America - Front
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By DKII 04th Apr 2009 | 6,904 views
Rune Factory: Frontier is Marvelous' third attempt at blending the farming-sim Harvest Moon series with action-RPG elements to create something new in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience. Frontier is the series' first entry on the Wii, taking place immediately after the first DS game, with the same main character and several other returning members making up the supporting cast. The Wii game also marks the first time that either Harvest Moon or Rune Factory have been published in the US by a company other than Natsume, with Marvelous and XSEED jointly handling the localization, publishing, and distribution process. The game manual is a whopping 42 pages long, so settle in for a rather lengthy discussion of the many different gameplay elements.
If you're familiar with the DS Rune Factory games (read the review of the first one here), then you'll instantly be familiar with most of what Frontier offers. The basic premise is that Mist (the girl who helps you out in the first game) has suddenly left the original town, and Raguna (you) has chased her down to the frontier town of Trampoli. After confronting her about some strange dreams she was having that forced her to leave, you immediately decide to settle down and completely abandon your old life to start fresh. In fact, one of the strangest parts of Frontier is actually the simple fact that while the plot takes place after the first game, you don't keep any of your tools, skills, or other resources, as if you'd chased after Mist with nothing but the clothes on your back and got a knock on the head along the way. Obviously some kind of reset is necessary in sequels of this nature, but they're usually handled in the narrative in some way rather than being completely ignored.
Anyway, you end up living in a formerly-abandoned farm with a small plot of land to take care of. The town of Trampoli is rather small and unlively at first compared to the previous games, and even though more people move in over time you never really get the sense of bustling activity from the DS games. At the beginning of the game, it can be pretty tough to figure out what to do, as you're left on your own with little to no direction, and the means of progressing aren't made very clear at all. Often the best way to progress is just to talk to everyone in town every day until something happens, and even then you might not trigger the events you want unless you happen to speak to someone at the correct time of day. For instance, your field will start out clogged with a bunch of debris, including tree stumps that you can’t simply pick up and throw away. An axe will help clear out the branches and tree stumps, but it’s not exactly intuitive that you should talk to the old nun several times in order to receive it.
For those unfamiliar with the series, your basic gameplay revolves around time and energy management. You'll wake up at 6AM on most days (unless you stay up too late the night before), with the clock progressing in real time at a rate of one game minute per real second, and pausing whenever you're inside a building, battling a boss, or talking to someone. You have an energy level (called rune points) that gets gradually depleted with every action you take, and once you run out of energy these actions will then deplete your health. If you run out of health, you'll pass out, waking up late the next morning. Unlike the original DS title, passing out within a dungeon in Frontier will no longer end your game and force you to reload from your last save.
Your daily activities start off with simply cleaning up your field, pulling up the weeds, grass, and herbs and then tilling the soil to prepare it for planting. Once the soil is tilled, you can plant your seeds and water them. As each game day passes, the crops will continue to grow until they're eventually ready to harvest, at which point they can be sold off, given as gifts, or cooked up as ingredients for recovery items. You'll also eventually unlock a handful of dungeons to explore, with enemies to defeat, treasures to claim, and giant bosses to slay. Progressing the narrative will require the completion of these dungeons, and you can also get a lot of unique items required for use in the crafting portion of the game.
In addition to the basic farming and dungeon-crawling, another main gameplay activity is the home crafting. You can purchase equipment for your home in order to cook food, brew potions, forge weapons and tools, and create accessories to wear. The basic station for each activity can be purchased right away, but further upgrades will require a house expansion. Cooking and potion-brewing are great ways to gain extra rune and health points, while the forge is vital for upgrading your equipment for dungeon survivability and making your tools more powerful so you can farm more efficiently.
The social activities are back in Frontier as well. In addition to making friends with each of the townspeople, you have the opportunity to court a dozen women, eventually marrying one and even having a child with her. The social system offers you some rewards by giving you some unique events and new dialogue, but ultimately the system is exceedingly simple - you score points simply by initiating conversations and giving gifts (though each girl does have certain preferred gifts). Each eligible bachelorette also has a unique aspect of your gameplay that they like - for example, one is happier with you the more farming you do, while another prefers that you make as many monster friends as possible. You get a few more dialogue responses from each character than in the DS version, but still, there's a potential here for a more complicated dialogue and social interaction system here, particularly with the move from DS to Wii, that has not yet been fully realized.
In addition to these four core gameplay areas, there are a number of minor activities as well. You can fish in nearly any body of water, using what you catch in your culinary arts, or capture monsters in the dungeons and train some of them to help out in the field work or produce crafting ingredients. There are also a handful of festivals for you to take part in throughout the game year, such as a boat race or a treasure hunt, each with various rewards that tie into one of the other core gameplay areas.
If you've played Rune Factory on the DS, you're probably wondering what exactly is different in the move to Wii. All of the gameplay described so far is a near-direct copy from what's already existed in the previous Rune Factory games, with some minor plot and balancing tweaks. The main new system is the Runey ecosystem. As you run around town, you'll notice floating colored spirits everywhere. Eventually you'll gain the ability to collect these spirits and use them to gain access to new areas or ask for gameplay-changing "wonders" such as an extra rainy week. There are four types of Runeys - Water, Rock, Tree, and Grass - with each eating the subsequent one, so that Water eats Rock, and so on. Having a large number of Runeys will help your crops grow more quickly, while if they go extinct, your crops will wither away and die. While it sounds like a neat concept in practice, unfortunately the Runey system is easily the weakest part of the gameplay. It is difficult and time-consuming to get the Runey population balanced in each of the nine different town areas, and unlike with most of the gameplay elements in the Rune Factory series, the effect of ignoring the Runeys is rather dire. Some may enjoy the micro-management of the Runey populations, but it's far too easy to get into a situation where you have, say, dozens of Water and Tree Runeys in every area, without enough Rock or Grass ones to balance it all out, because of a couple of factors – one, no one’s eating the Water Runeys, so they’re going to eat all of the Rock Runeys, and then no one will be eating the Tree Runeys, who will go on to eat all of the Grass Runeys; and two, even if you start with a balanced population, the growth has rapidly-evolving random elements that can quickly destabilize the ecosystem. As an added affront, in order to see how many Runeys are in each area, you’ll either need to locate a character who is difficult to find, or climb all the way up a clock tower to look in some kind of magic Runey viewing dome. The new system would have been a lot easier to tolerate if there were a way to view the Runey distribution from within the main menu at any time. The harvester used to collect the Runeys also has a painfully slow animation that's about five seconds long and can only collect a small handful of Runeys at once (out of a maximum of 240 in each of nine areas). Speeding up the harvester's animation, increasing its range, and giving the player the ability set it to only harvest certain types of Runeys would've all helped ease the tedium.
The most obvious difference between the Wii and DS games is the graphical upgrade. There's a fully 3D model in place now, though you still have a fixed camera. The dungeon layouts are more complicated (to the point that I would have liked a map of some kind at points). There's a small amount of voice-acting, which is actually well-done enough that I would've definitely appreciated more of it. As with the DS game, the dialogue is presented through pop-up static portraits, rather than animations of the character models themselves. There are a number of too-short 2D animated sequences that are a visual treat, but each one only lasts a handful of seconds. The introduction movie is more lengthy and looks great, and the music and Japanese singing sound excellent as well, though I would have preferred some English subtitles so I could at least tell what was being said. The music has a solid collection of mellow pieces for when you're out on the farm as well as some more fast-paced stuff during the dungeon-crawling action. The sound effects are mostly well done, though a couple will irritate you after awhile - particularly the popping sound you hear out of your Wiimote speaker when picking up items and the main character saying “Hey there!” every time you use the pet brush.
From a more technical standpoint, the framerate dips occassionally when new characters enter your screen, but that's the only real technical problem for the game - which supports both widescreen and 480p displays. One caveat, though – even in widescreen mode, there are still small black bars on the sides of your screen, so it isn’t actually a full widescreen display. Between each area you'll also experience a short 5-7 second loading screen, but the load times are short and infrequent enough that they don't significantly interfere with the experience. There are three separate save slots, though you’re limited to the one you start with throughout the game – no creating multiple instances of your game to go back and forth between. The text has a small number of translation errors – some extra spaces after apostrophes, one instance of Japanese kanji left in the game, and an “Antidode Herb” that looks suspiciously like a potion – but overall the dialogue is well-written. The narrative and indeed the pacing of the gameplay is a lot more vague in Frontier than in the DS titles, as the main storyline eventually involves investigating why a giant floating whale is losing its energy source before it comes crashing down on the town. One other minor complaint – you’ll be picking up items a lot, particularly when harvesting large numbers of your crops, and you have to pick up every single item one at a time throughout the game, watching the same 2-3 second animation each time. Nearly every other tedious chore in the game can be sped up as you go along except this one (and the Runey system, but enough said there). It’d be nice to at least have an option to simply press a button and have the item immediately go into your inventory.
Now, I have a page and a half of notes detailing both minor and major changes in the gameplay from the DS version, but before I get to the majority of them I’ll give you some general comments. I had a number of complaints about the previous game, but the main ones were an excessively limited inventory size compared to the sheer number of items and the balance of the economic and combat gameplay elements. Frontier addresses all of these. Your inventory space has been expanded a third, items have fewer levels and thus take up fewer inventory slots, and the maximum stack size for a single item has been increased from nine to 99. You can also purchase lots of extra storage space, and magic spells no longer take up permanent inventory slots (they're activated from staffs which can be created and sold like any other item). In another minor improvement, several of the infrequently used tools from the previous game (basket, clippers, and milker) have been combined into a single tool, the harvester – also used for collecting Runeys.
The economy in the Rune Factory series requires a more detailed discussion, but there were two big issues that stood out in the original DS game. First, mining ore produced so much more money for you at so much less effort than any other gameplay aspect, that it took much of the effort out of the game about a third of the way through it. The root cause for this imbalance was due to the base value of the ores increasing too much in value at each tier (going from iron to silver, for example), and an additional level in the same item increased the value of it by 100%, so that, for example, if a level 1 iron ore was worth 10 gold, a level 10 silver would be worth 500 gold. Combine that with making high-level ore appear too frequently, and you have an easy money source that trivializes much of the rest of the game. All of these elements have been addressed in Frontier - ores don't go up in value as quickly, high level ores are less common, and an increase in level on an item only adds 20% of the base value. In fact, in Frontier you can make roughly the same amount of money for your time and energy invested by farming, mining, fishing, crafting, or simply killing monsters over and over again.
The second issue with the economy balance had to do with how to spend your resources. In the first DS game, you only really had one thing to save up for - a giant all-in-one house upgrade that let you put in a forge, a kitchen, a laboratory, and a large bed (required for marriage proposals). The net effect was a long time spent in the game saving up resources and not seeing any return until the very high threshold was finally reached - and then for the rest of the game, there was nothing you could save your money for. In Frontier these features are spread out into several separate upgrades, and each piece of crafting equipment is upgraded multiple times as well. In addition, recipe books for crafting are more expensive, as are the seeds and fertilizer for farming. The end result is you have many things to save for over time, giving you small incentives and small rewards at first, followed by further tasks, rather than a single large mountain to climb.
For the combat, the problem in the DS game was simple - grinding was too effective and easy to do. Spending just a half-hour killing the same monster over and over again would give you so many experience levels and stat increases that for the rest of the game, combat was trivial. In Frontier, there's a much longer progression, where once you out-level a dungeon it won't give you nearly as much experience, and if you try a dungeon area for which you're underleveled, or don't have enough equipment, you will get hit hard while being unable to deal much damage yourself. Overall the new system makes for a much smoother, more balanced progression. It's also worth mentioning, that while the dungeons are larger and more complex, and have some basic puzzle-solving elements, you have fewer of them to complete - there are only four in Frontier. Each one also comes with unlockable shortcuts, so that once you complete a large level of a dungeon you can go back to that point later rather than having to clear the entire thing in one run. You'll also be glad to hear that the most grievous error from the first DS game - having a dungeon in the middle of a linear sequence that could only be accessed during winter - has not been repeated in Frontier.
The combat styles are far more balanced, with five main types of weapons that are all viable – one-handed swords, two-handed swords, spears, axes, and hammers. Each have different speeds, areas of effect, and special effects that you can use. In addition, offensive magic is much more useful (and almost necessary for boss battles, even) and training and breeding monsters to take with you into combat is a much more viable tactic this time around. One final point on the combat - in the first DS game, monster drops used in crafting were very rare, which would inevitably lead to the player killing the monster over and over again looking for the ingredient needed to make some particular item. This grinding would end up over-leveling the player, trivializing the combat for the rest of the game. That issue has been addressed as well, as common items dropped from defeated monsters appear much more frequently, while the rarer items still maintain their value.
I haven’t really touched on the controls to this point, so let me get into that here. You use the analog stick to move around, and the A and B buttons for various actions. When on a field, a cursor will appear in front of you showing which square you’re currently targeting – unfortunately, the analog movement can make it difficult to actually target the square you’re intending to target, though the process is a bit easier once you realize that the cursor is trying to avoid diagonal targeting. A Wiimote waggle swipe can substitute for a press of the A button, but there’s not really much point to it and you’ll be spamming the action button enough that you probably won’t want to be shaking the Wiimote around all that time anyway. The - button brings up a customizable ring of items for fast equipping, a very handy shortcut for quickly changing between your farming tools and your weapons. You can also assign recovery items to any direction on your d-pad for instant access, another much welcomed improvement. The + button accesses a menu that is laid out in a much less confusing fashion than in the previous game, while the 2 button is used to show a very generic town map (no dungeon-specific maps, unfortunately) and to return to either the dungeon entrance or your own house (a free version of the “Return/Teleport” spells from the previous game). The 1 button is used to look up at the sky, but this is only really useful for a small side game involving spotting constellations. There’s no IR use at all, which is a bit of a missed opportunity, if only for menu navigation. A shake of the Nunchuk will knock on someone's door if you're there too early or too late for it to be open. There's also Classic Controller support, though strangely the knocking function is unavailable despite having an extra button left over that it could be mapped to.
There are a host of other minor changes, most of them for the better. When your watering can is equipped, you’ll see an icon showing how many times you can use it before you have to refill it. The bath house returns, allowing you to refill your health and energy completely once a day for a mere 10 gold, but you’ll have to figure out how to unlock it this time around. The expensive flowers that take multiple seasons to grow, which were only available after completing the first DS game, can now be purchased within the first season if you can save up the money for them. You'll also need to use these flowers for almost all high-end equipment. Mining in the dungeons is less tedious, as a single hammer blow will break up multiple clustered rocks at once. Unleashing a special "attack" with your tools is a lot smoother as well, as you no longer have to wait several seconds for the tool to charge up, and you'll see the area of effect on the ground beforehand so you know ahead of time what results you'll be getting. Storms will now only destroy a small part of your field, rather than the entire thing, though you'll still have to till it all from scratch after winter is over. Crafting has been improved with a skill-based timing element, requiring you to stop a moving cursor while it’s within a small area on a color-coded bar in order to achieve success. Stopping the cursor in an even smaller “critical success” area will actually increase the level of the item, giving you the possibility of continuously re-forging your tools to increase their level and thus decrease their rune point usage. A similar skill-based event takes place while fishing. The new system is a fun addition that takes a lot of the tedium and repetitiveness out of the activities.
On the combat side, while you can still slip past most enemies pretty easily, there are a number of areas with tight quarters and monsters that have wide-area attacks, and the combat is more difficult in general, so that you won’t be able to breeze past entire dungeons to just challenge the boss. Doing so would usually just get your butt stomped by the boss anyway. Speaking of the boss battles, you no longer have to destroy every monster portal in an area in order to advance - just finding your way through the dungeon and surviving the journey is enough. Challenging yourself in combat has a rewarding aspect, too, as leveling up will completely refill your health and rune points.
One final, major, and much-welcomed improvement is the overhaul of the shipping container, the big box outside your farm in which you place items you want to sell. You now have the ability to access your shipping container with the same interface as for your storage boxes – you can transfer multiple items for shipping with just a few clicks, take stuff back out of the shipping box if you do it in time, and see how much money the items currently in the box will net you once they’re picked up. If you don’t remember, in the first DS game you had to drop off items in your shipping container one at a time by selecting it from the menu and physically placing it in the container – and you couldn’t ever get anything back out of it, either.
The story is a bit basic for an action-RPG, somewhat typical "save the world" fare. More annoying, however, is the unsatisfying ending, as even after you do "save the world" the villagers will barely even acknowledge it. You'd think the game would at least put some unique character dialogue following the event, if not a special celebration festival. The characters themselves don't seem to have much depth, though with most of the bachelorettes you'll see more depth to their personality as you become better friends with them and unlock a few special events and dialogues. The narrative overall would be a bit weak if Frontier were a simple hack-and-slash dungeon crawler, but it adequately serves its main purpose as a vehicle to drive the player to experience the gameplay. As an added bonus (in my eyes, anyway) you can complete the main storyline before actually clearing all of the dungeons, leaving you with something substantial to motivate you to keep playing even after the credits roll.
Your total play time will vary based on how much of the game you really experience. Completing the main storyline will require enough dabbling in making money and upgrading your equipment that you won't see the end until you're at least 50 hours in, and there's enough to do in the game to keep a player occupied for well over 100 hours. There's no multiplayer of any kind however, and the wireless trading present in the DS titles is mysteriously absent in Frontier. Some kind of global marketplace for selling your goods would be a neat concept for the future.
There's a vast amount of content in Frontier overall, though most of it is recycled from the DS games. It would've been nice to see some more basic improvements in the gameplay in the move to the Wii. The weather system could be more dynamic, with more options than simply raining for a day, sunny for a day, or violently stormy for a day (there are clouds out there that don't cause rain). There are some basic house decorating options, with purchasable paintings (which only show up in one spot in your house, unfortunately) and three different appearances for the forge, lab, and kitchen expansions, but there's potential here for a deeper decorative system as well, where you can craft and arrange your own furniture, wallpaper, etc. (similar to Animal Crossing perhaps). Finally, while the crafting system has been greatly improved with the ability to auto-select ingredients from recipes and the timing-based event for determining success, there needs to be some kind of search or filtering ability to be able to see which recipes (preferably at any crafting station) can make use of a certain ingredient, rather than sitting at each of nine different stations and scrolling through dozens of recipes to figure out how to best make use of a particular item. Being able to access recipe lists from the main menu would be a nice bonus, too.
While there's a lot of confusion at the beginning over how to progress (and some hang-ups later in the storyline as well), it doesn't take long to get hooked and there's a deep, well-balanced system in place in Frontier that offers the best overall Rune Factory experience to date. It's a shame that the beginning of the game will probably turn off a lot of new players, particularly since this is the series' debut effort on the Wii, but whether you want to dive into the farming, combat, crafting, or socializing, areas or any combination thereof, there's a lot to enjoy here and you won't be disappointed.