Rune Factory: A Fantasy Harvest Moon
Churning out sequels. It's a phrase that is used in connotation with only a few series. Capcom is probably guilty of churning out sequels for Mega Man, as we all know, and SquareEnix does the same, although viewed in a slightly less negative context, with Final Fantasy. People mention it all the time, claiming that publishers are milking their properties for all they are worth, and yet, throughout the majority of those conversations, Natsume and Harvest Moon are rarely brought into the fray. There have been no less than twenty Harvest Moon games throughout the last 10 years, and the fundamental aspects of gameplay have always been the same. Players didn't fight beasts, but instead tilled the earth, and built their farm. Now, on the games 10th anniversary, that is all going to change.
Two new Harvest Moon releases, both billed as spin-offs from the initial franchise, are skewing age-old gameplay mechanics and rebranding Harvest Moon for a new generation. Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon, for the PSP, and Rune Factory: A Fantasy Harvest Moon, for the DS, are these reinterpretations. Each is guilty of changing much of the core Harvest Moon ideology, although, Rune Factory may be doing so slightly more radically than its PSP sibling.
Gone is the largely peaceful system that has been employed in Harvest Moon releases for years. Instead, players still seek to build a successful farm, but they now have the option to travel outwards with their various tools and farming equipment to dungeons, in which their watering cans and hoes quickly become weapons for battling monsters. Sure, there are more traditional weapons as well, but the very notion of watering an enemy to death seems to be a pretty enjoyable, if not slightly unrealistic, one. The monsters prove to be the largest addition to Rune Factory, as they can be caught, and trained to help complete tasks on the farm. They can even accompany their new masters back into battle against their old friends.
As players explore they will discover new farms to maintain and begin farming. These farms are locked away in dungeons, and as they are in different areas, they will face different climate conditions, all based on an internal clock, and open the doors for new items for the player. The internal clock of the game is semi-realistic, progressing slowly through a four season schedule. Where the main farm within Rune Factory will adhere to these climate changes, the subsequent farms are hidden away and free from the passing of seasons.
As the seasons pass, the player will have the opportunity to relish some of the Harvest Moon franchise staples. Farming (obviously), building a home, fishing, and perhaps most importantly, engaging in a tryst or two. Harvest Moon has been famous as a relationship simulator as well as a strangely peaceful franchise, and this has made it into Rune Factory as well. Girls from various towns and locales are all willing targets to have their love rating boosted, and proper swooning can lead, ultimately, to a happy marriage. There's no word if divorce, affairs, and prenuptial agreements are included, but I suppose we can adhere to the suspension of disbelief just this once.
Bowing to the wishes of a needy wife might not be the paramount action in Rune Factory though, as there are only a limited number of actions available to the main character before he becomes exhausted and is able to perform no more. This system, being labeled the Rune Meter, allows for each action to drain the Rune Meter until the player begins to lose energy from exhaustion. Of all the mechanics within Rune Factory, this one seems to be the most worrying. Few situations arise where similar aspects of gameplay are actually welcomed and enjoyable.
The game might suffer from a stutter-step in other realms as well. Stylus control has been reported as tacked-on, the visuals while pleasant, are still limited, and the inclusion of Nintendo WiFi support is relegated to the traditional sending of instant messages to friends, and uploading items to sale. This ramshackle WiFi support is getting to be a selling point of many similar games (Contact, Final Fantasy III), but it is largely unsubstantial and growing common as little more than the necessary requirement for publishers to drop the WiFi seal on the box, and feel happy about themselves. Luckily, there is a fairly unique screen capturing program in which players can take screenshots anywhere throughout the game, write messages or drawings on them, and send these to other players. This is a step in the right direction, sure, but still not any worthy WiFi addition.
There's still some time for Rune Factory to be tweaked, and there's no suggesting that it hasn't already been. Natsume has long been working with developers on similar titles, so there shouldn't be much worry about the game being a faithful re-adaptation of the franchise. Innocent Life will be making its way to the PSP slightly earlier than Rune Factory's summer release, but wade through both of our previews to discern which Harvest Moon-ish release is right for you. Monsters and nagging wives, or a tropical farming mystery, either way, you'd better dust off that Future Farmers of America membership card and git tah plantin'.*
* = No suggestion of farmers as being unintelligent is intended.**
** = I'm lying.