Version tested: Wii
Rune Factory is a deceptive little bugger. It's a Harvest Moon spin-off, and to the casual observer it must resemble a pretty little farming game with a bit of colourful monster-bashing, which means it frightens away most of the audience who would really appreciate it before they even get it off the shelf. By flashing its schmaltzy anime portraiture and pastoral plumage, Rune Factory disguises a hugely complex and extensive RPG, which just happens to orbit the binary stars of market gardening and playboy romance.
You're probably dimly familiar with legume propagation sim Harvest Moon already. Rune Factory's main departure from that series is the addition of dungeon-crawling, rendered in the same cheerfully Arcadian style as the events in town, but adding another huge layer of potential complexity to the already bewildering crop-farming and local-girl-schmoozing.
It starts just like every single other Harvest Moon or Rune Factory basically does, with a sweeping epidemic of amnesia, an excuse for relocation and the convenient availability of a deserted but potentially profitable ranch. Two minutes in and you're settled into a spacious home in the expansive town of Trampoli, with a pocketful of turnip seeds and a cheap hoe on your arm. Then you're left to your own devices.
It's one of Rune Factory's defining characteristics that, while there's an almost endless array of activities, jobs and pastimes to partake in, you're never really given any kicks up the schedule. Everything putters by at a gentle, easy pace, despite the fact that every ticking second represents a minute on the game's clock, making each day 24 minutes long. This clock is paused whenever you enter a non-dungeon building, allowing the player to shop and visit at leisure, also providing time to experiment with the three different strands of crafting available once your house is equipped with the right domestic apparatus.
Staying up too late or running out of energy or health means a late start to the next day and a stat-draining head cold. Because every action costs energy points, replenished through certain foodstuffs or a once-daily dip at the local bathhouse, this forces organised prioritisation, usually a case of early-morning chores followed by a bit of exploration and expansion later on. Get up, water the turnips, clear some of the timber and stones which accumulate overnight, tend to the animals, then take a little stroll around Trampoli, shooting the breeze with its residents to learn more about what you're actually supposed to be doing.
The cornerstone of it all is agriculture. Farming brings income, allowing you to buy better tools, domestic appliances and equipment, making your day more efficient and giving you time to expand your repertoire of seasonal vegetables and chat-up lines. You'll learn to cook, too - gradually more complex recipes that restore more and more energy, letting you do more with your time. Soon you'll be taming the monsters you come across in dungeons as well, training them in the mundane work of farming so they'll tend your crops while you're out killing their families and stealing their skins to help butter up the local ladies.
These shortcuts and efficiencies are balanced by an ever-swelling list of ways to spend your time and energy. It's possible to completely suspend your farming activities, saving up enough crop money to set you up for an extended period of dungeon-delving. Likewise there's the option of agricultural pacifism, focusing on the production of crops and ignoring the underground seasonal dungeons and the caverns of the floating Whale Island completely.
In many ways it's completely cyclical, a play on the drip-fed incremental rewards of new objects, toys and activities which fuel games such as Animal Crossing so successfully. And like those games, it's also maddeningly compulsive.
Despite the sedate progression - dropping hints and equipment as you stroll around town chatting to shop owners, post-girls and dotty professors - it's a very difficult thing to put down. Doing so, by saving your progress in the bedside diary and turning off, feels like abandoning a living, breathing world - a world where your crops will shrivel and die without your care and attention, and where you friends and potential suitors will gradually lose interest if you don't go and visit.
They don't - Rune Factory doesn't track the passing of real-world time the way Animal Crossing does - but the non-prescribed nature of your options fosters an emotional investment in your particular Trampoli. I found myself drawn into the burgeoning complexity in a way that meant I began to really care about turning out a crop of a particular girl's favourite flower, curious to see just how much she'd put out for the product of the sweat of my brow and some animal manure.
Getting married is one of Rune Factory's endgames, much as it was in Harvest Moon. You can play it straight and narrow, cultivating a single relationship to fruition like so much prize brassica, or play the dilettante and weigh up your romantic options first, seeing if you can persuade the tubby but domestically dedicated Eunice to drop a few pounds before you decide between her and the coy nurse/nun who patches up your wounds and sniffles.
Rune Factory isn't a game that excels at the depiction of equality. There are some strong female characters, but unless they're married or nigh-on mummified then they'll be gasping for a bit of male attention, indicating their emotional responses in anime-styled sweats, hearts or teardrops as you work your rough-handed farmer's magic on them. It's a minor point, and nobody ever claimed that Rune Factory was a tool for domestic emancipation, but some of the stereotypes grate a bit in what is otherwise quite a wryly-observed experience.
In practical terms, the farming and combat themselves are satisfying and well-implemented. A bright blue cursor indicates what you're aiming at with your current tool or weapon, while button prompts in the lower-left of the screen show what action you'll perform. The controls are precise and enjoyable, with waggle entirely optional in its already minor role. There'll be no fanfares about the simple combat - it's functional without being flamboyant - but the addition of monsters and dungeons adds another solid dimension to play rather than feeling tacked on.
Anyway, the review score beckons, and I've hardly scratched the surface. I've not even mentioned the system of Runes and Runeys, tiny field spirits whose propagation and balance must be mastered as you progress in order to maximise crop output. There's fishing too, and that massively expansive crafting system. Special events, competitions, secret areas. Masses and masses and masses of content. So much so, in fact, that it can all become a bit overwhelming, settling into a miasmic grind all too easily if you lose focus.
To help you get a handle on it all there's a fairly helpful if poorly presented online help system in the form of a library. The books offer basic guidance on various aspects of the game, as well as hints about its deeper mysteries. It too hardly scratches the surface.
If you're still not convinced about the hardcore credentials of Rune Factory: Frontier, bear this in mind. I took in a walkthrough, pointing myself in the right direction occasionally to ensure I gave the game a fair chance. It was 85,000 words in length. That's about seven university dissertations. Both its length, and that the dedication required of the author was so readily given, speak volumes about just how immersive, involving and consuming this game can be.
This is arguably the most involving non-linear RPG available on Nintendo's flagship system. As a non-Harvest Moon fan, I found myself thoroughly engrossed in what I had assumed were dry and pointless cycles of seasons, affections and upgrades, which instead make Rune Factory so irresistible. If you've ever enjoyed a game in the extended series, this is a no-brainer. If not, try it, because you just might like it.
8 / 10