Fans of the Harvest Moon franchise have been met with perplexed glances for years now, as only a select batch of gamers seem to be able to get into the farming sim's quirky gameplay style. It would seem that most gamers find the idea of watering and picking crops on the lower end of the excitement scale. The mechanics of each new Harvest Moon title remain more or less the same with almost unnoticeable changes. This year, which marks the tenth anniversary of the series, stands as the beginning of Natsume's attempt to breathe new life into this dead horse and try to pull in a wider audience. Rune Factory could be called an experiment: stereotypical RPG and farming/dating elements give birth to create a unique concept. This DS evolution brings some new cards to the table, but is it enough to keep veterans satisfied and start a new fan base?
The game's outset is drab and unsurprising: your hero stumbles upon a small country town which is nestled next to a looming evil empire to the west. Our protagonist has lost all memory of who he once was, and starts life anew as a farmer working for Mist, a curiously straight forward girl who takes a liking toward him. After a while of clearing the fields, hoeing the soil, and planting some seeds, it becomes bluntly apparent that redundant farming plays a key role in Rune Factory's gameplay. The twist this time is that tending to the crops serves a practical purpose: dungeon exploration. No, you didn't miss a beat -- it makes little to no sense, but at least it serves to add to the core gameplay of Harvest Moon and take it in a new direction.
This new direction entails planting crops within caves to give you energy so that your hero can battle monsters without passing out whilst spelunking. The creatures residing in these caverns seem to be here against their will, and can be tamed to serve a number of purposes. Some will fight for you, others will water your plants, etc. This enables your player to focus on the work in the caves while the critters collected will watch over the farm proper to earn cash which can be used to buy new weapons, spells, etc. If this is beginning to sound a bit complicated, that's because it is -- perhaps too much so. While it's a delight to see a stagnant concept evolve, Rune Factory often feels overly complex. There's simply too much to do without skimping on something useful. This overwhelming gameplay can end up feeling more like a chore than a game.
All in all, the main qualm to be had with Rune Factory is that it completely lacks a sense of guidance. While this can be good in a game that is designed to be explored, it doesn't work in a game that requires the player to grasp a great number of concepts in tandem. Players may miss a key item (such as the gloves that allow monsters to be tamed) if they don't talk to the right person, for instance. Furthermore, various elements which are core to the gameplay aren't always explained, such as how to use certain items or how to manage monsters. NPC's hardly help players who are lost, there is no reference section to seek advice from, and holidays will pop up which require some special item or skill to participate in, advancing the confusion.
That's not to say that Rune Factory is a bad game -- it can just be a bit too much at times. Credit can be paid to any game that enables one to assault goblins with a watering can or a hoe, after all -- especially when the watering can be tempered into quite a formidable weapon that rivals an axe. The broad picture looks good on paper, but in execution is missing the fine details that make a game universally appealing. The RPG elements are bogged down by the bland crop management, and the agricultural gameplay can feel far less convenient than it should due to the complexities lathered on top. The controls can be hard to understand at times (why is the R button used for running?), and items can be accidentally dropped with an incorrect press, unable to be recovered. One "Holiday," while exploring a newfound cavern, we wound up getting paralyzed by a beast. This effect stripped our hero of his ability to run, forcing us to trudge at an achingly slow pace all the way back to town, only to discover that the Doctor's office (as well as every shop) was closed on that particular day of the week -- we were stuck with a crippled hobble for some while afterward, waiting for a cure. These are a handful of examples of the many needless loops the game forces players to jump through, and it doesn't do the narrative any good.
The characters in this town are, for the most part, rather lifeless NPC's -- the inclusion of brief snippets of voice work may give the illusion that they are characters, but for hours on end, they will usually throw the same two or three lines of dialogue. Eventually, players catch on and realize that socializing in this game is far less genuine than it should be, considering the many times the player is encouraged and sometimes even forced into conversing with them. Don't worry -- the "dating sim" element hasn't been ignored here, so take your pick from the litter, just be aware that this aspect feels rather artificial when compared to other games.
Despite these setbacks, Rune Factory makes an admirable reach for originality -- which it has, in its own right. The combination of dungeon exploration and farming is unique, certainly, and the fact that agricultural endeavors actually serve worthwhile purposes is refreshing. The quantity of tasks to undertake can be suffocating, but also rewarding for those who persist. The fact that practically every type of action the hero performs gains him "experience" for that particular skill is smart and helps to build the character into the type of worker the player makes him. Watering plants makes him more adept at farming, chopping wood improves his "lodging" capabilities, and so forth. The use of monsters as allies also adds an extra twist to the proceedings, allowing the players to advance further in one task or focus on many at once. All of these ideas are welcome: they just needed some more polish before they were shipped out.
Final Verdict - 7/10
Rune Factory accomplishes its prime goal: to create a "Fantasy Harvest Moon." Those who adore the franchise will most likely find this title worthwhile due to the steps it takes to advance the series into foreign territory, but these gamers have also stuck with the Harvest Moon games for a reason: they can cope with a bevy of flawed design choices to appreciate the redundancy of farming these casual titles provide. All of the new elements that build on top of that experience may be too much for fans to deal with, though; furthermore, the perplexing issues present in the game's design are sure to tun many away due to their overbearingly inconvenient nature. Rune Factory is worth a look for casual gamers who crave more depth than Animal Crossing or Brain Age provide and Harvest Moon fans who think change is good. Fans of the series will also be refreshed by its approach; however, it is tucked away behind many barriers of entry, so buyers should be certain that they know what they're getting into if they plan to purchase it.