across it. Players kick off their adventure as Raguna, a young boy who took the lead role in the previous two Rune Factory titles on DS, and while a few key characters return, Frontier is entirely self-contained and needs no real back-story. You arrive in a new town, it's dying from a social/economic standpoint, and it's your job to make it a bustling metropolis with just the sweat of your brow.
Rune Factory is still a Harvest Moon game at heart, so you'll be doing a lot of farming and animal management. For newcomers to the design, it might seem like an odd design (why do virtual chores?) but returning Harvest Moon veterans will feel right at home. After gathering a few tools from around town, you'll hit the fields, plan your crops based on the season, chop wood, gather food and supplies, cook, forge new items, learn medicine mixing, level up skills on your farm (on the fly, making the experience as seamless and intuitive as a Zelda-like adventure, rather than full-on stat-crunching RPG), capture monsters as animals, and further the world by giving back to the land. The game works in accelerated time, with one second in real time representing about one minute in Rune Factory, making for 24 minute days. In order to keep things from being a constant rush of "to do list" tasks, you can work well into the night, gain back your stamina fully with a quick trip to the bath house once a day, and time freezes when indoors and shopping. Basic stuff for vets though, right?
On the other side of things, Rune Factory is a merger of not only farm/social sim, but also dungeon crawler. Raguna can level up in specific skills – everything from watering cans to hoes and axes, as well as swords, magic, spears, and the like – as well as overall, which will boost all his stats significantly. While the game is entirely open-ended as far as what you do on a daily basis, the main story itself will require both farming and dungeon crawling, though it's based mainly on the battling, with five main dungeons, bosses, and a main story arch that follows. There are specific instances where you'll need to farm or build relationships to advance the story as well, but the main roadblocks will come in the dungeons themselves.
What makes Rune Factory so dangerous though, is the fact that there's just so much to do. You can befriend monsters and use them as livestock around your farm, repair and cultivate your entire chunk of land, focus on upping your skills in cooking, medicine, weapon/armor making, fishing, fighting, or further along the story and prosper the city quickly by dealing with a friendship meter on every main character and monster in the game, going as far as to marry and have a kid with a maiden of your choice. Any of the main "jobs" in the game could be used as a primary source of economy to fuel your experience, and while it's possible to max everything out, it could take 100+ hours to do it. This game is massive; if it had online connectivity for multiplayer it'd be a serious Animal Crossing killer for the more hardcore crowd.
There are some annoyances to be had though, and hopefully some of them can be fixed for the next time around. For starters, the game has a fixed camera, which means you'll be doing a lot of running towards the camera or smacking into buildings until you commit the maps to memory. The town itself is pretty large, but like most other Harvest Moon games out there the majority of time is spent within a few main screens, and you never really get the feeling of going out and exploring other villages or really expanding on the size of the world (save for the dungeons themselves). Motion control is supported, but there's never any mention of them in-game, so unless you just decide to swipe instead of tapping A to attack, you may never know that was an option. The motions are also simple button press swaps, and don't add much to the experience. As the most annoying aspect for me personally though, the game can be extremely tough to figure out what to do, and who to talk with. I ran around for a few hours trying to find an axe (which is needed to clear out my farm area, eventually gain lumber, expand my farm, build a barn for animals, and start to really progress the farm itself). I couldn't buy it, couldn't ask people about where to get it. Where was it? The church nun had it. Turns out she was too old to farm, and after talking to her a few times she tossed it my way out of the blue. No prompt: just a random giveaway.
Each of the game's main items work in that way, and it's one of those things I wish was streamlined more. Finding the pet-taming glove requires a random meet-up, as does getting the coveted fishing pole. When it comes to buying weapons, seeds, armor and equipment, you're at the mercy of the game's own timetable, and until you're allowed to buy something you'll just wander around wondering why things aren't open to you yet. I'm all about rolling the game out hour by hour or event by event, but when so much item acquisition was as simple as seeing it in stores and then saving up cash in Harvest Moon, Rune Factory feels closed off at times, and is might require a few trips to online strategy guides by players.
With that being said though, the overall experience is a great one, and anyone looking for a more mature RPG/dungeon crawling offering on Wii should dive into Rune Factory head on. The music is well done, with a small sprinkling of voiceover work by characters in key situations. Is it too much to ask for all dialogue voiced though? The in-game art is simply beautiful, the free-form economy and "do anything" design is well executed, making for the best console Harvest Moon experience since Nintendo 64, and the use hand-drawn animation for character introductions and events is a nice touch, though most aren't much longer than a few seconds each. I wouldn't go as far as to say Rune Factory is one of the prettiest games on Wii thus far, but it certainly holds its own, and is certainly in the upper bracket of visual offerings. This is a beautiful, well-packaged title.
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