It’s worth remembering that we very nearly lost Rune Factory. The developer of the series, Neverland, went bankrupt, and 2012’s Rune Factory 4 on the 3DS seemed to be the end of it. Thankfully Marvelous stepped in, hired many of the original team to keep them together, and formed an internal developer, Hakama, with the same series producer, Hashimoto Yoshifumi, still in charge. In 2019 the miracle that no series fan was expecting happened and Rune Factory 5 was announced. It’s just as well that it’s turned out to be such a wonderful game.
However, I do have to get this out of the way first: if you thought Pokémon Arceus was “unattractive”, you’re going to really struggle with Rune Factory 5. Thanks to the art of Iwasaki Minako, the character portraits are lovely, and the use of colour through the art direction helps paint an aesthetically pleasing setting, but that’s only the good half of the story. The execution does leave a lot to be desired. From pop-in and frame rate issues, to low texturing and some less-than-inspiring enemy character models, Rune Factory 5’s visual design is going to test the good graces players in the same way that Pokémon did earlier this year. It doesn’t bother me (I still think Pokémon looks nice, for one thing), and I enjoyed looking at Rune Factory 5 a great deal. I just know that it’s going to bother other people.
Other than the technical execution, however, I don’t see how anyone could not love Rune Factory 5. It’s such a warm, good-natured, laid-back and pastoral experience, while still having more involved gameplay elements to make the thing more palatable to the certain corner of the community that would roll their eyes at the idea of playing a Story of Seasons or Harvest Moon.
To be blunter, Rune Factory 5 has the rural town life of the Harvest Moon or Story of Seasons series, complete with laid-back farming, romancing (now with same-sex dating, for the first time in the series), and the iconic relaxed pace. However, it also has simple – but enjoyable – dungeon crawling and action JRPG combat. All of this you’ll do whenever you’re in the mood for it, with the game being largely hands-off in explicitly asking you to do anything. In fact, it comes across as downright aimless in its open-endedness at times, and there might be a period of adjustment involved for people that usually enjoy their experiences more led and driven. In reviewing the game there have been times where I would spend days simply puttering around my farmland, before going for long fishing sessions. That would be my entire time spent playing that day. One of the best things about this genre/series is that when you’re exhausted in the real world (and with a website to re-launch and magazines to publish each month, I have been exhausted a lot this last few weeks), you can play this as a way of unwinding. The tasks are just repeatable and repetitive enough to be zen-like without the game putting you to sleep by becoming a dull grind. Then, when you are in the mood for something a little more active, you can pick up the sword and go dungeon crawling instead!
One of the things that Rune Factory 5 is not stingy with is in handing out rewards. You’re constantly levelling up something in this world, often just for moving around, and while this kind of experience level hyperactivity might sound overdone, in a world that is otherwise as chill as this one, that reward loop makes you feel like your time in-game wasn’t wasted. Even if you do spend an entire hour doing nothing more than fishing, you’re making “progress” according to the game’s systems, and therefore your decision to play this way is validated. So, while it might seem like the busy experience system is a constant reminder that you’re playing an RPG, it, oddly enough, actually encourages you to be more laid back in how you approach objectives.
There has been a mild effort to add stakes to what’s going on in Rune Factory 5. A story, if you will. Your character wakes up with amnesia (no surprise there), and finds themselves joining a military unit that needs to protect their new home in this far-flung backwater from various threats. The threats escalate in scope as the adventure powers on and yet… you’re still going to spend time fishing instead. I’ve got to say that I don’t think epic RPG and Harvest Moon really go that well together, and while previous Rune Factories dealt with that by paying lip service to the RPG narrative side of things, this one does seem to be trying harder to be a fusion of traditional Rune Factory and more narratively complex JRPGs. That design decision unfortunately does little more than introduce a disconnect between when you’ll spend a lot of time doing (the rural town life stuff), and the stuff the narrative says that you should be doing (becoming a hero of an epic tale).
It’s hard not to be invested in this little digital world you’ll inhabit, though. The townsfolk, who all have their own narratives and personalities, are a wonderfully eclectic and good-natured lot, and you’ll be laughing despite yourself at some of the nonsense they get up to. There are frequent festivals and events that bring the community together, and even outside of the romance interests, you’ve going to want to get to know just about everyone in town and their little stories. Speaking of romance, chasing a spouse feels like a far grander quest than saving the world… though good luck even settling on just one character to woo and settle down with. They run the gamut of anime norms, but at the same time are written in a way that makes them charming all over again, to even the most jaded player.
The biggest question that most people are going to ask about Rune Factory 5 is “have they changed much of it from previous iterations?” Followed by muttering “I hope not” under their breath. While the new developer has the old producer, it is still a new company under a new umbrella, and there was always the risk that they’d try and do things differently to revitalise the series. And yet, this is a also a series for which the core audience very much does not want anything that messes with the wholesome traditions that they love.
Rune Factory 5 does shift the camera to being a more direct behind-the-back view on the world (and I do find myself missing the top-down charms of its predecessors), but otherwise, it resists change as much as possible. The new perspective does allow for a more dynamic combat system, particularly with the bosses, and while Rune Factory 5 will never be mistaken for Breath of the Wild, Elden Ring, or Final Fantasy, it gets the job done there in providing a fun combat system – especially when you start playing around with the crafting system to tackle the tougher enemies. There is a slightly greater focus on crafting-like systems and opportunities for min-maxing, but you can certainly get through the main narrative without dealing with that stuff if it’s not your cup of tea.
Overall, Rune Factory 5 plays things pretty conservatively, and it’s the better for it. It’s a comfort food kind of experience, and while this might cost it on store shelves given that it has been released at the tail end of so many excellent, intelligent, innovative, and big RPGs, it’s a game of simple delights and pleasant experiences. Sometimes, that’s enough.