For the past few years, Natsume has been branching out the Harvest Moon franchise while still continuing to produce main titles in the series. One of the most well-received spin off titles was last year's Rune Factory: A Fantasy Harvest MoonCombing action RPG elements along with traditional Harvest Moon gameplay proved to be a winning combination with long time fans. This year, Natsume has doubled the fun with a sequel that is every bit as good and better then the fist game.
The Rune Factory series is developed by Never Land, a development studio famous for the cult Dreamcast game Record of Lodoss War, as well as Shining Force Neo on PS2. Both titles were action RPGs, so it's little wonder that Rune Factory 2 also shares its past titles' gameplay. What's maybe not so known is just how in-depth Rune Factory 2 really is.
Graphically, the game is a definite step up from the last entry. The backgrounds feature beautiful hand drawn artwork, and each season is marked with its own effect such as falling leaves in the fall. Character bios are shown in large drawn portraits as before while the actual on-screen character, NPC, and enemies are all rendered in 3D. Thankfully, they are colorful and sport a nice amount of detail so they blend very well. One odd quirk about this title is that whenever there is three or more polygonal characters on screen, rampant slowdown hits the game hard. This is hardly ever and issue since rarely will you find four NPCs huddled together outside a festival. It is still odd considering titles such as the Final Fantasy remakes and launch title Super Mario 64 DS are almost entirely 3D without any problems.
The music is very good and closer to more traditional RPG caliber, which is fitting for its more storybook setting. The music around your farm will change by the season, while the town and dungeons stay mostly the same. This means you will hear a lot of the same music, but the good news is that it maintains to be catchy all the way throughout.
Gameplay is where the game truly stands above the competition. There is a enormous amount of content packed into the title. Besides all the basic Harvest Moon attributes such as chopping wood, tilling the soil, watering crops, and fishing, there is sword-fighting, cooking, and alchemy. Some abilities won't be available until the second generation -- this is a good thing, as you're not daunted with too much to do at once. Each chore is given an independent level-building status. Whenever you do any sort of physical work, short of picking and carrying items, you drain RP. Once your RP is drained, physical work drains your HP. The only way to recover RP is to sleep, go to the bathhouse, or create Rune Spheres. Rune Spheres appear above your crops once they have reached full growth limit. This can sometimes be a bit annoying, as it takes many days to raise a full crop and you only get one use out of it. This is where level building becomes useful: the higher you raise your level of fishing, chopping, mining, etc., the less RP it consumes. Most of the time you should have enough RP to get you through a single day and the bathhouse is pretty cheap for a full recovery. The game takes place in one town (like any Harvest Moon), but you will find through the course of the game there is a whole world out there that's hinted at. Outside the village and farm are the four dungeons. This time they are outside and enticing to run through. The dungeons are the home of all the enemies and bosses in the game, and you won't find them suddenly traversing through your home farm. Each dungeon's climate represents a season, and within each dungeon is land you can raise crops in. This is useful for maintaining a constant supply of food all year, as any crops on your farm cannot carry over seasons.
Harvest Moon games traditionally have a marriage system built in and Rune Factory 2 is no different. At the start of the game, you have nine potential brides. Every person in the game has a friendship level, while the love interests also have a love meter. The friendship and love meter start at zero and go to ten. The best way to build a friendship is to go to the bulletin board in the center of town. There, the villagers will post mission requests for you to accomplish. This sets up even more gameplay once you have finished farm work for the day and acts as a way to learn more about the characters and story of the game overall. Many of them are simple delivery quests, but plenty involve heading into a dungeon to acquire rare items. As you build your wealth and develop your farm, you will want to expand and collect wood to build a barn and store monsters. Monsters you tame instead of slay can be used to accomplish farm tasks for you, accompany you into a dungeon, or provide milk and wool.
As you marry, your wife will have a child and you can decide beforehand if you wish to have a boy or girl. Once you build the school, the game leaps ahead 7 years and you take control of your offspring. Once this happens, many of the pathways in dungeons that were fenced off become accessible and your child can read ancient text in books and on statues enabling you to travel further into the dungeons then before. The storyline of the game is more subtle in the first part and becomes a bigger focus in the second. Your child will also be able to take up a trade skill and let you further expand the school and farm your forefather started. Even though the second half puts you in the role of a child, you still have love interests with the children of town girls you didn't marry. While you're too young to have a proper wedding, you can have a fake wedding set up if you build a love interest to level ten as a kid. Despite continuing as a seven year old child, the story ramps up considerably here. The added emphasis on plot and the outside world almost make it seem like two whole games in one and makes for a great way to motivate you through to the end.
It goes without saying that Rune Factory 2 is packed with content. Even still, it's almost deceptive at just how much is really in the game. It is a fantastic expansion of not only the Harvest Moon franchise, but of Sim-type games in general. Even those who don't particularly like this style of game might find themselves enjoying Rune Factory 2 for its action RPG elements or greater emphasis on storyline. Rune Factory 2 is one of the best surprises of 2008 for the Nintendo DS.
Final Verdict - 9/10
Rune Factory 2 is packed with depth and content and offers a tremendous value for its package, Those who've wanted more from their Harvest Moon games -- or those who wished there was more of a purpose to something like Animal Crossing -- should pick this up. Rune Factory 2 can even appeal to those who stay away from the genre with its action RPG battle system that just about anyone can enjoy. Easily one of the best games on the Nintendo DS this year.