Rune Factory 4 does what any spin-off game should eventually do: emerge from the shadow of the main series that inspired it. You need only look to the dragons and action role-playing game combat to see that the game embraces the "fantasy" part of the series' slogan, "A Fantasy Harvest Moon." Farming is still a major component, though following a day/night cycle and growing bountiful crops aren't your only goals. You also have to partake in quests, vanquish monsters in dungeons, and assume the role of an accidental prince. These elements are interwoven throughout a central narrative of unusual depth for this franchise.
The initial developments of Rune Factory 4's story get to the point so quickly and effectively, you might not have time to roll your eyes at the sustained rollout of Japanese role-playing game plot cliches. While traveling on an airship with a mysterious artifact, you’re accosted by stowaway spies. After one blow to the head, you end up with a case of amnesia and escape by falling off the airship. On the ground, an unsuspecting talking dragon cushions your fall and promptly makes you the prince of a town that is in need of a role model. This all happens in the first 10 minutes, with concise exposition that makes it surprisingly easy to accept what's going on.
Getting your hands dirty as a farmer takes a bit of time since Rune Factory 4 plays it safe by assuming you've never farmed digital vegetables in the past. The tutorial goes over every aspect of the gameplay, making sure you know what you can do and how to do it. This kind of hand-holding can feel tiresome for those who follow the series, but it does make the sense of freedom feel all the better once the training wheels come off. If anything, the tutorial of Rune Factory 4 is an ideal introduction to the series for newcomers.
Like the Harvest Moon series, Rune Factory 4 does not provide an authentic farming experience, but is a whole lot more inviting than actual farming simulations. The visual style combines a vibrant color palette with endearing character, monster, and object designs. More importantly, you needn't stress over the less delightful aspects of real life farming. Proper planting, watering, and timely harvesting yields ideal crops in Rune Factory 4, and knowing you can rely on these cause-and-effect outcomes is wholly rewarding.
Dating follows the classic Harvest Moon formula of requiring you to be thoughtful with your words and generous with your gifts.
Conversations with townsfolk and story events ensure you always have goals to meet, and you have more than enough land to cultivate behind your home, though you'll notice that greenhouse caves have been supplanted by actual dungeons. Farming shares a spotlight with dungeon exploration and combat, yet one of Rune Factory 4's finest attributes is how it combines these seemingly disparate elements into a cohesive whole. You sense this constancy when you tame monsters and use them as your farm animals. Instead of a plain old sheep, you get cute monster sheep. The same goes for the monster chickens and the really big monster cows.
Aside from the traditional character leveling rewards from visiting dungeons, clearing these areas unlocks new characters in town. They're good at social graces, but even better in battle as companions, provided you've built solid enough friendships. As combatants, they have their own unique fighting styles and level up alongside you, so there's added incentive to maintain your friendships. There's a perpetual sense of character progression from all your actions, such as the HP and stamina you gain from farming and getting proper sleep. You even gain strength just by running!
Even if the act of running didn't provide such a tangible benefit, you'd still find yourself traveling the land. Though you must care for your farm regularly, the game gives you ample time to enjoy other activities like fishing and socializing in town. While you might find yourself indecisive on what to do next, you never feel overwhelmed. Dark dungeon treks aren't deep, hour-long adventures, but are instead straightforward arrays of real-time monster encounters, switch-based puzzles, and simple boss fights.
For all the things you can do in Rune Factory 4, the game is surprisingly lacking in filler. The slick and navigation-friendly user interface is complemented by the tight town design and the hero's swift mobility. The ability to run fast fits the combat system since you're expected to move around to dodge and flank monsters. It makes the combat feel very fluid, and you're not locked into clunky, drawn-out animations. It's an engrossing throwback to simple, but not shallow, gameplay reminiscent of Link's Awakening. There's variety in that you can equip three moves at any given time, which dovetails into different combos. That in itself opens a wealth of customization options since there are a lot of weapons and magic spells to choose from, including fist weapons, a first for the series.
These options already give you a tangible sense of ownership, but Rune Factory 4 gives you even more reasons to be invested. While you can let story events trigger updates to store inventories, it's more practical to make weapons and farming tools yourself. It's hard to think of a better way to have an appreciation for your property than having crafted your belongings yourself. Many will appreciate the game's small touches, such as character model appearances updated to show equipped accessories, even if it’s something as simple as a ribbon in one’s hair.
The character models are still on the childlike "chibi" side, but they are a vast improvement over the characters from the previous games, many of whom barely looked human. If this is your first Rune Factory, you might not grasp the significance of having the option to play as a female character. It's a first for the series and a marked improvement over the strange half-boy, half-sheep protagonist from the last game. Whichever gender you choose, there's a selection of suitors to court as potential love interests. Dating follows the classic Harvest Moon formula of requiring you to be thoughtful with your words and generous with your gifts.
If you've always been on the fence about Harvest Moon because you crave some action to break up the routine of farming, Rune Factory 4 handily addresses those desires. Just don't expect it to give you an appreciation for the hard work and dedication needed to run a farm, because this game is jam-packed with relevant and diversionary non-farming activities. That said, Rune Factory 4 excels because every action you take brings you one step closer to one of many substantial goals, whether it's increasing stats, getting more monster labor on the farm, or impressing that one special guy in town.