When Rune Factory 4 Special and Rune Factory 5 were announced on Switch by Marvelous and Nintendo on the latest Nintendo Direct, many people around the world were ecstatic, myself included. All of us had lost hope that a new Rune Factory would ever be released, and for good reason. Why do we love the series so much? And why didn’t we ever expect it to come back? Let’s take a look at the history of the franchise and explain why fans are so hyped about Rune Factory 5.
As you may already know, Rune Factory is a spin-off of Bokujou Monogatari, the farming game series known outside Japan as Story of Seasons. Until 2015, the series was known as “Harvest Moon,” but had to endure a name change following legal issues. Currently, new farming games called Harvest Moon are still getting released, but by different developers at Natsume, while Marvelous is now continuing the original series as Story of Seasons.
“Harvest Moon on SNE had the basis of nearly all gameplay elements for which the series is beloved for today.”
The first Bokujou Monogatari/Harvest Moon game released on SNES in 1994. The father of the series is Yasuhiro Wada, who was the person who came up with the original concept. Wada worked on the series for over 20 years, and rose up the echelons at Marvelous, ending up as executive producer. In 2010, however, he quit the company and later ended up making his own company, Toybox Inc. One of their most recent games is Birthdays the Beginning, which shares some ideas with Wada’s previous works.
In any case, while it didn’t age too well, Harvest Moon on SNES had the basis of nearly all gameplay elements for which the series is beloved for today; the farming land was organized in a grid-like way, there was a fishing system, the stamina system, and animals to raise. The calendar was organized in four seasons, each lasting 30 days, with their own events. The relationship and wedding system was inspired by dating sims, etc.
Moreover, with each game, the series kept improving itself with new features, like being able to choose between a female or male protagonist right with the second game of the franchise, Harvest Moon GB on Game Boy. Though ironically, Harvest Moon GB is also one of the very few games in the series that doesn’t have a marriage system, possibly because of development constraints. This is probably why instead of systematically letting players choose between a female and male protagonist–like it is always the case now–older Story of Seasons games would get an enhanced version only a few months after their release, with bug fixes, new elements and where players would mandatorily control a female protagonist.
As a side note, Story of Seasons and Rune Factory are very different from Animal Crossing. You shouldn’t expect to love one because you like the other. I actually dislike Animal Crossing, mostly because of its real-time mechanic.
“Friends of Mineral Town‘s winter mine was 255 floors long and past a certain point, monsters would actually appear in it.”
In my opinion, two Story of Seasons games were pivotal to the creation of Rune Factory. The first one was Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town, released in 2003 on GBA. This game was such a revolution for the series, with so many new features, gameplay improvements, and so much content to do, you could easily play it for well over a hundred hours. Along with its beautiful 2D GBA graphics and the charismatic cast of characters, one particularly memorable aspect of the game was a mine with randomly-generated floors you could explore to find ores and gems, useful to upgrade your tools and make money.
Furthermore, there was a second mine made of 255 floors, only accessible during winter. When you started certain floors, monsters would actually appear in it. Players would use their tools to defeat them, and being hit would reduce your stamina, as the game had no HP. In lower floors, there were even boss-like monsters, who looked like shadow versions of the protagonist. They were basically Dark Links like from The Legend of Zelda.
Exploring the winter mine was worth it as you could get the Cursed Tools, the second-best tool upgrades in the game. These tools couldn’t be removed once equipped, and each one of them had a specific method to follow to transform them into Blessed Tools, which kept their power but removed all the handicaps. Some of the tools required you to keep them equipped for 10 days straight, meaning you had to carefully plan ten days in advance. In any case, you should remember that Friends of Mineral Town was an exhilarating game, and the enhanced version with a female protagonist had even more content.
The second game which was essential to Rune Factory‘s birth was Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon, released on PSP in April 2006 in Japan. It was the first time the series went towards a pretty different direction. It still had farming, but also a heavy focus on exploration. The game was set in a technologically-advanced setting, and players would ride a buggy and explore dungeons.
“Very few are the series who managed to greatly improve themselves with each episode, and Rune Factory is one of them.”
Following this, Rune Factory: Shin Bokujou Monogatari released on Nintendo DS in August 2006, and as Rune Factory: A Fantasy Harvest Moon in the west in August 2007. As the name suggests, Rune Factory is a spinoff set in a fantasy-themed world, with an action-RPG battle system. Rune Factory was produced by Yoshifumi Hashimoto and developed by Neverland, a Japanese studio known for the Lufia RPG series or the pretty good Record of Lodoss War game on Dreamcast. Rune Factory 1 had extremely charismatic characters and a really well-built and developed fantasy world, despite the relatively small world you can actually explore in-game. You could really feel the amount of work that has gotten into the game’s writing, setting the foundation for future games.
And one of the best aspects of the Rune Factory series is the fact that with each episode, it managed to greatly improve itself in all aspects. When you played Rune Factory 2 in 2008, the game was so much better that it felt as if Rune Factory 1 sucked (even though it didn’t). Most notably, Rune Factory 2 had a deeper magic system and a story spanning two generations, with the choice of playing the protagonist’s son or daughter. When Rune Factory 3 released in 2009, it was a huge revolution and a billion times better than 2. Rune Factory 3‘s additions included tons of new crafting systems and skills to develop, bonus online dungeons, being able to compare your progress and your farm’s stats with friends, and the ability to ask any character you’ve befriended to accompany you in battle. The game also had so many ergonomic changes and improvements that compared to every Rune Factory and Story of Seasons games so far, I almost felt like crying when I first tried it. Playing Rune Factory 3 never feels repetitive or like a chore, even after spending a hundred hours on it.
Very few are the series who managed to greatly improve themselves with each episode, and Rune Factory is one of them. Many others through the ages failed to accomplish this:
- Streets of Rage 1 is great, 2 is a masterpiece, but Streets of Rage 3 is clearly below the others.
- Metal Slug games vary greatly in quality after 2/X, which stayed the best.
- Ace Attorney 1, 2, 3 are masterpieces, but most agree the series kind of never topped 3.
- Mega Man Battle Network kept increasing in quality from 1 to 3, but then MMBN4 is by far the worst in the series, with 5 and 6 getting back on track but not surpassing 3.
Another entertaining way to realize how the Rune Factory series improved is to check all of the games’ opening animations, who gradually improved as well. The latter ones have stronger direction, good storyboarding, and nice animation quality. And starting with 2, every game except Frontier have two opening animations depending on your progress, like in Sakura Taisen or many good old SEGA Saturn and PS1 anime-style games.
I could keep going like this for four hours. I absolutely love this feeling, how despite thinking the previous episode was great, the new one completely obliterates it. I had that exact same feeling when I played Persona 5, despite considering Persona 4 a masterpiece.
“While each Rune Factory game is standalone, the games have an overall linked storyline.”
In a sense, this is also a double-edged sword. Newcomers who picked up the Rune Factory series with a later episode, or who will start with the upcoming Rune Factory 4 Special, will have a very hard time going back to 1 and 2 to better understand the story. While each Rune Factory game is standalone, the games have an overall linked storyline. There are recurring characters too. For example, Rune Factory 1 had a half-elf little girl, who appears as an adult in Rune Factory 2, set a few decades or so later. All the Rune Factory games take place not too long after each other.
Besides the numbered titles, Rune Factory 1 to 4, there are also two other Rune Factory games. The first one is Rune Factory Frontier, released on Wii in 2008. That one was a direct sequel to 1, with the same protagonist and many returning characters. The game had a very interesting story and was really good, though undermined by multiple small problems, like its frequent loading times. It didn’t stop me from locking the game’s playtime counter at 99 hours though, spending much more time on it, and even then I didn’t 100% the game.
The other is Rune Factory Tides of Destiny, released on Wii and PlayStation 3 in 2011, and it’s the best with 4. The main difference with all the others is how it features fully-explorable 3D environments with an actual jump button and verticality. You also had a giant mecha golem controllable to explore a whole ocean map; you could fight giant monsters with it too. On land, you could do insane combos, launching enemies in the air, and switch weapons at any time.
The game’s story was really good too, featuring a boy and a girl stuck in the same body. Players would control the boy, with the girl’s spirit acting as an advisor, but once you cleared the game and found her body back, you could choose to start playing as her, and tons of postgame content awaited. Along with Rune Factory Frontier and 4, Tides of Destiny‘s content feels endless, and a lot of its ideas were reused in Rune Factory 4.
“The fact that Rune Factory 5 is actually coming out on Switch in 2020 (in Japan) kinda has a symbolistic feel to it.”
This is why I’m so hyped for Rune Factory 5, mainly for the fact that the game will definitely be even better than 4. However, there’s also a deeper reason behind the hype. In November 2013, around a year after Rune Factory 4‘s release, its developing studio Neverland went bankrupt. While the Rune Factory team got absorbed by Marvelous, any hope that a new Rune Factory game would ever come out was lost. A few weeks after this sad news, Producer Hashimoto posted a message basically hinting at a new game by the Rune Factory team.
However, that game turned out to be Lord of Magna, released on 3DS in 2014. Lord of Magna was quite different from Rune Factory, but also a spiritual successor of sorts, so many believed the Rune Factory series was definitely dead. And yet, here we are now. In an era where many studios are closing down or experiencing huge lay-offs, the fact that Rune Factory 5 is actually coming out on Switch in 2020 (in Japan) kinda has a symbolistic feel to it.
With all of that said, here is a rundown of my expectations and possible improvements coming in Rune Factory 5:
- Steal back some ideas from Stardew Valley.
- Full-voice acting for all of the game, though that may be too much seeing the absurd amount of dialogue. I’d rather have them add even more lines for each NPCs rather than cutting down to have enough budget to voice everything.
- A 3D-explorable world and a huge world map with different places to explore. Tides of Destiny’s golem system with the ocean and islands to explore was really nice. I’m hoping for something similar to come back to, along with something similar to the town management in Rune Factory 4. Basically, I want it to take the goods ideas from the best two games and mix them together.
- Same-sex marriage options. This was actually already present in at least one “for Girls” Story of Seasons enhanced version that I played in the past. Though I’m not sure if they’ll do it in Rune Factory, as unlike Story of Seasons, Rune Factory‘s protagonists are more like traditional JRPG protagonists rather than being the player themselves. Though they did include it in some way in Rune Factory 4: while only unlocked late in the game, you can make the protagonist you initially picked change appearance into any other character, thus allowing you to make any pairing you want.
After seeing the series’ track record, unless something goes horribly wrong, there’s absolutely no way Rune Factory 5 won’t be a masterpiece, and it’s easily the game I’m anticipating the most now in the future.
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