Publisher: XSEED Games
Some games, like The Sims and Animal Crossing, draw you in with their comfortable routine, easing you into the mechanics and letting you make the experience your own. The Rune Factory series exemplifies this gameplay style, blending farming, socializing, and dungeon crawling.
As someone who has played the franchise since the Story of Seasons spin-off’s first entry 15 years ago, I’ve always loved how the action/RPG captures a sense of discovery. Whether it’s unearthing a new locale that provides fresh items and monsters to raise or learning more about the eccentric people of the town, there is a satisfying sense of progression in the nigh-endless options for how to spend days. Rune Factory 5 succeeds in this regard, and in many ways, it is one of the better entries in the series. Unfortunately, some technical issues, like horrible framerate, alongside poorly designed combat and upgrade systems, dilute the experience.
Rune Factory 5 continues the tradition of an amnesiac plotline to drive the narrative. You mysteriously end up in the town of Rigbarth, with no recollection of how you got there. All you know is something’s amiss as monsters are invading the land. To search for answers, you take a job as a ranger. This allows you to take on requests from townspeople and go on investigations to suspicious places in hopes of finding your next clue to the greater mysteries at play. Of course, to make an income to live on, you’ll need to farm along the way.
The plot does its job of getting you in the world and providing twists to keep you exploring, but it’s the townspeople that make the experience. The cast is one of the series’ strongest, with likable and interesting characters aplenty. They’re not as over-the-top as some past entries, but I was engaged by their personal struggles, like Lucy missing her father, in addition to more comical situations, like Ryker always wanting to nap. Having character-focused quests provides additional layers to their everyday personalities.
As an action/RPG and relationship/farming sim, Rune Factory offers a nice variety of ways to spend your time. Focusing on the townspeople can open side adventures and eventually lead you to love. Catering to farming ups your profits quickly, allowing you to upgrade everything from your house size to even the stock available from stores in town. Entering dungeons and besting their bosses often advances the plot, but you can also level up, learn new weapon combos, pick up items for crafting, and tame some monsters to work on your farm or battle with you. The game has an engaging loop, and I never felt like my days were empty, but it dawned on me quickly that many of these systems are just average or subpar in their design.
For starters, the combat, while improved from previous entries, is clunky, and the awkward multi-button combination abilities don’t help. You tap R to dash, but holding it down brings up your magic. The small difference in input is the recipe for disaster you’d expect; my magic menu came up when I was trying to dodge more times than I’d like to admit. That being said, I liked the number of different weapons available and how they all feel unique, from melee-focused boxing gloves to heavy long swords that pack a punch. Using various weapons changed my approach to combat. For instance, with speedy, less-stamina-depleting dual blades, I could afford to spam attacks and combos, while heavier weapons made me stand back and wait for openings to wail on enemies.
Unfortunately, Rune Factory 5 doesn’t encourage much experimentation with its different weapons. Players have to level up each weapon’s proficiency to learn combos and new attacks. Starting back at square one didn’t seem worth the effort for me, and had I not been trying to get a panoramic view of the game for the purposes of this review, I would have stuck with only one or two weapons the whole game.
I enjoyed seeing the bosses’ cool designs (one personal favorite is a colorful octopus), but fighting them is very humdrum. Bosses are about watching enemy patterns, but I never felt challenged, especially once I brought tamed monsters into the fight. You can also bring villagers you befriend to battle alongside you. They provide powerful team-up attacks with your character, but they all start low-leveled and must earn fighting experience before becoming useful. All my villager combatants died too quickly for my liking, and I didn’t find the grind worth it, so I often left them behind in favor of monsters I tamed.
That’s the thing about Rune Factory 5; everything is fueled by gaining levels. On the one hand, this can be satisfying; on the other hand, it can require tedious grinding. It’s not just about your combat level; your cooking, forging, crafting, and chemistry levels also center on this progression system, where trying new recipes creates better items, weapons, and armor.
The only way to unlock recipes is to blindly experiment, buy recipe bread (available in limited quantities every day), hope an NPC reveals one in random conversation, or receive bread as a quest or festival reward. Once you reach higher levels, seeing what you can create becomes really fun. I made a plush monkey shield, and could cook everything from a chocolate sponge cake to star-shaped hashbrowns. Though, upgrading weapons, armor, or farm tools was too much trial-and-error for my liking.
Since you can craft, harvest, forge, cook, and mix potions, you pick up numerous items on any given day. Unfortunately, inventory management is a mess, making this quite the pain. Your backpack can only carry a certain number of items, and I constantly ran out of space. I lost so much time moving items to storage, which I also had to expand constantly. To add insult to injury, the game doesn’t automatically group items together when you move them to storage, forcing you to find ones to pair together to save space.
Even though I got annoyed with my inventory space, it never dulled my love for the exploration and joy of finding new things. From searching bandit hideouts, crystal caverns, lava caves, and more, every new area is an opportunity – whether it’s locating rare items and ores for crafting, finding powerful monsters to tame, or acquiring a new fruit that can be used in a cooking recipe. Every trip you take feels rewarding - even if it’s simply to walk around town to discover something new about a villager.
Festivals and special events help split up the calendar, and I liked their interactivity, making me complete mini-tasks like dodging beans and creating my own monster team for a tournament. Sadly, the events are brief, and the rest of the day is lost because villagers just continue to stand around the festival grounds. Having more to them than one main, short event would go a long way toward making these celebrations feel worthwhile and impactful.
Rune Factory 5 is rough around the edges, but I still loved my time with it. Something about how all the parts work together keeps pulling me to it. Even after completing the main story, I’m still playing, as I have recipes I haven’t unlocked, a romantic journey I’m embarking on, and many upgrades I can still do to the town. It has its flaws, but Rune Factory 5’s enchanting loop of constant progression and discovery helps mitigate a lot of these annoyances, so they don’t sting so much.