Rune Factory 4 is irresistibly charming. It has a plethora of things to do and a variety of ways to do them, and features some lovely graphics and catchy tunes. Those charms are slightly tarnished by the paper-thin plot, uneven pacing, and an under-utilized monarchy system, but even with a few smudges on its noble crown, Rune Factory 4 rules.
The story is fairly straightforward. As a hero (or heroine) you literally drop into the small town of Selphia after a scuffle on an airship leaves with you with amnesia, where you’re mistaken for royalty and asked to rule the town and help turn it into a popular tourist destination. Without any real reason to say no, your hero proceeds to spend their time doing some serious multitasking.
Multitasking is definitely the key word here, because there’s a lot to do in Rune Factory 4. Activities include fishing, farming, cooking, crafting, exploring dungeons, running a store, fighting and taming monsters, (deep breath) issuing orders, running errands, participating in festivals, and wooing one of Selphia’s eligible bachelors or bachelorettes. Keep in mind that almost all of these things cost you Rune energy (the Rune Factory equivalent of magic points), so you’ll not only have to manage your time carefully, you’ll also have to ensure you don’t overexert yourself. A little exhaustion is well worth it though, as doing multiple tasks in the space of a single day is incredibly rewarding.
The Rune Factory series is a spin-off of Harvest Moon, so it’s no surprise that one of the most enjoyable tasks in Rune Factory 4 is farming. Besides tilling the land, planting seeds, watering crops and harvesting them at the right time, you can also inspect the quality of the soil and use items to protect your fields from damaging storms. Once you’ve reaped what you’ve sown, you can then sell your bounty for money, or turn veggies into tasty dishes that can be consumed for energy or given to one of the townspeople to improve your friendship with them. It’s an involved process that can get repetitive at times, but it ultimately proves rewarding when the cash and compliments from NPCs start rolling in.
Combat is also rewarding, with fast-paced action and easy-to-understand mechanics that allow you to equip weapons, spells and abilities by simply mapping them to one of four assigned slots (the X, Y, RY and RX buttons). You can also swap them out at any time by opening up the in-game menu with a quick press of the left shoulder button. This is an especially handy feature when you need to change your strategy on the fly, which happens a lot since Rune Factory 4 features some pretty tough enemies. But don’t worry, you won’t always have to fight them. Like previous Rune Factory games, almost all the monsters you encounter are tamable. All you have to do is figure out the right food or items to give them (which requires a bit of trial and error). Once you’ve made a new friend, you can order them to follow you into battle or send them home, where they’ll help out with the farmwork. Some even produce useful items that you can craft things from, so it’s worth making a few furry friends.
Farming and fighting are great, but the best part of Rune Factory 4 is its surprisingly in-depth romances. There are six eligible bachelors or bachelorettes in town for you to choose from, each with their own likes, dislikes and background story. All have wonderfully quirky personalities (thanks to XSEED’s excellent localization and some fantastic voice acting), which makes pursuing residents an addictive past-time. After you’ve captured a person’s heart, you can go on dates and attend festivals together, and even marry and start a family. It’s fantastic fun.
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What isn’t very fun is the responsibility of being royalty, which is all busywork and no pageantry or amusing abuses of power. You’d think issuing orders from on high would be a blast, but Rune Factory 4 refuses to let you use your accumulated Prince/Princess points (awarded for doing various tasks) for anything other than expanding the town to attract tourists or improving your personal property, making the whole sovereign thing a bit of a bore. It’s true that you can at least assign farm work to your pets, but most of the time you’ll be running around doing errands like a commoner instead of enjoying your royal prerogative to delegate these menial tasks to the lowly peasants beneath you. This makes the monarchy system feel like a wasted opportunity, which is a shame because given a little more imagination, it could have been something special.
Some Rune Factory fans might not mind being a powerless figurehead, but they may be frustrated by some initial foot-dragging. The obligatory 10-hour tutorial is a real chore to get through, only somewhat helped by a Request Box full of tasks that pass the time until something interesting happens. And you’ll be waiting a long time for something interesting to happen, since the story doesn’t really get going until the second half of the campaign, and even then it falls a little flat.
Luckily there’s so much to do that the sluggish pacing and gauzy story can be forgiven. As previously mentioned, the fun doesn’t stop and at just farming and fighting. You can walk to the nearest body of water and fish for food, make clothes, armor and weapons that will raise your stats in battle, and participate in goofy festivals like sheering a giant sheep or catching squid. You can even plant your very own dungeon and explore it (which yields rare items).