I’ve played plenty of games about farming and harvesting and prepping food. From Harvest Moon and Rune Factory to recent hits like Stardew Valley and Ooblets, there’s a charm to games that let you experience the tranquil thrill of living off the land and raising natural resources. It wasn’t until I played Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin, though, that I realised just how many steps in the process of farming and harvesting these games tend to skip over. A lot of these lifestyle games may be content in telling you that growing grains is as simple as planting a seed, dropping water on it for a few days, and then pressing the A button to reap your rewards. Not Sakuna, though. This surprising Marvelous title combines fast-paced side-scrolling character action with the slow tedium of developing and cultivating a rice farm, and the result is one of the most interesting genre-fusions I’ve played in a while.
Titular protagonist Sakuna doesn’t know squat about growing rice when the game begins, despite being the harvest goddess of the Lofty Realm. Spoiled, conceited, and pretty drunk, Sakuna is wandering the realm when she comes across a family of human refugees who have somehow made their way across the bridge connecting the human realm to the spiritual realm. She warns them to turn back, but when they ignore her warning and make a mad dash to find food in the Lofty Realm, she chases them down in a tizzy, accidentally destroying the ritual offerings of rice that were meant to be delivered that day to the highest goddess in the realm. As punishment, hotheaded Sakuna and the human family are exiled to a far-off island full of untamed wilderness and destructive demons.
To make it back home, Sakuna has to clear the demon infestation. In order to become strong enough to do that, though, the gang needs to cultivate a bountiful rice harvest that, on top of feeding them every night, will increase Sakuna’s strength as the harvest goddess. Spoiled slacker Sakuna honestly carries the story of the game, especially with her fittingly whiny and pretentious voice acting. She’s got a weird and hilarious personality, but the more time she spends on the island with her new human companions, the more she begins to open up and see things from a new perspective.
You’ve got a lot of tasks to juggle in Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin, and with a constantly-moving day-and-night cycle, you’ll often need to settle on some priorities. A big chunk of the game sees you going to the world map to dive into various gathering locations full of items to grab and demons to destroy. When you’re in these modestly sized levels, the game mirrors the sort of simple-yet-satisfying hack-and-slash action of Muramasa: The Demon Blade.
You’ve got a light attack and a heavy attack that are modified based on the direction of your left stick, but you’ll also gain special attacks as you level up. The most interesting tool at your disposal, though, is the divine raimant. This glowing scarf around Sakuna’s neck can be flung out in eight different directions to latch onto enemies or walls. Latching onto walls lets you do some tricky platforming, but attacking foes with the raimant lets you swing around them to dodge incoming attacks, fling your foes to the other side of the arena, snap them back with a quick stun attack, and more.
You won’t be able to dive into maps and tear through demons forever, though. When night falls, the demons grow immeasurably stronger, signaling that it’s time for you to head home immediately. On top of that, there’s a hunger system to the game that operates a bit differently than your typical survival-game hunger mechanic. Sakuna and the crew eat a different kind of dinner each night, and the types of food you pick to dine on will reward you with different status buffs and passive healing abilities the next day.
Take enough damage or stay out too long, though, and Sakuna is gonna be hungry again. Once she is, you won’t be able to passively recover health anymore, making challenging battles all the more tougher. It can be a bit frustrating to not have any other way to restore health, especially when dying often forces you back to the beginning of the map with some of your collected items gone.
Back home, you won’t be able to do much during the night besides preserve your freshly gathered meats and eat dinner. The next morning, though, you might decide to focus on your crops instead of the demon threat. Sakuna, and likely a majority of the people who play this game, must learn and perform each of the many steps it takes to grow a simple grain of rice, from tilling the soil to the evenly planting seeds to monitoring water levels to cultivating fertilizer to drying your grains to treshing the rice to, finally, hulling it into edible white rice. It’s a lot, and the game never attempts to sugar coat it.
Planting seeds evenly is slow and difficult, while hulling the rice is a painfully long process. It’s easy to get lost in the zen-like repetition of each step, though, and the more you do it the more you’re rewarded with skills that enhance your efforts, like a grid that shows you optimal seed spacing or the ability to see when your soil is perfectly tilled. There’s purpose to the slow repetition of this side of the game, and it does a great job of making you appreciate just how much effort goes into making a food many of us so easily take for granted.
And so it goes, demolishing demons and managing your harvest with each passing day, making sure to gather useful meal ingredients and crafting materials in-between. The repetition of the rice farming is well-executed, but the amount of times you’ll be revisiting the same demon-infested levels to gather specific items or clear exploration challenges in order to unlock new areas can sometimes be a bit of a pain. It mainly hurts because the enemy placement and variety never changes in each map, turning the hectic battles into a bit of monotonous muscle-memory at some points.