Rune Factory 4 is the latest iteration in the Harvest Moon spin-off series that combines the peace and tranquility of farming with the rough-and-tumble life of a monster-slaying adventurer. The two gameplay mechanics might sound strange when put together like that, but considering that this is the sixth game in the series, they must be doing something right.
Rune Factory 4 starts, as all Harvest Moon and Rune Factory games do, with a clean slate. After you pick whether you want to be a boy or a girl, you're plopped onto an airship, headed on a journey. It turns out that some unsavory characters have made their way onto the ship and you get into a tussle. After being promptly knocked on your ass, you suffer the all-too-familiar anime trope of amnesia and then fall overboard. Thankfully, you don't die, otherwise this would have been a very short game. Instead of becoming acquainted with the ground, you land on a dragon instead. In fact, you land on one of the Native Dragons, an elemental creature regarded as a god in the land. This one introduces herself to you as Ventuswill.
Venti, as you come to know her, makes her home in the town of Selphia. When you try to explain who you are but can't, she assumes that you're the prince or princess that's been sent to try and develop the town further. Since you've lost your memory, you have no reason to refute the claim and take the identity of the monarch, setting up a life in Selphia as a royal. Pretty sweet gig, eh? It is, until the real prince/princess arrives and recognizes you as a fake. But even then, it's all good because they'd rather let you take over while they live life as a commoner for a while. Hey, we won't complain.
It is then your job to help develop the town of Selphia as its prince/princess, enacting orders, erecting buildings, protecting it from the monsters that wander the world outside and throwing festivals to try and attract new citizens. It sounds like a huge weight on your shoulders, especially for someone who's living a lie, but at least the townsfolk are very eager to help you.
One of Rune Factory 4's most charming elements are its characters. The entire town of Selphia is available day and night for you to talk to, buy from or sell to, flirt with and even take along on your adventures. You'll find at least one favorite character and develop a rapport with them. In fact, you even become friends with the mighty Ventuswill, who becomes a close friend of yours after she reveals the fact that she secretly likes to speak very casually, which is not befitting a deity with her duties.
And speaking of duties, one of yours is to tend to the farm behind the castle. It doesn't matter if you're acting as royalty, because you still have to get your fingers dirty and tend to crops in order to help out Selphia's economy. Thankfully, any fan of the Harvest Moon games will be right at home in the grid-like fields, able to micromanage their crops like a pro. And even if you haven't been baptized in the agricultural fires of previous Harvest Moon or Rune Factory games, the farm life is pretty easy to pick up and can get downright addictive. Add the fact that you can tame monsters and get them to help out on the farm, and you've got one management game that can sate even the most detail-oriented players.
You'll plant seeds, water them, harvest them and then ship them off. It's that easy. The hard part comes from knowing which crops to grow during a specific season and then calculating the time it takes to grow them. Of course, there are other considerations such as weather, space, soil quality, and yield. But, for the most part, farming is relatively simple and it can feel so rewarding to reap an entire field of crops and send them off for some sweet cash.
The other part of Rune Factory 4 involves going on adventures and slaying monsters. Every now and then, Ventuswill tasks you with a mission, usually to slay some big monster out in the fields or ruins. Combat in Rune Factory 4 is pretty straightforward and has you utilizing a great number of weapons. You can choose from great swords, twin daggers, magical staves, magical rods, hammers, axes, spears and even gloves for unarmed combat. Each weapon has three special attacks which are unlocked once you gain the appropriate skill level for each. Once you're powerful enough to take down some monsters within one or two hits, killing the boss monsters shouldn't prove to be very tough at all. Some of them have patterns, a la The Legend of Zelda, but for the most part, you can take them out with ease.
Just about every boss monster you fight ends up turning into a person who then takes up residence in Selphia. Not a bad deal, I suppose, since you get to end a threat and then gain a potential friend. And a lot of these former monsters end up becoming potential love interests for your character, so that's always something to think about. Because not only is Rune Factory 4 a farming and adventuring game, but it's also a dating sim. Go figure, right?
In order to help you get closer to the townsfolk and more aware of your duties, you'll take requests from them daily. These tasks help familiarize you of the different activities in which you can partake in the town and introduce you to many of Selphia's citizens. As you grow closer to them, you can even take them out on adventures with you and give them gifts in order to win their favor. Pretty soon you'll be dating that girl who used to be a vicious butterfly monster! Ya know, if that's what you're into.
Not only is Rune Factory 4 full of great adventures and addictive farming mechanics, but it's also packed with a ton of social simulation that endears you to a lot of Selphia's citizens. Whether they're helping you get your cooking or crafting skills up, giving you a hand in the fields or just celebrating goofy festivals, you'll learn to be a part of the town and look forward to seeing these fake people run their day-to-day lives.
So really, what's not to love about Rune Factory? Even if you're not into farming, you can still go on adventures and make money with your spoils. It doesn't force you to stick with any one play style, but it rewards you for taking on the ones that you favor. Just do yourself a solid and move into town. After all, they'll treat you like a prince. Or a princess.
This review is based on a downloadable retail copy of Rune Factory 4 for the Nintendo 3DS.