Farming sims used to be a bit of a rare breed. If you wanted to plant virtual corn you basically could only turn to Harvest Moon. Of course, if you had some sort of brain hemorrhage you could have started playing Farmville. These days, you can’t move for them, with even the originator of the genre having split off into various different franchises. Rune Factory 4: Special is the latest re-release of the 4th game in the Story of Seasons fantasy spin-off franchise, but does it still hold up after being ported from the 3DS to a bunch of modern 4K-capable hardware? There’s really only one way to find out.
Rune Factory 4: Special is a farming/life sim RPG developed by Neverland, and published by Xseed Games. It is a specially enhanced version of the original Rune Factory 4, released way back in 2012 for Nintendo’s 3DS handheld. It puts the player in charge of the life of a character in a fantasy world. As well as running a farm, and socializing with the townsfolk, you have to craft armor and other equipment for use in your fantasy dungeon-crawling adventures.
The gameplay of Rune Factory 4: Special is going to be pretty familiar to anyone who has ever played a farm sim before. You have an energy bar that limits how many tasks you can do, and you have to split your time between looking after your farm, talking to villagers, and exploring the world’s numerous dungeons. Farming works pretty much the same way it always has. You plow little square fields on a grid-based farm, water them daily, and sell the crops once they grow to make a profit. You start out with a small area of the farm to work with, eventually clearing the rest of the area once you’ve upgraded your tools.
It is in the upgrading of your tools that Rune Factory 4: Special gets its unique selling point. Rather than paying someone else to upgrade your tools for you, a large part of the game is devoted to crafting and upgrading your equipment for yourself. You have to find materials in the dungeons to create better equipment, and this is the main way that your character progresses, though it’s not the only way. As with any game that includes dungeon crawling, you also have a combat system, and that comes with its own unique progression system as well.
Just like a JRPG, you unlock new skills and spells as you spend more time adventuring. Specifically, you start out with a very basic combat system, simple swipes with swords or axes. As you use specific equipment more, you unlock special attacks, but these vary in usefulness. Most of the stuff you learn early on is incredibly hard to hit an enemy with and that leaves the combat feeling a little repetitive, at least in the first few hours of the game. In terms of spells, it’s a similar deal. You unlock more as you go, but for the most part, you’re dealing with very basic fantasy spells that are usually themed around different elements.
If you’re getting the impression so far that there’s nothing overly special about the game then you’re sort of right. That’s not to say that the gameplay isn’t good. Rune Factory 4: Special is probably the most refined that things have been for the series. It brings together all of the best elements of previous titles into a single package and shines because of it, it’s just a bit of a shame that it’s let down by the lack of effort that seems to have gone into the porting itself.
This game was initially made for the 3DS, so obviously the graphics aren’t top-notch. The polygonal stuff has been given a slight makeover but still looks a little clunky and choppy. The 2D character portraits at least look relatively sharp which is a good sign. By far, the worst victim of the porting has been the menus. Playing this game on a non-touch-screen console shows a lot of cracks that have been patched over. Navigating through your inventory isn’t exactly streamlined, and feels much more at home on a touch-screen rather than a gamepad.
Even the (presumably) new quick bar that comes up still feels clunky to use compared to games designed with a gamepad in mind. It’s not like the menu system is unusable it’s just clearly not been optimized for the system. There are also some weird omissions that would have made the game smoother to play. For instance, you can’t load the game from within the game itself. You have to go to a save point, head back to the main menu from there, then load a save. If you make a mistake and want to get back to a save, there are lots of hoops to jump through to do it. It just seems weird to not at least have a ‘back to main menu’ option in your pause screen somewhere.
Fortunately, it’s not like the Special part of the title doesn’t mean anything. As well as a new harder difficulty mode and some new cutscenes, you also get access to a new game mode called Newleywed Mode. This new mode lets you experience an extra chunk of story with any of the marriage partners from the main game that you’ve already married in one of your playthroughs. You get to choose pet names for each other and everything, so if you really liked one particular marriage option then today is your lucky day. Each one of these new scenarios runs for about an hour, just under in most cases, but they’re great for any hardcore fans of certain characters.
There’s also some new animation going on here. If you’re not familiar with Live2D, it’s a way of animating 2D characters without relying on traditional frame-by-frame animation. It’s pretty popular in lots of mobile games, so you’re probably familiar with the style. It doesn’t look bad at all and helps to give the normally static characters a bit more life.
Overall, Rune Factory 4: Special may have ended up being a bit more pedestrian than that subtitle makes it seem like it would be. The new content is nice for hardcore fans, but with the poor-quality porting, this definitely feels like a game that is better played on other systems. That said, if you missed this game the first time around and want to experience it on a home console rather than a handheld this is a nice package that won’t leave you wanting for content. Just don't expect the world's smoothest experience.
TechRaptor reviewed Rune Factory 4: Special on Xbox One. The game is also available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch.
- A Huge Amount of Content
- Refined Series Gameplay
- Family Farming and Crafting Systems
- Navigating Menus is Clunky
- Combat Can be a Bit Repetitive at Times