Rune Factory 5 is a dense delight for fans and a fine entryway for newcomers – Review

A joyful slice of small town life.

Image via XSEED Games

The primary appeal of life or farming simulators is being a part of a community. The fantasy, at once completely attainable yet curiously out of reach, is the simple caring fantasied about in small-town nostalgia. This requires a kind of easygoing friction. To care about someone else, you have to work with and through them. Their community, and the place where they live, has needs and wants that existed before you came. Those same needs will continue after you leave. At their best, farming games lean into the particularities of place and community.

Unfortunately, more recent successful forays into the genre abandon this simple interconnection. Animal Crossing: New Horizons puts players in charge over every aspect of their island home, and Stardew Valley makes your little slice of farmland into a factory floor. Fortunately, despite adding a great deal of customization, Rune Factory 5 keeps the simple joy of getting to know a community separate from you.

A day in the life

Image via XSEED Games

Rune Factory 5 starts more or less exactly the same as every other entry in the series. The player awakes, rescues a town member from imminent danger, and then discovers that they have lost their memory. In gratitude, the town takes them in, gives them a home and an occupation. In Rune Factory 5, the role expands out from a farmer to a SEED ranger. This basically equates to a town good-doer. You’ll help clear the area of mean monsters, run errands for locals, as well as raise money and materials for renovations. Villagers will leave requests on a corkboard for you to tackle as you find the time. This change in exact role shows a shift over the series’ lifetime; farming is “merely” an important part of the game, not the primary attraction.

In some sense, that is a theme for the series. Rune Factory’s primary twist on farming games is the addition of RPG-lite elements, such as dungeon crawling and character stats. Nothing about this incarnation of it is particularly mind-blowing. However, it remains a smart and well-drawn addition to the genre. The routine of farm-work in the morning and dungeon crawling in the afternoon is as intoxicating as any video game loop. Weapons feel appropriately weighty, monster designs are cute and inventive, and dungeon layouts are engaging, if simple. Additionally, you can take villagers with you to dungeons, adding another strategic and social dimension to exploration.

The town is populated with assorted anime clichés. I found this charming, rather than detrimental. There are enough characters that easy-to-read designs feel like a boon. It’s also easy to find favorite characters to befriend or date. I’m partial to the absent-minded bookworm princess and the loud brash innkeeper cat-boy. It’s easy to imagine that fans will find their own personal favorites. For the first time, Rune Factory has same sex romances and marriages. It’s a welcome and long overdue change, one that makes a traditionally hetero-normative genre a bit more welcoming for folks like me.

Growing pains

Rune Factory 5
Screenshot by Gamepur

Rune Factory 5’s primary struggle is that there’s a lot going on. There are multiple kinds of crafting: forging, chemistry, and cooking, all with their own central items and associated skills. In fact, everything you do in Rune Factory 5 has a skill attached — even sleeping, walking, and eating. The game is far from difficult, and everything is tutorialized clearly and cleanly. It’s just easy for information to drown in a sea of text boxes. Fortunately, signs around the world will reacquaint you with any given system. Still, it is easy to lose important details in skimming tutorial text. I occasionally had to re-read a tutorial several times to make sure I actually understood it. None of this is exactly a problem, but it can be intimidating — especially since, to some degree, it’s up to you how much you engage with any specific system.

Visually, the game is at once plain and lavish. The series has gone proper 3D before, with Rune Factory Frontier for the Wii, but it does feel as if the game struggles against the format. Characters look great to the point that it’s easy to read expression in stilted animation. Objects and homes also have a gleeful attention to detail. However, environments can look washed out, like a finger-painted landscape. The performance also suffers. Exploring around town caused frequent frame rate stutters. It’s nothing game-breaking certainly, but it was consistent and could prove a problem for the game’s more action-heavy segments.

One wonders if a more visually “modest” offering might have performed better in multiple senses. Rune Factory 5’s sense of place is strong enough that it is hard not to wonder how much an even more simple, impressionist look could make it wondrous. The first Rune Factory’s “painted” backgrounds still look gorgeous, for example.

The verdict

Rune Factory 5
Screenshot by Gamepur

I want to be clear that there is still some player self-importance. Every relationship bar is a meter that can only really go up. It’s impossible to make enemies. It will always be weird to tame a monster and then put them to work in your fields. As games slide evermore to convenience and automation, they tend to lose life-giving friction.

Still, Rune Factory 5 has the essential elements to feel warm and tender. Most of the tutorials start through the aforementioned villager requests, making it clear that every member of the town wants to lend a helping hand. The area around the town feels legitimately wild. Powerful enemies hang out even in early arenas, and no matter how many Buffamoo you tame, many more will remain in the wilderness. Taking friends with you into dungeons makes you feel less like a lone brave hero and more like part of a chain of humanity. It’s enough for this modest, sometimes awkward game, to feel like home.

Final Score:

7.5 / 10

+Warm and involving community building with charming characters
+Simple yet compelling dungeon crawling and battling
The jump to proper 3D leads performance issues
Potentially overwhelming amount of systems and tasks for newcomers
Disclosure: Gamepur was provided with a game code for review purposes