9.5

A hidden gem, and the best Rune Factory to date!

As someone who played Rune Factory 1 to death, I was just a little underwhelmed with Rune Factory 2. I'm not even entirely sure why, but something just seemed... less lovable.

Rune Factory 3 takes the wooly by the scruff and swings things back in the right direction by improving and expanding upon the concepts that the first two games made, without trying crazy new ideas that end up failing (a common problem with Natsume games).

-Gameplay-
At its heart, Rune Factory 3 is still a Harvest Moon game, and if planting seeds, catching fish, collecting materials, and talking to the same townies every day never appealed to you before, it's somewhat unlikely that RF3 will change your mind. However, if you were just "okay" with these tasks, you'll be pleased by how they weave in with the action portions of the game. But of course, the main person this game will appeal to is someone who adores the Harvest Moon formula, who gets a thrill out of crafting better weapons and tools, who loves the lighthearted Natsume-style storyline, and who, above all, love to collect things in any way possible.

The thrill in Rune Factory games (even more so than Harvest Moon games) comes from collecting. In addition to the ever-present challenge to simply find/grow/make and sell every item in the game, the game does a good job of rewarding experimentation and variety, giving you massive boosts of gold or fighting power for completing a tough task, finding a rare item, or nurturing a traditional item or crop to a much higher level (for example, a level 10 flower can be worth many times the amount of a level 1, but creating the seed takes a lot of dedication to that particular crop).

In addition to the hook of collecting, there's also the hook of advancement. Leveling up and gaining stats and skills is one of the biggest draws that keep gamers addicted to their RPGs for years. RF3 seems to realize this and blow up the satisfying feeling of skill advancement to a ridiculous level. There are dozens of skills to advance in and, thanks to some good re-balancing, they seem to advance much more smoothly than in previous games. The obvious skills are there, such as farming, mining, etc, but then they go a bit further. Each weapon and magic type has its own individual skill level to advance, with unique benefits in each, and you gain skill for everything from getting smacked by an orc (defense skill) to eating decaying grass (poison skill). And of course, there's the skill level in each of the four main crafting types. As if that weren't detailed enough, you have skills such as "walking". That's right, when you start the game, you are a level 0 walker (amnesia is one crazy ailment, it seems). Walking, sleeping, eating... just about everything is its own skill. To keep this from being pointless, each skill contributes to your base attributes, making an interesting "under the hood" advancements system. Someone who uses a lot of magic is going to have more intelligence, and those who spend more time walking around and sleeping at night will find themselves with a small edge in defense when they go into a fight. All this leads to the words "skill up" flashing across your screen when you do pretty much anything, giving a satisfying feeling of getting just a tiny bit better for (literally) every step you take.

Of course, the action portion of the game is a major draw, as well, and it's seen some massive improvements since the first game. The variety of attacks, spells, and skills makes the game play more like a proper action game, and less like a Harvest Moon game trying to be a proper action game. The smooth, fast-paced animation, the usefulness of all forms of attack and magic, the interesting monsters (all tameable and individually useful, by the way!), and the challenging bosses give combat a near-Diablo feel (a praise I don't give lightly). Add to that a good companion system with not only tamed creatures, but summoned monsters and even befriended townsfolk and we're starting to see a lot more "action" in our action RPG.

The combat difficulty also deserves special mention. Though there is a much deeper and more difficult "labyrinth" system past the main game's story, the main game and its bosses can all be tuned up to a "hard" mode. I LOVED this feature. In all years of loving and playing Harvest Moon games, I can't remember actually being seriously challenged by them until now. In addition to summoning more monsters at one time (which means more chances for loot and skill-ups), each fight becomes deadly and, in many cases, you're forced to practice, raise skills, obtain better items, and craft plenty of food and medicine for yourself to take on some of the bigger challenges of the game. A highlight in my experience was the second major boss battle, in which I died at least four times before finally finding the right combination of fireballs, homemade recovery potions, and strawberry milk.

The last major part of the gameplay would be the quest system. Introduced in Rune Factory 2, the game is given a bit of structure in the form of townspeople posting messages on a message board, sending you a letter, or delivering a message via message owl (basically a second message board that you find later on), requesting that you do things for them. You can do one quest from each source per in-game day. Personally, I didn't like this addition to Rune Factory 2. It seemed to slow down gameplay and add too many uninteresting "courier" and "fetch" style quests. However, this time around, I think they got it right. Yes, there are a handful of those more dull quests, but instead of just having you run from point A to point B, they throw in some interesting and often funny surprises and dialogue options, always ending with a shiny treasure chest dropped at your feet to make each one feel worth-while. At their worst, these quests are a decent way to make the player familiar with the town and the individual characters, albeit in a somewhat heavy-handed fashion. At their best, these quests can be the most memorable part of the game, can add some interesting item-hunting challenges, and add a MUCH needed alternative to the Harvest Moon formula of getting people to like you by giving them the same gifts every day.

All together, it almost feels like you're playing three different games woven into one; a combat game, a Harvest Moon crafting game, and a socialization RPG. Each of these is fully-fleshed on their own, making the gameplay feel superior to any Natsume game to date.

-Graphics, Sound, Style, and Storyline-
Rune Factory has an odd tradition: Open with an ear-piercingly horrible "Engrish" song set to a mediocre anime intro, awkwardly introduce the storyline and its characters, and THEN get good for anyone who's still listening. Fortunately, that opening can be skipped, and after your first in-game week or so of the game, things get a lot less cruel. For first-time players, this can be a major turn-off, I'm sure. The first quest, for example, has you walking around town introducing yourself to every person there is. If you were familiar with everyone, this would be a simple enough task, but instead you'll stumble around the area, trying to find everyone while the game introduces itself like a bad first date.

The first two things that will stick out about the game are the voice acting and the storyline. Your character has amnesia, and if the mention of that doesn't make you groan, you haven't played many games. A bizarrely over-friendly town decides to give you the deed to their largest and most attractive building, then shows you how to farm, where in the tutorial the female character is attacked by blah, blah, blah, we've been here before haven't we? Then, as you introduce yourself to each townie, they say one or two lines of dialogue with the traditional finesse of a low-budget English anime dub voice actor. Why Rune Factory games decide to introduce themselves in such a manner, I have no idea.

The big secret that all this is hiding is... it's actually good! Though a single major plot has never been the main focus of any Rune Factory or Harvest Moon game, this one is spiced up by a hilarious quirk in your character, in that he has the ability to transform into a golden Wooly, an iconic sheep monster from the Rune Factory series. In addition to giving you some awesomely over-the-top new abilities in combat (you appear to specialize in some form of amazing sheep kung-fu), this discovery makes new interactions with other characters, and eventually opens into the main story of bringing a monster-hating and a human-hating society together. The voice acting, as well, becomes much better in the sense that it simply doesn't happen as much. After those strange "introduction" lines, most characters never speak an entire line of dialogue again. Instead, they say short catch phrases, laugh, groan, growl, or whatever other necessary sound is needed to make them seem more "alive". In this case, the voice acting is excellent, as they aren't doing entire speeches, but rather providing a warm ambient "Good morning!" when you walk by them through town, or laughing happily when you feed them their favorite dish.

This leads to the mention of how the characters themselves feel, which may be one of the better parts of the game. In spite of the usual "lost in translation" awkward points, communicating with each character is a surprisingly refreshing treat. The translation team did a great job of keeping humor in tact and changing things where they needed to be changed for an English player. Each character is quite interesting (and often extremely eccentric) on their own. For a change, this isn't limited to the "marriage candidate" characters. Using the game's quest system, the characters become the actual storyline of the game, guiding you to learn more about a girl's cold past, or her dwarven brother's obsession with iron, or a bizarrely thin girl's ability to eat several dozen rice dishes in a day, or a little girl who absolutely hates you and wants to bite you every time she sees you, or a couple of bath house owners trying to drum up business with an absolutely awful stand up comedy routine. The game never takes itself too seriously, and leads to a lot of unexpected laugh-out-loud moments.

The characters are further assisted by a new breath of life into their day-to-day actions. Instead of following strictly scripted moments as in other Harvest Moon games (So-and-so will be here from exactly 6:00 until 8:00), they'll saunter about, walking from area to area, getting into conversations with each other, getting out of bed and walking to their shops at opening time, and more. To keep "hunting" to a minimum, the game has a real-time map on the upper screen that constantly shows you where everyone is. Often, the game will allow a character to "warp" back to where they should be to make everything feel more natural. For example, the blacksmith shop owners may be found wandering about town even during open hours at their shop, but if the player walks into that shop, they'll be there, instead. It leads to a few odd "didn't I just see you?" moments, but for the most part it serves to make a perfect balance between function and beauty. There hasn't been a RF or HM game that felt so "alive".

All this is further assisted by a fine sense of art style and better-than-average DS graphics. Character and creature models are a bit sharper than they have been in the past, though they're still nothing to write home about. It's the 2D work that always sticks out in the game, from the lovingly crafted item art, to the varied lands, to the beautiful and expressive character sprites in dialogue. The latter, in particular, seems to have gotten a lot of attention, with great expressions and faces really causing dialogue to "pop".

Lastly, the sound and music of the game fluctuates between passable and remarkable. Not counting the opening cinematic, the music in Rune Factory games has been some of my favorite video game music ever. The calm music is catchy and relaxing, event music is fun and upbeat, and, perhaps my favorite, the boss music is wonderfully heroic. It takes a certain kind of ear to love that kind of "midi-like" music, but to those of us who have been loving music since the 8-bit days, games like this are a treat. Everyone else should find it inoffensive, but there's always an option to turn it off anyway. The sound effects of the game seem just about right. Hits are crisp, tools sound like they should, and background sounds are rarely bothersome.

Overall, the game is bright and fun to both watch and listen to.

-Interface and Controls-
One part that both Rune Factory games and Harvest Moon games seem to occasionally miss the mark on is their interface. With a game like this, a lot of time is spent sorting through items, selecting the right tools, and checking data. As anyone who played a game like Island of Happiness can tell you (a game with exclusive touch-screen controls), a bad system here can ruin every other aspect of the game. Rune Factory 3 gets passing marks for this area, but it is the one thing in the game that needs improvement more than any other.

First the good. There are plenty of good features carried over from other games into this one. There's a quick select bar that can be opened with the L shoulder button to swiftly scroll through your available tools, items, and spells/abilities. A ground highlighting system makes it easy to target the correct area for tools, meaning you won't often accidentally chop down a crop, or miss a square for watering. Perhaps best of all, all matching items can be picked up in stacks up to 9 high, allowing you to harvest an entire 3x3 square of crops without having to pause to put them away.

Now the bad. Selecting items, even from the quick bar, can be a little slower than you would like, and the process of shipping all your unwanted items has been done much better in other HM games. Also, while the ability to stack things 9 high in your hands works well, that size proves rather tiny when storing things in your backpack or fridge. You'll feel the urge to stock up on certain things, but you'll have to choose what to keep and throw away. Also, since each item can be a little different, you'll run into situations where you have to use a slot for a level 1 turnip, and another slot for a level 2 turnip. All this also breaks up the flow of combat occasionally, where slamming a recovery potion in the middle of a boss fight means pausing the game to bring up a quick bar, finding the potion in your inventory, unpausing the game with the item in your hands, consuming it, then putting it away to free your hands again. This is by no means game-breaking, but it does take a bit of practice to run around with potions on your head and pick the right moment to drink one down. Of course, one could argue that this encourages things like magic, which are one button away when assigned to a button. Lastly, though running, moving, and aiming is typically quite good, occasionally you'll miss attacks, fire in a wrong direction, or go a little too far or too fast.

Overall, the issues with the controls and interface aren't enough to keep the game from being fun. Stylus controls are also available and can make scrolling through menus a bit easier for some, but fortunately, they're never forced upon you.

-Summary-

There are a few things I missed in this admittedly long-winded review, so I can only suggest that you give the game a try for yourself! A few other key things that I loved:

- A weapon/armor customization system that allows you to upgrade and tweak the stats of each individual equipped item by using treasure, mined, and crafted items.
- Some of the greatest festival events I've seen in a HM/RF game, including a mini-game where you try to get hit by as many beans as possible, and one where you have to sheer a giant wooly using your choice of a spoon, a fish, or a lollipop.
- Everything I've mentioned in this review was experienced within the first season of gameplay. In other words, there's a lot of content!

Pros:
- Great characters, tone, and humor
- Smooth, fun, and challenging combat
- Massive amounts of items, treasures, recipes, skills, weapons, medicines, accessories, and... everything!
- Much improved quest system with great dialogue
- All Harvest Moon farming/crafting gameplay in tact and complete
- Good balance, with fewer exploits and useless items than previous games.
- Fantastic music
- Lively town with interesting and strange characters
- Lives up to the usual legendary amount of gameplay value in HM games (hundreds of hours possible in one playthrough)

Cons:
- Some interface and control issues
- Starts off rocky; not friendly to new players, dwells too much on the simple stuff for experienced players.
- Some very rare slow-downs in crowded areas
- If you never liked Harvest Moon or Rune Factory games, this probably won't change your mind
- The biggest tragedy of all: No one will play this game. Very bad promotion, websites like Gamespot aren't even touching it, mainstream stores don't even seem to keep it in stock.

Buy?
Please do! This series deserves English support if we ever want to see another game in the series, but most of all, the game is just a blast!

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