After a completely disastrous buy of Animal Zoo which turned out to be a complete waste of money I was lucky enough to find this particular gem within the Harvest Moon series. Considering it came out very recently indeed I considered myself very lucky to have walked into Game when I did. I've long been a fan of the Harvest Moon series, and I've been fascinated by how the series has evolved and changed as the years have gone by. This game was no exception to the rule and if anything is probably one of the best games those nice folks at Natsume have ever offered us.
The Harvest Moon series started in 1996 and was originally released on the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) with titles since being released on the Gameboy, the PSP, the Gamcube, the Wii and oh, just think of a console and they've probably had a Harvest Moon game somewhere. They have always been farm simulation role playing games with a wide variety of options on how you can run your farm. Rune Factory is something of a spin off series for Harvest Moon, keeping the same basic idea of farming but including an adventure/fighting side to the game which isn't in any of the other games. In the words of the producer it's 'Harvest Moon where you wield a sword.'
Oh, come off it. Anybody who has ever played a Harvest Moon whether Rune Factory or not will know full well that the lure of the game has never been in the story. And somewhat astonishingly this doesn't in any way detract from the game, it doesn't take away the addictive quality to the game and if anything adds to the game because it allows the whole thing to stay very loose giving you numerous options on how you want to play it. But if we are bluntly honest here when they have bothered to put a story into the game it has always been recycled and rather weak!
But to be fair, they have tried a little harder this time. Granted we still have an amnesiac main character, which is kind of the catch all plot line for the Rune Factory series; if it ain't broke don't fix it. This has always worked because it allows the player to choose their own course for the game and at the same time adds an air of mystery as you find out the background of your character little by little. But this time round they've actually added a plot! There are two towns; the town of the humans and the town of the Univir, the monsters. At one point these two settlements lived together in piece and harmony, but now for as long as anyone can remember they have hated each other with a passion. Both sides agree on only one thing; humans and monsters can't live together. And it is your job to somehow find a way to bring them together without either side knowing what you are doing, and at the same time you might just find out what caused them to split in the first place.
But there's more! And it gets better - you quickly discover that you aren't actually as human as you thought you were. Yep, you are half human, half monster which is how you can interact with both sides of the conflict. You can change between the two forms at will. Although it might not be a good idea to do it in front of people! Ok, it's still not going to win any awards for being the greatest plot in the universe, but give them credit they tried. And as I said before, the plot is just a bonus aspect. It's the gameplay we're interested in!
I wouldn't usually mention characters in specifics because usually in computer games there isn't a lot to say, but Harvest Moon once again bucks the trend because the characters you meet in the game are to be fair one of the main aspects that makes the game so loveable. They are unique and well, quirky with much more thought put into them than I have previously seen in any game I think. You have the girl who makes clothing out of weird and wonderful materials (but don't give her something as mundane as wool, she has no use for it!), the family who speak in complete opposites to what they actually mean, the weaponsmith who is so obsessed by ore that he will work until he runs out of ore and then fall over, and of course the child who is constantly screaming that she'll bite you. For the first time they actually greet you as you walk past them, and the dialogue that you are met with on a day to day basis changes dependant on what is going on. Instead of the quirky but rigid characters of the past Harvest Moon games who were always set in certain places, these characters actually have lives and you can watch them going about their day to day business. Without a doubt they add a certain amount of charm and entertainment to the proceedings, and you're not going to struggle to find the right match for you...I'd steer clear of the bathhouse girl though, she seems a little too preoccupied with fish to be healthy.
But none of that matters in reality because even if there was no story, even if the characters were 2D cardboard cut outs and even if the graphics were atrocious we'd still be happy providing the gameplay was up to standard. Granted, I'd probably moan but I'd still have been satisfied! So, is the gameplay up to scratch? Oh boy, yes. As with the previous Rune Factories it is based around farming and dungeon crawling. The basics haven't changed; you still collect items to ship from surrounding areas, you still plant crops, water them and harvest them, and you still tame monsters from the surrounding area to come and live with you on your farm, collect products from them and put them to work for you. And of course your overriding ambition is still to get married and start your own family. And for that reason it's still as oddly entertaining and addictive as every other offering Natsume have held out to us.
The game itself is fairly simple to follow whether you are new to the Harvest Moon series or whether you have been avidly following it from the moment that you first laid eyes on it. You have your house, your farm and various 'dungeons' surrounding your farm. You gain money for shipping crops and flowers, or for that matter anything else that will go in your shipping bin, you can cook meals, forge equipment and weapons, and make medicines in your house and you can go out and trawl the 'dungeons' which is where you'll find monsters to fight and befriend. Likewise you have the town of the humans and the town of the Univir where you can speak to people, give gifts, go shopping and accept quests which in turn will make people like you more. It doesn't take a great deal to get the hang of it. You also gain levels for just about every action you do whether that be fishing, farming, cooking or fighting which adds a sense of accomplishment when you level up a skill or your character. You even get a skill in sleeping!
They have also added some nice new little extras for those of us who have been fans of the entire series. You can now plant and buy crops in single plots instead of always having to buy 9x9 squares of crops which I thought was a lovely touch as it gives you that little more freedom with your farm. And when you harvest your seeds sometimes you get a higher level seed dropped from it which is always quite a nice surprise. You make your own farming tool upgrades, and although you can buy weapons you can also make your own in your forge. Cooking is a little bit more intense, and you need to buy the recipes really to make things work but that doesn't ruin anything. I have to admit what I really liked was that all of the dungeons were outside and there were some new and interesting monsters, but I'll come onto that next. You are still doing more or less the same thing time, and time, and time again like with all of the Harvest Moon series, but the repetitiveness of the game is to a point part of the charm and it definitely doesn't detract from the game.
Battling was something that was very new to the Rune Factory series as it never cropped up in the original Harvest Moons. In the original Harvest Moons you could buy and breed sheep, cows and chickens and that was about it. In Rune Factory you go out into the dungeons, which in this game are all outside which gives it a much freer feel and you meet monsters which are generated by a little ball of light. You then have a choice; to kill or to tame. The game boasts a range of weapons you can use; short sword, long sword, hammer axe, dual sword and spear are the main ones but they all have upgrades and such like. And from there on if you decide to kill it's all down to button bashing. Storm in swinging a sword around and therefore killing things! You can also fight in your monster form, and if you're doing a quest for the Univir then you will have to as you can't let them see that you are part human...this adds an aspect of challenge which I hadn't anticipated.
Battling is far more than just an amusing diversion in this game; the plot somewhat depends on you being able to travel between towns and if you haven't levelled up your skills you are liable to die very quickly indeed. You also get items which you can use in your forging or sell on for more money from creatures at random. Likewise the animals that you can tame by giving them food can prove to be very useful on your farm, and instead of just recycling monsters from previous games they have really put some thought and effort into bringing in new monsters which made me very happy indeed!
I was also quite impressed by the new addition of being able to bring neighbours who like you enough into battle with you. Granted the Artificial Intelligence is rather awful and they will die on you fairly swiftly as they haven't got the common sense they should have been born with, but once you've managed to level them up a bit they are quite useful.
There is a distinct difference between Harvest Moon graphics and Rune Factory graphics. Harvest Moon have always gone for a more solid, common sense look to characters and buildings; largely because it is set in a kind of real life atmosphere. Rune Factory on the other hand does the swirls, light colours and prettiness of a more fantasy environment. And by God they do it well. The graphics in the game are very, very appealing. The dungeon environments are very nicely drawn indeed making your forays into the wilderness a treat to the eyes, all of the characters are individual, quirky and again very appealing. I particularly like the lass with the teddy bear! But overall you cannot fault this game on the graphics as it's appealing and some of the backgrounds are quite simply stunning, particularly for a DS game.
In a turn up for the books I have finally found a handheld console game that doesn't leave me wanting to tear my ears out in irritation. Harvest Moon and Rune Factory have long held the (justified) reputation for having the most irritating music known to mankind but they have managed to turn it around here. It's cute and it's appealing, it's also variable dependant on what you are doing at the time which is somewhat necessary in a game where you really have a routine for each day.
This is without a doubt the best Rune Factory game to have come out of Natsume, and is a high contender for best Harvest Moon game. They have got this perfect. The battling and questing of the game means that the farming isn't quite as monotonous as it can be in some of the Harvest Moon games, but equally it hasn't lost its charm or it addictiveness. The upgrades that the Natsume team have put in work wonderfully and the game feels more in depth and free flowing than they have managed before. Between an intriguing plot, some wonderful characters, stunning graphics and the addictive and charming gameplay that Harvest Moon has always been known for this is probably one of the best games I have played in a while. And it is one of those games you could literally play forever, trying to count the hours I've already frittered would be difficult enough.
The only thing I possibly miss is the simplicity of the older Harvest Moon games, but I guess as things evolve then things change. And Rune Factory spiced things up a bit from the very beginning just by throwing sharp pointy objects into the mix. There is also a new main series Harvest Moon DS game out currently so I'll also be getting that and hoping that possibly they rewind a little bit.
This easily tops my charts and I have wasted not only many game hours, but many real hours playing this like some kind of maniac. This is a game that would struggle not to charm whether you're a returning fan or a newbie to the series. Currently you're not going to get it much cheaper than £24.99 new or second hand (one second hand on Amazon at £21.99 at time of writing), but this is one of those few occasions where I'd say this is more than worth the retail price.