This one could've used more time to grow
Here’s the good news: Rune Factory 5 is a successful transition of the series’ longstanding formula from 2D to 3D. The combat, farming, and social aspects are all presented here as you remember them, but with a fresh coat of paint and new camera angles.
Now for the bad news: Rune Factory 5 does very little to adapt the series’ formula for modern audiences. In fact, it hardly attempts to do anything new at all. The most noticeable change here is certainly the new graphical style and presentation. It’s functional, but it also brings with it a handful of new technical issues. Of course, there are also some quality of life updates and new features in the mix, but it isn’t enough to make this game feel truly original.
For any newcomers to this series, Rune Factory began as a spinoff of the successful Harvest Moon farming sim games. At this point it’s grown popular enough to become a recognized franchise on its own merits. Still, the mechanics don’t stray too far from other games of this genre that you might be familiar with, such as the aforementioned Harvest Moon, or the more recent Stardew Valley.
Rune Factory 5 takes place in the town/military outpost of Rigbarth, where you wake up after suffering from amnesia. While attempting to recover your memories (and inevitably saving the world in the process), you’ll have plenty of free time in which to grow crops, catch fish, decorate your home, and mingle with the local townsfolk. Your schedule revolves around a calendar of seasons, events, and a day/night cycle. Each in-game day lasts around 20 minutes, which might not seem like much, but it’s usually plenty of time to finish your daily errands. In other sim games I tend to find myself racing against the clock. In RF5, I often go to bed early because there just isn’t much left for me to do until the following morning. The pace is much more relaxed. This can be a good thing, because it means you don’t have to rush around in a desperate attempt to finish your chores (The game even includes convenient fast travel options all over the map to get you exactly where you’re going in a hurry).
On the other hand, the lack of daily activities can make the game world feel empty, and occasionally boring. By the time I finished with the main story (roughly 30 hours of gameplay), I had only made it through about one and a half seasons. It definitely felt a little odd to see the credits roll before seeing snow hit the ground. This is a relatively open game though, and players are free to go at their own pace, so your mileage may vary.
The main story and sidequests are what really differentiate Rune Factory from other similar games, and RF5 is no exception. While the plot is nothing groundbreaking, following the trail of clues that leads to uncovering your own lost memories is compelling. The bulk of these story missions comes in the form of dungeon crawls, which you’ll find in the areas beyond Rigbarth. Each dungeon will present you with a series of rooms filled with various monsters which you’ll need to defeat in order to move on. At the end of each dungeon, there will be a boss to fight as well. These are very light, uncomplicated levels that are all about taking down monsters and finding loot. There are puzzles to solve, but nothing more intricate than finding the right switch to open a door. The vast majority of your time spent here will consist of combat.
When it comes to Rune Factory 5’s combat system, you get out of it what you put into it. If you’re willing to experiment and familiarize yourself with different playstyles, there are a lot of options here. First are your standard weapons; swords, spears, axes, even magic rods that shoot elemental damage beams. Then there are your Rune Abilities; special skills you can choose and equip. There are dozens of these rune abilities, some of which alter your weapon combos, while others provide alternate magical forms of damage or healing. How you play is completely up to you, and there’s a lot of customizability when it comes to which weapons, skills and items you employ.
In spite of the combat system having a lot of options, you can mostly get by with simple button mashing. As you play more with particular weapons, you’ll unlock charge abilities and other techniques, but it’s nothing that requires much thought. Until the later stages of the game, combat is pretty easy and straightforward. Some of the game’s final bosses can be tricky, but most of them are slow, and they telegraph their moves in obvious ways. If things really get tough, you can always lower the game’s difficulty via your headquarters, or invite NPCs (humans or monsters) along with you as partners. Doing so will raise their affinity for you and allow you to make stronger attacks together later on. Alternately, you can use my method: equip a gloves/fists weapon, which grants you the power to lift enemies and slam them on the ground into each other. I found this moveset to make all but the toughest enemy groups and bosses trivial affairs, but again, you get out of it what you put into it. The amount of options and upgradeable weapons you can find in the game is genuinely impressive.
The same can be said for the decidedly less life threatening farming portion of the game. There’s a wide variety of vegetables and flowers for you to purchase or discover. You’ll have just a small farming plot at first, but you’ll soon gain access to special farm dragons which provide you with more room to grow. You can use special elemental crystals with these dragons to produce effects such as rain, helping accommodate different crop types. Also returning is Rune Factory’s soil system, which sees you carefully treating and alternating your plots of land in order to produce higher level crops. Early on, farming will probably take up a big portion of your day.
Eventually, you’ll unlock more efficient tools and monster barns to help speed things along. Monster barns are key, because any monsters you capture in the field can be sent back home to help clear your land and water your crops for you. The game definitely emphasizes its story and fighting systems over other activities, making the farming aspect feel a little less essential. That said, if you want to dive deep into it, you’ll find more than enough to keep you occupied when it comes to the growing, caring, cooking, and selling of crops.
In addition to your farming affairs, there are also non-essential character quests to attend to in town. These quests can lead to romance and marriage down the line, plus they offer snippets of cute dialogue from the game’s fairly large cast. There are at least a couple dozen villagers to interact with, including twelve eligible bachelor(ette)s. This is the first Rune Factory entry which allows you to marry either gender, regardless of your own character’s identity, a welcome change. Nearly every character has their own individual backstory and arc that you can play a part in, and these can be fun to uncover. Unfortunately, some of the less interesting character quests feel like busywork. One particularly egregious example sees you traveling around town asking your neighbors for signatures to attend a meeting. It isn’t exactly what I would call riveting content, but at least it’s optional.
If you’d like to get closer to anyone (for friendship or marriage purposes), you can increase their relationship levels by talking to them and giving them presents each day. Don’t expect much in the way of unique or scintillating dialogue in return, but it is cute. New characters will arrive as you progress through the story, making the town feel more alive. They’ll move into empty houses or open up additional shops, all of which can be upgraded and enhanced to offer new features and inventory. Some of these upgrades will cost you quite a lot of money and materials, so you’ll be at it for a while if you want to truly complete your town.
The townsfolk all have their own daily routines, but they’re pretty limited in what you’ll find them doing. Sometimes groups will congregate awkwardly around town, staring out into space. This is one example of something that works just fine in 2D, but in 3D, is immersion breaking (and kind of creepy). Many characters have jobs and shops to attend to, but you’re rolling the dice on whether or not they’ll actually attend to those jobs. In spite of clearly posted hours outside each building, characters will sometimes wander out and about without leaving so much as a note. This can be a frustrating thing when you’re trying to accomplish something, and unfortunately, it’s just one of many frustrating things I experienced while playing Rune Factory 5.
Rune Factory veterans should have no trouble whatsoever settling into the groove here, but if you’re a newcomer (or a lapsed player like me), some mechanics can be downright obscure. An extended tutorial sequence will fill you in on the basics you need to get started, but it isn’t enough. Tutorial signs are placed throughout the town to help fill in the gaps with a menu of tips and advice. These are handy in a pinch, but their overall functionality is clunky, forcing you to navigate through a cumbersome menu of text explanations instead of learning things naturally.
Here’s a little anecdote to demonstrate what I mean. Early on in the game, I spent some of my Seed Points (a currency earned from missions) to establish the Cooking Festival. No one told me what exactly the Cooking Festival entails, but it was an option, and it seemed like a fun activity to hold. On the day of the festival, I learned that I needed to submit my own recipe to compete in the festival. I couldn’t buy any ingredients because all the shops were closed for the holiday. Instead, I went on one of the game’s “Wanted Monster” missions to catch a rogue goblin out in the field. My reward for doing so successfully? Cooking bread! (In Rune Factory, eating different types of bread will teach you recipes for meals, medicines, or even weapons.) This particular piece of bread taught me how to make bamboo rice, and somehow, against all odds, I happened to have both bamboo and rice in my possession. That’s when I hit my next roadblock: I needed to take a quiz to receive my cooking license. This wasn’t too difficult, and I passed with flying colors, only to realize that I needed to buy a cooking table from the furniture shop in order to put it to good use. Of course, if you’ll recall, all the shops were closed for the day. Needless to say, I did not place in the Cooking Festival that year.
This might seem like a silly thing to get worked up about, but it’s representative of just how little direction the game gives you in most areas. I love a game that doesn’t hold my hand, but here it feels like an oversight rather than a choice. It’s very easy to miss something, or forget how a mechanic works, forcing you to figure it out with trial and error. There are plenty of activities you can get started on long before the game actually decides to teach you how they work. It just feels like there’s a layer of polish and guidance missing. Luckily for anyone buying the game now, there will no doubt be fan-made guides and tutorials online to help ease you into things.
As stated earlier, the 3D presentation is new for the Rune Factory series, and for the most part it works just fine. Maneuvering the camera whether farming or in combat can be done quickly and with ease. Character and monster designs, colors and other aesthetic choices, are all exceedingly pleasant. The graphics do look somewhat primitive, but the cartoonish anime aesthetic does a lot to distract from them.
What’s less excusable is how poorly the game runs. The framerate is not smooth at all, and you’ll experience noticeable hiccups while playing. There’s a level of pop-in for characters, enemies, grass, and trees, which is really unacceptable in a modern release. Expect extensive loading and juddering every single time you leave or enter a building. Fortunately, I didn’t experience this too much while fighting monsters out in the field. So, while the poor performance is disappointing, it shouldn’t detract from the gameplay when it really counts. I also experienced three game crashes which I don’t know what to attribute to, so I recommend you save your game whenever you get the chance. These little issues are something you can get used to if you’re in it for the long haul, but it’s a real bummer that they weren’t able to clean them all up.
In spite of a laundry list of problems I had with the game, the core of the Rune Factory series is still intact and effective as ever. When things are going well, you’re sure to experience that addicting “just one more day” gameplay loop. There’s almost always something new to look forward to, whether it be a story quest, a town festival, or just waiting for new crops to grow and make you wealthier. A bulletin board will provide you with new requests from your neighbors, and checking those off your list is pretty satisfying. Or, maybe you just want to spend all day grinding against monsters and maxing out your level and stats (of which you have many). One of the game’s greatest strengths is that you’re free to focus on whatever aspect it is that you find the most fun. If something isn’t holding your interest, stop working on it and find something else to do.
If you’re an old hand at the Rune Factory series, you’ll more than likely be satisfied with this entry. While it doesn’t bring much new to the table, it does include all the things you’d expect, plus some additional bells and whistles. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was frustrated for much of my playtime. There’s obviously a Rune Factory formula that’s pretty well set in place after four entries (plus spinoffs), and its positive qualities are still apparent. Unfortunately, Rune Factory 5 lacks the polish and care it so desperately needed to become something really great. It’s marred by technical difficulties and a general feeling of sameness. Diehard fans will still get something out of this one, but the truth is that it feels like a game stuck in the past. It would probably feel right at home during the early days of the Switch, or even on the 3DS, but as a modern release, it just doesn’t stack up to other games in this genre. Nonetheless, the foundation for the series’ transition into 3D has been set. If Rune Factory 6 can take that basis and improve upon it, then we could be in for something truly special.