The return of Rune Factory has been a treat for me, as I think most people just assumed the series was dead after the original company folded. Despite that, we saw series come back with the announcement of this as well as them working on Rune Factory 5. So, playing Rune Factory 4 again after all this time, how does it hold up?
It is pretty much the same game with some additional content added in, with all the good and bad of the original Rune Factory 4 intact. If you have already played Rune Factory 4 in the past, you pretty much already know if you'd like this or not. The additional content, while nice, doesn't make playing this version a must. Though if you have never played the game before, this is defiantly the version to go with.
Playing as Lest (Or Frey if you play as a Female), you lose your memory at the beginning of the game and end up landing on top of the Native Dragon Ventaswill, and due to circumstance, you end up taking over the princely duties of the land in place of the actual prince. The narrative quickly becomes a bit hard to take seriously because nothing about the situation makes sense, but due to the light-hearted tone of the game, it's pretty easy to just gloss over it without too much worry.
There are two main focuses to the game, there is the typical farming/social aspect of the series as well as saving the Guardians. It's a twist as to what happened, so I won't go into much detail here, but at Venti's request, you are going to the Rune Spots around the area and defeating powerful monsters, who appear to be humans in monster form. As an Earthmate, a person of some kind of mysterious and not very well defined power, you are able to return them to their mortal forms. None of them seem to have all their memories intact, however, so become just another member of the town.
This is really where the story begins to lose me, the Guardians, all of whom supposedly have a strong connection with Venti that you discover later, are rarely even seen interacting with her. Even after all three main story arcs are completed, the only real relationship that seems to feel like it means anything is between Lest and Venti, which is really awkward when you take into account you can get married to a large number of people who aren't Venti. Yes, she is a giant dragon and the sex would be awkward considering you are not a giant dragon, but the story focuses so much on this relationship compared to anything else that your relationship with your actual spouse feels oddly a secondary priority.
So, a weak plot aside, the actual character's pretty fantastic. From a story perspective, this is where the game shines with how fun and enjoyable the individual character stories are, especially the marriage candidates. In addition to normal dialogue with characters, when you've raised your affection levels with them high enough you can unlock scenes with them, or even date certain characters. These are the things that really start to help the game feel alive. For example, this playthrough I was romancing the Elf girl Margaret. She is a musician, though as time goes on you learn she came here from Elven Lands, and before you're arrival her teacher died, and she has basically been living with Porco, the town Chef who comes from a wealthy family, who has effectively been Megs father figure. You get some great events with her that see you looking through a haunted manor to find a missing score the owner of the house wrote. The score, as you discover, was connected to her mentor and is one she already knows, but know you learn the context and importance behind the piece. It does wonders to make you feel for Megs history, among other things.
That is just one example, but it carries over into most of the town. Yeah, some characters feel a bit flat, I never liked Amber and Vishnal for example, but overall the great character interactions make the game fantastic. While it doesn't entirely make up for the main plotline, it definitely helps.
The skills of the game have several parts to it. Forging weapons, forging armor, cooking, and crafting medicine are crafting skills with their own separate levels. All types of weapons also have their own individual skill, as well as each element of magic. Leveling up a skill comes with the benefits of being better at said skill, as well as general stat improvements. For example, forging will also raise your vitality, which in turns benefits you in combat. In all aspects, improving in any area will overall benefit you in other areas, meaning nothing you do really feels like a waste of time.
Crafting is pretty simple, just plug in your ingredients and you get your weapon. Raise your skill to create stronger gear, as well as upgrading gear up to nine times to increase it's stats or add effects based on the material used to upgrade it. A very simple process, which can admittedly become repetitive after so long considering the same process is used for all four aspects of crafting, but it's a decent system all the same. Plus it gives you a good number of ways to customize your play style.
Combat is pretty straight forward as well. You have a dash, some basic combos, and two skills you can allocate to your X and Y command, those being either weapon skills or spells. You can change them out in a dungeon assuming you have some extra skills/Spells in your inventory. You're not likely to ever not have enough space for a wide range of skills for any situation. It's another way that Rune Factory 4 keeps things fun is the range of options at your disposal. It's not the most expansive, but as the game is not entirely combat focused you are given more than enough options to keep it interesting if one style starts to get dull for you after so long.
The last major thing to cover is the actual farming and ranching. I was actually never too fond of capturing monsters in place of the typical raising of animals, though that is entirely personal preference. By giving monsters items you can befriend them so that they join your ranch. Some monsters produce daily goods, some are there to be used as allies in combat. Larger animals can even be used as mounts, allowing you to both move faster as well as adding more combat options. Brush your animals and take them out to improve your affection ranks with them to get better items or improve their combat abilities.
Farming can be a joy, though this is where it really gets hard to explain why. Effectively you are just taking care of plants in order to sell them for a profit, either by selling them directly or crafting food items to sell. Growth of the farm is oddly not emphasized nearly as much in this game like some other Rune Factories, but the prevalence of the act from a gameplay perspective is just as strong as ever. Determine how much you want to grow, do you want to spend time improving the quality of your crops or just mass-produce (Or somewhere in between), how much of your precious farm space will be dedicated to certain crops and flowers, how much chemistry items will you be using to improve crops vs. alternative methods such as tilling corn and withered grass into your soil? Crops that regrow or crops that are done after one harvest? Do you want to invest in Giantizer or Minimizer to make either large or small versions of your crops? The mechanics are very simple, so an in-depth explanation isn't really necessary. But there is a lot of thought that goes into deciding how you will go about managing your farm.
And as is normal, you do not have an unlimited amount of time each day. Your actions all consume Rune Power, a finite resource that can be raised by increasing skills or leveling and recovered by going to the baths or eating. A second in real-time is a minute in-game time, so you have to manage your time and prioritize what you will be doing. Do you want to do some extra mining today? Maybe do some fishing, expand your farm work, grind out some hard to obtain items from monsters, or a number of other activities. The real skill you need to develop for this game is the ability to properly manage your time to maximize your effectiveness. That's the real test of whether you will enjoy the game or not I imagine, is how much you enjoy managing your time and schedule.
With the major things out of the way, there are two other things that bother me in this game. The first is the controls aren't quite as precise as I'd like. For example, when tilling the ground with your hoe, it will 'auto-lock' onto the square the game seems to think you are most likely aiming at, and it's not uncommon to see your character suddenly turn around and till the ground behind you. This applies to most things in the game, and while not a deal-breaker can cause a fair bit of frustration.
The other thing is the idea that you are taking over the princely duties of Arthur while you are here. These duties include farming and running errands for people. These are not princely duties, these are the duties of being a farmer/handyman/delivery boy. You do things like this, and you gain 'Prince/Princess points' which allow you to do things like upgrading your living space, increase storage space, or make your farm larger. Mind you, you also have to invest your own money and materials to make this happen. The point system supposedly represents goodwill you've earned from the people in order to allow you to do these things, but that all goes out the window when I still need to spend my own money and resources to make this happen. I don't feel like a prince, I feel like every little thing I am trying to accomplish requires dealing with an expansive bureaucracy that's more hassle than it's worth, and now that I say that out loud I wonder if this was an intentional political statement on the design teams part? (Spoiler: It probably wasn't)
In the end, this is a really good game. There is a lot to do, some great characters, and a lot of content for the value you pay for it. I love that we are getting back a fantastic franchise that I thought was going to be lost to time. If you have ever considered getting into the farming/social simulator style game, and like the idea of a hefty chunk of combat being introduced to it all, give Rune Factory 4 S a shot.
Also to note, as I am a bit weary of the current state of Steem (Largely I am awaiting the Hive Project right now), I am continuing to upload my content here as well if you are interested in following me elsewhere: https://read.cash/@DIStudios