Originating as a spin-off of the Story of Seasons – formally called Harvest Moon – franchise, the Rune Factory series marries traditional farming simulator mechanics with dungeon crawling RPG gameplay. One day you may be carefully cultivating your growing form, only to spend the next cutting down monsters with your sword and possibly taming a few to work in your fields. Fans of the series have waited nine years, only broken by a part of Rune Factory 4 in 2019, for Rune Factory 5, which was released in Japan during May 2021 and in March of this year outside of Japan.
Talking to Eurogamer, Shiro Maekawa – the project manager for Rune Factory 5 – explained that, in the early stages of the game’s creation, the development team decided they would focus on the ‘guardian experience.’ Initially, he was worried whether the theme of guardianship and the Rune Factory gameplay would work well together, but came to feel that ‘the town sheriff’s stance of going back and forth between every day life and an extraordinary adventure suited the game cycle of going back and forth between daily experiences (farming, relationships) and adventure which focuses on combat and exploration.’
The farming simulator and RPG elements of Rune Factory 5 do flow together well. Farming supports your adventuring by providing you with crops to sell or cook into health-giving meals, while exploring dungeons can lead you to finding new seeds or recruiting a useful monster. If you want a regular supply of eggs, for example, then you need to tame a Cluckadoodle in the nearby fieldlands. Progressing the main storyline, which is heavily tied to the game’s RPG side, unlocks Farm Dragons; on their backs lie additional farming fields. Expanding your farm in such a way allows you to divide your farming exploits across multiple locations, so, if you wished, you could have a field specifically for growing trees.
The crafting system – divided into chemistry, cooking, crafting and forging – unites both sides of Rune Factory 5; allowing you to create new weapons, useful farming tools, potions and more from the items you’ve either harvested or found in the wild. Working away in the background throughout all of those activities are the skills. There are 30 in total, ranging from Farming and Long Sword to Walking and Sleeping, and each one is assigned to an ability or set of stats. Levelling up the skills improves both your farming and combat abilities, so even running aimlessly around town can feel rewarding.
The end result of these interwoven genres is that you never find yourself solely focusing on one particular aspect of the game. Instead, you easily move back and forth to gather what you need to achieve your next goal – be it improving your equipment or conquering a boss. Maekawa believes this strong balance between farming simulator and RPG was born during the development of Rune Factory 4 and meant, when it came to Rune Factory 5, the team ‘were working with a solid foundation that was focused on balancing and improving rather than starting from zero again.’
Rune Factory 5’s theme of embodying guardianship can also be found in the RPG and farming simulator aspects – whether you’re acting as a symbolic guardian of the earth by nurturing the soil through your farm work or becoming embodied in a fantasy adventure. It’s a role you undertake from the game’s opening moments when you save Hina, a young were-animal (half human, half animal) from danger. Upon reaching her hometown of Rigbarth, you’re offered a position of SEED – a defence organisation – in part for saving Hina, but mostly because the townsfolk don’t know what to do with you and your plot relevant amnesia.
Aside from becoming the local farmer, part of your SEED duties involves completing Requests – little side quests – for the Rigbarth residents. Through these I started to feel like the Rigbarth sheriff (sadly without the cowboy hat) as I brought people cold medicine or hunting wanted monsters. Other Requests take the form of challenges, such as growing a particular crop, and through these Rune Factory 5 pushes you to broaden your gameplay, which helps fight the demon afflicting every farming simulator – falling in a routine.
There are, in fact, three types of quests in Rune Factory 5: Main Story, Requests and Side Stories, which are occasionally referred to as Romance Stories when connected to a potential sweetheart. This system, Maekawa explained, was born out of the development team’s desire to fix when they consider a flaw in Rune Factory 4; ‘in the previous game [Rune Factory 4], it was difficult to understand how to proceed with the story and to know the progress of the events in the game as well,’ so, to prevent this from occurring again, they worked to ensure every quest was clearly signposted ‘so that players can choose what they want to focus on first by looking at the map.’
While at times this can make the map feel cluttered, especially in Rigbarth when you have multiple Romance Stories available, it’s a solution that worked. Rune Factory 5 manages to reach the sweet spot where you never feel pushed along by the overarching plot while, at the same time, always know what to do when you wish to return. The fantasy setting works in the Main Story quests favour by creating a more detailed storyline than the typical ‘You inherited a farm from [Insert relative]’ many farming simulators follow. (Even if it’s a little odd that an active volcano surrounded by charred wasteland lies within walking distance of a county town.) Having certain story beats for the Main Story quests spread across multiple days also brings a natural pace to the plot and life in Rigbarth itself. It’s within the Side and Romance Stories, though, where Rune Factory 5’s emotive storytelling heart can be found.
Side and Romance Stories explore the lives of the Rigbarth residents, because, as Maekawa explained, the development team felt it was ‘equally important to grow as a character through the Main Story as well as meeting and helping others and adding to their stories.’ These quests certainly achieve this as, through them, you gain a greater insight into the personalities and histories of the characters you encounter. Since many of these quests involve multiple characters, you also learn about their relationships with each other – an act which makes you feel like you’re truly becoming part of the Rigbarth community. It’s an enjoyable way to learn more about the characters, especially the bachelorettes and bachelors, rather than just hunting them down to see if their dialogue has changed. Being able to have a same-sex relationships is also a welcome addition for queer players like myself – now I can hunt down monsters and grow flowers for the local witch who’s caught my heart without having to play as the male protagonist.
Like the Main Story, many of the Side and Romance Stories are divided into parts – some are even spread across multiple locations. The difference, however, is that the icon on the map notifying you on where to go next for said quest only appears at the specific time it’s available. Couple this with how the instructions are a brief synopsis of the event’s premise and you may find yourself confused on what to do next or constantly checking the map to see if the next part is available. This can become more frustrating if you can activate one of these quests by accident, because you can only do one at a time and, unlike Requests, there’s no option to opt-out of your current Side or Romance Story. It can lead to some very interesting routes around Rigbarth as you try to avoid making an emotional attachment to a character.
Where Rune Factory 5 truly stumbles, however, are the graphics, because, while there is charm to be found, the game looks like it belongs in a previous console generation. The hard-edge graphics clash with the anime-style character portraits in a way that, sadly, makes them feel out of place. Meanwhile, the bright colours can’t disguise how the dungeons lack atmosphere and complexity, while the spareness of the overworld is only broken by the occasional gang of monsters. Rigbarth also falls victim to this emptiness as the wide spaces devoid of any foliage or ornaments prevent it from becoming the the bustling town it’s meant to be; I found myself using the Fast Travel feature, not because I had places to be, but because I knew there was nothing to see. Matters are further hampered by frame rate drops and the odd graphical glitch. A number of times I would visit a Farm Dragon only to discover all of the objects – from rocks to crops – floating for a second, before awkwardly dropping to the ground.
Rune Factory 5 is by no means the revolution the series needs to revitalise it, especially after such a wait between instalments. Yet, when you look past the graphical issues, it’s a relaxing experience with satisfying gameplay and a sweet heart embodied in the characters that patient fans, and newcomers looking for a splash of violence in their farming simulator, can enjoy.
Rune Factory 5 is currently available on the Nintendo Switch.