When people think of life sims, a handful of titles usually spring to mind. You’ve got Animal Crossing, Nintendo’s town creating series that has taken more hours of my life than I’d care to admit, and these days it’s Stardew Valley, the 2016 indie farming game that took the world by storm and helped supplanted Harvest Moon at the top of its niche.
There’s another series that deserves the attention of anyone who’s into managing crops, mingling with townsfolk and feeling immersed in a constantly moving and growing village. Rune Factory 4 set the bar back in 2012 on the Nintendo 3DS, and now a new and improved remaster of the game titled Rune Factory 4 Special is available on Nintendo Switch to bring new and old fans into the mix.
Rune Factory 4 combines a lot of different elements together, but manages to make them all feel like one cohesive package. The series started out as a fantasy off-shoot of Natsume’s Harvest Moon franchise, meaning it has the same sort of zen-like, garden-tending gameplay that went on to inspire Stardew Valley. Much like those games, Rune Factory 4 sees you progressing through calendar days and calendar years as you grow crops, raise animals, sell goods and hang out with townsfolk.
Unlike the real time calendar of Animal Crossing where the day and hour in-game matches real life, a day in Rune Factory 4 only last for just under a single real life hour. Furthermore, you’ve got a stamina bar that dwindles every time you perform physical labor. The act of balancing your to-do list with your available time, remaining stamina and upcoming obligations forms the backbone of the addictively repetitive gameplay of Rune Factory 4 Special.
That satisfying loop is made even sweeter by the strong focus on dungeons and combat in the game. You’ll often need to explore outside the town to fight baddies and bosses in order to get new materials, and the fast paced slash-and-dash combat in these moments is utterly satisfying. The variety of weapon classes and special skills available to you make it even more enticing to dive just as deep into becoming a dungeon master as you will cultivating the perfect garden. Or cooking the perfect sashimi. Or catching the rarest monster.
There’s an astounding amount of stuff to dedicate your time to in Rune Factory 4, and with only so many minutes in each in-game day, balancing your schedule out to fit everything in creates a ruthlessly addicting gameplay loop that can easily get you playing the game until 2AM, despite having told yourself “just one more day” about a dozen times.
Unfortunately, the game has a loose and unguided structure that is at odds with the overwhelming amount of content on offer. You’re rarely told what to do or where to go next, and while that freedom isn’t an issue once you get your own schedule and personal priorities figured out, that lack of guidance can make the first few hours confusing and sometimes stressful.
Another big pillar of Rune Factory 4 is relationship building. There are six lucky bachelors and six equally lucky bachelorettes in-game who you develop bonds with as you continuously talk to them, give them gifts and participate in activities with them. One character might fall for you if you give her a bunch of fresh fruit, while another will swoon for you if you take her out to go pummel monsters together. Balancing your love life with your farm life is a tricky challenge, but the variety of lovable and memorable characters in the game means that there’s guaranteed to be someone here who you’ll want to make that time for.
This updated Nintendo Switch version of the game packs in a huge collection of bonus stories via the brand-new Newlywed Mode, which lets you unlock playable epilogue chapters tied to each of the possible romance options in the game. You won’t get to experience these until you’ve basically reached the end of your time with the main story, but it’s a great way to see your favorite characters in a new light.
In fact, the Nintendo Switch edition of Rune Factory 4 lets you see the entire game in a new light. The jump from the Nintendo 3DS results in a much sharper image and higher resolution that lets you see every detail of the world so much more clearly. While textures and environments manage to hold up well in the transition to a more powerful console, character models end up looking awkwardly dated in a way that goes against the otherwise polished aesthetic of the game.
While a smattering of new story scenes are inserted throughout the game, the entire campaign has also been given an updated localisation with fewer errors and noticeably more natural dialogue that makes already charming characters even more memorable. There’s also a new Hell difficulty option available, but the masochistic nature of the previous hardest difficulty setting was enough for me.