Fantasy would have you believe that the rural life is below the hero. Think of all the country bumpkins whisked from paddocks to battlefields who never return. Frodo? He’s been to Mount Doom! Why would he want to hang out in a glorified rabbit burrow? Tom Cruise in Legend? Stuff the forest, there’s a princess to bed. Wahey!
Rune Factory: Frontier (the first Wii game in the Harvest Moon spin-off series) has no truck with such nonsense. Instead it comes across more as the friendly school careers advisor. You want to be a dungeon-lootin’ adventurer? Fine by him. You want to tend to your tomatoes until you’re old and grey? That’s okay, too.
This is the beauty of Neverland’s game. Technically, you’re in town to prevent a giant whale-shaped rock from falling from the skies above and crushing everyone to death. You can ignore the enemy-packed dungeons and harvest that crop of potatoes to your heart’s content, without ever fearing waking up dead under a ten-mile-long granite aquatic mammal.
You don’t even have to do that. If you’re a ladies’ man you can toil at wooing a local beauty with gifts grown, baked or welded by your fair hand. Though if it’s Selphy the librarian you’re after, we suggest going easy on the metalwork – uptight bookworms just don’t find poison spears as sexy as you’d think. And forget about cold-hearted Bianca. A level-four cherry tart and nothing. Nothing!
If the potential heartbreak – and there will be heartbreak – is too much, you can play shepherd in a spiritual ecosystem (this is the only major addition to the original DS format). The world of Trampoli is home to glowing rune spirits known as Runeys. Ferry them about, adhering to their food chain requirements, and you’ll up their numbers and the town’s prosperity. But beware: unbalance the numbers and genocide is on the cards. It’s a lot like controlling the drug flow around Liberty City. Y’know, only more magical.
The Rune Factory magic is in how all this stitches together. Alone, the four disciplines are enough to eat up weeks of time. Learning the ladies’ routines and courting them; tending to your crops on a daily basis; mining ores to fashion stronger weapons for deeper dungeon delves; mastering the art of spirit relocation. There’s a solid game in each of those activities, and enough to keep you occupied for ages, but together they soar.
If you want better crops then you need to ensure that Trampoli has excellent spiritual health. A maiden’s favourite food may require ingredients dropped only by the fiercest dungeon boss. A happy gaggle of women will grant advice and help for questing and farming. Healthy crops underpin the entire experience. Nothing is cheap, so you’ll need to bring in that 150-turnip haul for a payday. Or maybe focus on selling tools fashioned from metals taken from the dungeons and built in a forge paid for in turnip money…
Before you know it, Rune Factory has you in its grasp. Most importantly, while you can up the stakes by trying to shove all of the above into a single day, you needn’t stress about it. Yes, hard work pays off, but neglecting any aspect of the world is forgivable too. Okay, so crops might wilt, but the ladies will forgive absence, the dungeons politely await your return and the rune spirits will eventually repopulate. Trampoli is beautifully self-righting, but won’t spill rewards unless you work for them.
Hardened Harvest Moon fans may quarrel with the more sympathetic difficulty level. Farming is but one part of a bigger experience and feels streamlined as a result. Crops are quicker to grow and less likely to fail. The fact you can walk over your plants will seem like heresy to those who like the bitter sting of digitized sweat in their eyes. To others, it’ll be good riddance to horseshoe-shaped veg plots and hello corporate turnip spamming.
Other people may find the game’s demands a little overwhelming. Until you’ve amassed your core toolset there’s lots that won’t make sense (how to chop wood and mine, for example) and these core tools aren’t all easy to find. Actually, scratch that – half of them are nigh-on cryptic, squirrelled away with obscure characters, though we suspect this is to get you into the habit of chatting with the townsfolk. And chat you should: the localization is thoroughly charming and witty.
Like the best fantasy, Frontier does exciting. Unlike the best fantasy, it still understands the appeal of the relaxing. Never demanding one or the other, but particularly brilliant with both, this is a great addition to a series, eclipsing Wii’s Harvest Moon escapades with style.
May 27, 2009