Hey, folks! This one's all text. I know, in this ridiculously media saturated age, that text is usually a bit too cumbersome of a form of media to ingest, but I'm writing a small reflection on the first few hours or so of a game. I actually plan on doing this fairly regularly as I plow through the games I'm playing that have nothing to do with the podcast. This is technically a blog, after all.
So, a couple of weeks ago, we published our podcast episode about Harvest Moon. While obviously a flawed game, concealed beneath its murky exterior are some priceless gems; such treasures are rare now, and I don't think we really emphasized how intriguing this game is. If you listened to the premise and found yourself strangely attracted to the idea, don't feel ashamed. It's a perfectly natural part of your development.
However, if you'll recall, we were only a few dozen grams of caffeine away from earnestly ranting about how boring it was. When was the last time you got emotional about boredom? The main complaint was that, as a game, it lacked a certain level of engagement. The tasks you are supposed to spend most of your time with quickly dulls into routine mundanity, but it's generally better than the other things that are available. Harvest Moon, despite its odd allure, wears out its welcome before it's done staying at your place. I feel this is the necessary conclusion of simulation games of this nature; unlike something akin to Sim City, however, you don't get to finish your experience in the resplendence of fifteen natural disasters simultaneously ending your empire.
Somehow, though, Natsume is still in business and still making farming simulators. Perhaps for a while, they survived off the hope of seeing what lay beneath the tedium, that horrible yet beautiful something nagging at the edges of our thoughts. Perhaps it's simply that dating simulators, which these games tend to be, are a poorly represented genre in the U.S. Geremy has, on occasion, raved about the excellence of Harvest Moon 64, so the company must have done something right. At any rate, the initial success of Harvest Moon and its sequels enabled Natsume license to experiment with the basic formula. There now exists a small pile of spinoffs, most of which now have sequels of their own.
This brings me to the eponymous game of this post: Rune Factory 2. There are, at the time of this writing and according to the sum of all human knowledge that is Wikipedia, six games in this series. Six games about farming. That's already impressive, even if you don't consider the actual Harvest Moon series and the myriad other things Natsume has produced under similar guise. What did they get right with this take on the premise?
Let me preface my following comments by saying that I do not know that I will finish this game. I'm already having trouble thinking of picking back up after stopping for a few hours. However, my first impression of this game is strongly positive. Simply put, it's been pretty fun thus far. So, what is this thing that I've spent so long talking around? Well, succinctly, it's Harvest Moon with swords. Also, fireballs and axes, but the prior sentence pretty much sums it up. The main character wanders into town with amnesia, under what I can only assume to be some form of magical compulsion. The plot wiggles a bit to land you a farm, and you're off to cultivate your adventure.
This game succeeds in a few vital areas that Harvest Moon didn't. Primarily, I believe the characters around town have more substance to them, no longer the ephemeral impressions of personality with which we were originally treated. Most of them spend a good portion of the early game telling you their favorite food, but their development is aided by a second aspect that was sorely lacking from the first game. A necessary, but not sufficient, trait for the proper enjoyment of Harvest Moon is the ability for the player to set their own goals. The game doesn't give you anything concrete to do, nothing to merit the growing of endless crops; if you are to succeed, you must introduce some tasks of your own invention.
While Rune Factory doesn't do a whole lot more for this, it does give you some quests to perform. The artifice for this is that all the people in town post their problems on a board in the town square and hope that some generous soul will come and aid them. Given that you are a farmer, which is an inexplicably easy task in this facet of reality, you have plenty of free time to be that person. Accepting the quests allows you to both find something to kill time in the game until the next tending of the crops and gives you a small insight into the character you're playing errand boy for. Sometimes it's something trivial, such as a small boy causes mischief and doesn't want to be caught, and sometimes it's amusing and rather telling of the character the writers wanted to portray, such as the local self professed badass being a lover of books.
While these two aspects may well be the meat of the game, they are certainly not the meat of the mechanics. This is, disregarding the title, a Harvest Moon game, so there should be farming. You'll be glad(?) to know that farming is a key element to this game. I'll get to the twist that makes the premise so amusing in a moment to talk briefly about digital agriculture. The farming in this works very similarly to the original Harvest Moon. That being the only game in the franchise I've played for more than about 5 minutes, that is what I'm using for comparison. Thus far, the major improvements I've seen are thus:
1) You can walk through your crops. No more awkward lines cut out, meaning maximum value for your seeds.
2) Crops are worth quite a bit, which is both satisfying and useful to the "with a sword" portion of the game.
3) Your tools can, with few exceptions, be charged to affect a larger area, reducing the time you spend actually farming.
That last point is pretty important. I actually only spend about 1 or 2 in game hours actually tending to the farm each day. It occurs to me that I've neglected to mention that this game is on the Nintendo DS, which is mildly important. You can queue up actions quickly on the touch screen, making the harvesting of numerous crops a breeze. This means that you have plenty of time to do things that aren't farming. Certain crops require a bit more attention than others, but most just require you to make sure that everything is watered at the end of the day.
Since you don't spend a whole lot of time farming, what are you doing? Well, other than performing menial tasks for villagers, you're exploring dungeons. I use that term loosely. One of the dungeons is, in fact, just a forest. It's not even densely wooded. Anywho, using, at first, your farming equipment and later some more sensible tools, you can delve into dungeons and slay beasts, gather resources for crafting new equipment, and getting goodies to give to the villagers. Like all Harvest Moon games, you largely improve your standing with individuals by giving them things. Talking to them regularly reveals what varieties of objects they prefer. Thus, much of your time, and energy, is spent hitting things with a suitable club surrogate.
Since the adventuring is a huge aspect of the game, let me regale you a bit with my thoughts on it. First, it's fun. Second, it handles only marginally better than a jellyfish on skates. How are these things coincident? Well, the enemies, at least as far as I've gotten, have mile wide tells before each of their attacks. While you may have trouble positioning yourself for an attack of your own, you certainly have an abundance of time in which to do so. Most go down after a few good combos (from the weapons that combo; not all weapons are capable of this), and you can pretty easily run circles around them. However, they will continue to spawn unless you destroy the rather obvious swirling ball of energy that is the spawner. That means farming a particular enemy for whatever items it happens to drop is not much of a chore, at least not compared to some other games.
While we're talking about the actual mechanics, I want to mention the energy system. Similar to Harvest Moon, almost every action you perform in the game uses energy. You have two types of energy here, though: RP and HP. I can't remember exactly what these stand for, but you've probably played enough games to know what HP is. You take a hit, it goes down. RP is an arbitrary measure of your stamina. As you swing your sword or water your crops, your stamina is consumed. Better equipment uses more stamina, though you can increase your skill level in most actions to reduce the amount consumed. Once you run out of RP, your HP is consumed instead. This can lead to problems if you delve unprepared into dungeons. There are a wide variety of items available to recover either measure, so running out isn't really an issue unless you get surrounded by enemies. However, unlike Harvest Moon, the night is not without end. There are many maladies you may contract, mostly in the form of standard fantasy/RPG status ailments. Additionally, you can catch a cold, and you are more likely to do so if you forgo sleep regularly.
Now, back to farming related things, since this subject ties neatly into that from dungeoneering, you may recall that we mentioned that in Harvest Moon you accrue most of your wealth through harvesting animal products. The same appears to be true in this game. However, there is no place to buy animals or equipment. You get most of your farm supplies by completing preliminary quests for the townsfolk. Among the essentials is the Pet Glove. In the dungeons, when beset by monsters, you may attempt to pet them into submission. I like to imagine is like trying to scratch the belly of an aggressive dog and eventually getting it to roll onto its back to afford you a better vantage.
At any rate, you may acquire cow and chicken monsters, in addition to basically anything else you encounter. While many monsters do not produce valuable products like milk and eggs, you can shave most monsters and sell their fur. That raises some questions about who would want goblin hair, but I digress. The real purpose in catching anything other than a cash cow is that you can take monsters with you when adventuring, making your expeditions a bit less harrowing. Eventually, you get the ability to tell them to perform special attacks, making their aid even more welcome. I haven't gotten very far, but I just picked up a dire wolf of some sort, which I've creatively named "Lobo," and he appears to enjoy feasting furiously upon the flesh of my foes. I've always enjoyed ending my foes through status effects, watching them perish from a safe distance. To that end, it's rather amusing watching my wolf do all the work for me.
The dungeons themselves are... alright. There are four main areas, one each corresponding to a season. There are areas in each where you may plant crops of the appropriate season should you run out of space in your field or it is not the season for potatoes or something else you may desire, usually as a gift for a villager. The dungeons are appropriately themed, although there are two forests mostly differentiated by color palette. My one complaint thus far is that, aside from layout and enemies, they're basically all the same. This may be more a problem with the enemies than the levels in which they reside, but it gets to be that exploring the initially cool ice cave is roughly the same as wandering the tropical island.
According to your world map, these two features exist within a couple miles of each other, by the way.
There's some promise for more, and potentially interesting, things around the corner if I continue playing, which I intend to for now. Each dungeon has areas blocked off by arbitrary obstacles. They currently come in two flavors, and I feel that the plot will explain to me what they are later. There appears to be something of an actual plot, and the game has reasonable pacing when introducing new concepts. It does, however, leave a lot up to experimentation. I'm not sure how I feel about this; I normally like it, but some of the mechanics might be esoteric enough that I won't discover them without a guide.
So, you have farming funding dungeon delving funding more farming. It's a positive feedback cycle, and this particular one is fairly satisfying. I like most of the characters, and the town's a pretty colorful place, despite being made up of seven or so screen. In addition, the game takes places over multiple generations, which is a gimmick I've always enjoyed. If you're wondering what I mean by that, I shall explain. When you marry the girl of your choice, you move in together and, as is the usual course of these things, have a child. That child then becomes the new main character. Yeah. I really like that idea, but have no recollection of playing a game with this mechanic. I don't know how many generations the game lasts, however.
My final thoughts on this game, at least for the purpose of this entry, are pretty positive. As I mentioned, I don't know whether it will hold my interest for the entire length of the game unless it introduces some larger plot hooks. I don't think this necessarily reflects poorly on the game so much as the type of game I'm in the mood for. I've been playing a lot of fairly narrative and character heavy RPGs lately, so this may have to wait for a better day. If you're intrigued by the idea of a farming game and like fantasy settings, this is pretty much the arcane relic of imagined lore. It's quirky and a little corny, but worth a play if it sounds at all interesting to you. It's available only on the DS as far as I'm aware, but it's a solid entry in a franchise brimming with posibility I'm probably going to revisit several times now that I've tested the waters.