On its surface, you would never suspect that Rune Factory world work. Taking the tranquility of Harvest Moon and mashing it together with the inherent violence of RPGs seems counter-intuitive, and yet the developers of Rune Factory and various associated homages and pastiches have somehow refined this eclectic blend to a fine art. Kitaria Fables is a blissful example of this in action.
In contrast to some attempts to build a Rune Factory-like by building on and expanding the formula (such as My Time At Portia), Kitaria Fables is modest… and you could argue that it’s almost too much so. It has that wonderful mix of pastoral farming and monster-slaying, but it works within itself, and rather than throwing gimmicks and systems at players, it relies on a simple grind and a steady drip-feed of progression and story beats to keep players interested. Kitaria Fables doesn’t even have a leveling system, as you might expect for something that bills itself as an RPG. There is some statistical progression in the way that you grind up and craft new equipment, which improves your character’s stats, but there are no skill trees to contend with, no pages of numbers to min-max through. In fact, there are almost no arbitrary numbers that tell you that you’re getting better at the game simply through repeating the same actions over and over again.
I love the RPG genre. Anyone that reads DigitallyDownloaded.net knows that. But there are things that this genre does that are often unnecessary and, if anything, act to the detriment of the genre’s strengths, such as the joy of exploration and the experience of following along a narrative. With Kitaria Fables, it took me a while to adjust. At first, I was trying to defeat every enemy, working under the assumption that “I needed the experience.” Then, at some point, I realised that… I didn’t need to do that at all. From that point onwards, I was able to into the game’s flow, and I loved the elegance of it all.
To be sure Kitaria Fables doesn’t tell a Persona 4-style masterpiece. Nor is it a thesis-in-game-form like NieR. It’s no War and Peace-style epic like Trails of Cold Steel. Kitaria Fables is a simple, sweet, all-ages RPG built around allowing parents and their kids to co-op their way through some of the cutest enemies this side of the Mana series. And all of that’s okay. It’s a game about cheerful animals going on very human quests for artifacts and treasure. It’s like The Animals of Farthing Wood only less likely to destroy your childhood with the absolutely terrifying stuff that those cute cartoon animals got up to.
Kitaria Fables is also heavily focused on the exploration and combat side of the experience. In the developer’s own words it is “strongly recommended” that you participate in the farming, but it is largely possible to complete the game without bothering with it. At first this isn’t what I wanted. At all. Because it’s quite obvious where the game’s focus is, and the farming does feel a little superfluous to the experience the initial motivation isn’t there to bother with the farming at all. Meanwhile, I prefer to play things the other way around, and even in Rune Factory I much (much) prefer puttering around my little plot of land, and only venturing out into the dungeons when I absolutely needed to.
The good news is that superfluous as it is, Kitaria’s Farming is still a pleasant distraction. It only takes a few in-game “days” for veggies to become ready to harvest, so once you get going you’ll be picking things regularly. There are plenty of distinctive plants to grow, and it’s fun to watch each of them go through the growth process. Initially, the controls for watering and seeding feel a bit twitchy, but once you get into the swing of it, the simple routine of the simple life remains as compelling as always to those of us with (virtual) green thumbs.
Kitaria Fables doesn’t try to hurry or harass you. There are side quests to go with the main quest, the farming, and the game does have an in-game clock that ticks through the days. But there’s no pressure to get things done on any particular timeline, and the world around you largely waits for you to take the initiative. The writing emphasizes the need to undertake the main quest, but never tries to impress urgency. Perhaps this is all another consequence of the game offering a younger-ages skew on the Rune Factory action, and doesn’t want younger people to be overwhelmed by needing to juggle tasks while pressing on, but for older players, it’s appealing because it comes across as being part of the chilled-out vibe.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the presentation, because the aesthetics are absolutely lovely. All the characters are adorably rendered animals, ranging from bears to goats to tigers. Boss enemies are suitably large and imposing, but the combination of slick, accessible controls and easily understood attack patterns stop them from being too frustrating for younger players. The world itself runs the gamut of standard fantasy tropes, and is pleasant if a bit squished. Finally, the farm itself is an aesthetic delight to wander through. If it wasn’t for the loading time, Kitaria Fables would be nearly the perfect Switch title. Sadly, loading times are too lengthy for their own good, especially considering how small environments are and how frequently you’ll be moving from one to another. I will say that Kitaria gets away with it better than most would because the game itself will put you in a zen state of mind, but there’s nothing more frustrating than looking forward to plucking some carrots out the ground only to have to wait ten seconds for the farm to load.
Kitaria Fables is a warm, genuine delight. It’s not trying to tell you something deep about the world. Nor is it looking to spark debates over hard modes or subversion. It’s not aiming to challenge, belittle, insult or offend. The game’s just there to give people of all ages a chance to go on fun little quests together, as adorable little animals, with a garden of veggie delights to look forward to coming back to. It might just be the sweetest and most innocent Rune Factory or Harvest Moon I’ve come across, and that’s really saying something, since this entire “genre”, such as it is, is entirely built up around wholesomeness.
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