Rune Factory 5 (NS) - ReviewEvan Norris , posted on 10 April 2022 / 2,154 Views
Rune Factory fans have waited a long time for a brand new installment. While the series, a niche spin-off of the beloved Story of Seasons (née Harvest Moon) franchise, received rather routine entries between 2006 and 2013, it's been mostly quiet for the last eight years — minus Rune Factory 4 Special, an enhanced version of the fourth mainline game. Enter Rune Factory 5, which steers the farming/simulation/RPG series back into the limelight after the best part of a decade.
The game follows a young amnesiac, who wakes up disoriented on the outskirts of a peaceful village called Rigbarth. When a girl cries out in distress, the hero of the story — or heroine, depending on your choices in the character selection screen — rushes to save her. Rigbarth welcomes the hero into town with open arms; gives them a room on the second floor of SEED headquarters, the local law enforcement agency; and makes them a junior SEED ranger, responsible for keeping both the peace and monsters at bay.
Rune Factory 5 features an engaging story, with a colorful group of heroes and villains, a charismatic protagonist, and an intriguing mythology, but like any good simulation game it allows you a lot of leeway to make the tale your own. Sure, there are obligatory story missions, where you investigate mysterious rune energy in the Belpha Ruins, for example, but in general you as the player have a great amount of agency.
Player agency really is the name of the game in Rune Factory 5. When you wake up each morning in your cozy bed at SEED HQ, the day is unwritten. You can choose to spend your time farming, shopping, cooking, crafting, fishing, fighting monsters in the ruins and woods outside of town, and/or socializing with the colorful cast of characters in Rigbarth. One day, maybe, you might even fall in love.
While Rune Factory 5 gives its players autonomy, it still provides a helpful framework of activity. Indeed, developer Hakama has done a tremendous job at easing players, especially Story of Seasons and Rune Factory novices, into the various mechanics, rules, and flows of the game. First, there's an incredibly detailed manual accessible from the main menu. Second, there are multiple signs outside of the SEED building that provide summaries of several important areas of activity: farming, SEED work, combat, monster allies, creating items, making friends, etc. Third, and perhaps most consequential, the game offers projects of increasing complexity via the task board, allowing players to come to grips with the basics of planting and tending crops, hunting monsters, crafting farming tools, etc. Because of all these hints and lessons, the game almost never feels overwhelming.
Once you understand the basics, you can start investing your time in the spheres most interesting and impactful to you. Farming seems simple at first but reveals its complexities later on. You'll purchase seeds from the general store, plant them in tilled soil, water them daily, and eventually harvest them. All this happens on a tiled grid where you can interact with each individual tile. The process can be tedious at times — the line between routine and tedium is blurred in Rune Factory 5 in general — but as you craft stronger tools and tame more monster allies, the work becomes easier. One downside to farming is a set of controls that feel just a little bit loose. Your character slides a bit as they move and won't always lock in smoothly to the tile or object they're targeting. Placing or throwing items into the boxes and tills adjacent to farmland can also be a tad wonky.
Combat also feels the slightest bit wobbly. Your ranger can target individual monsters, which is super helpful, but you lack the sensation of precision in battle. That said, combat is fun overall and a very welcome change of pace from the pastoral peacefulness of Rigbarth. You can select from a surprisingly wide range of weapons, spells, and charms, and even take tamed monsters and friends into battle with you. No one will ever mistake Rune Factory for Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, but the action is good enough.
While farming and combat are foundational to Rune Factory 5 — indeed, longtime producer Yoshifumi Hashimoto once described the series as "Harvest Moon where you wield a sword" — perhaps its greatest asset is simply the simulation of everyday life. There's something relaxing and rewarding about living out your days in Rigbarth, chatting with friends, participating in festivals, fishing on the dock, watching the seasons change. There's also something special about how alive the town feels. From your map you can see citizens coming and going, chatting with each other, visiting shops, etc. Around 5 or 6 each evening, you'll see an exodus of townspeople, as shops close for the night and folks head to the inn to partake in its restorative baths. Around 7 or 8, you'll find more than a few neighbors enjoying dinner at the Lackadaisy, the local restaurant. The routine of everything in Rune Factory 5 makes it strangely compelling. It feels welcoming and homey in a way few games do.
What is far less comforting, unfortunately, is the game's technical performance. Rune Factory 5 isn't an especially ambitious game — the geometry, textures, and lighting are nothing to write home about — but even so it struggles to keep up. Framerate dips are common and pop-in is everywhere. Developer Hakama installed a dynamic resolution setting to help smooth out the framerate, which goes a long way in docked mode but creates new problems in handheld mode. With dynamic resolution activated, the Switch screen becomes blurry to a distracting degree — as if someone smeared a thin layer of Vaseline on the display.
It's a shame, because in terms of art direction and animation Rune Factory 5 is, at times, pretty great. The game opens with a spectacular opening musical sequence and then leans on a similar cut-scene style to formally introduce each romantic interest in the game (you can fall for any of the romantic candidates, regardless of gender, an overdue first for the series). Beyond that, the character portraits and models are creative, weird, and fascinating. Sometimes the world can feel empty or barren, but in general Rigbarth is a lovely place to spend your time.
It's a lovely-sounding place, too. The tunes in this fifth mainline installment are sneaky good, with the thumping Kelve Lava Caves track being especially memorable. Moreover, voice acting is excellent across the board.
Equally excellent is the game's value proposition. Like any Rune Factory, Harvest Moon, or Story of Seasons game, Rune Factory 5 is overflowing with things to do. Among the main story quests, dungeons, courtships, and farm and life simulation, you're looking at dozens of hours of content.
After an eight year stretch with no new games — Rune Factory 4 Special notwithstanding — Rune Factory returns to action with Rune Factory 5. It's not the quantum leap over its predecessors you might expect considering the gap, but it's an engaging, sometimes addictive simulation-RPG nevertheless. It boasts an invigorating sense of player agency, a clearly-defined framework of rules in which to make your fun, and a carefully-calibrated concoction of farming, role-playing, and life simulation designed to keep things interesting. Its controls are a little loose and the technical performance needs a major overhaul, yes, but despite these obvious flaws the game is impossible to dislike. It's cozy and comfortable and reassuringly reliable. To quote Madonna, "it feels like home".
This review is based on a digital copy of Rune Factory 5 for the NS, provided by the publisher.