“Americans… are forever searching for love in forms it never takes, in places it can never be. It must have something to do with the vanished frontier.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle
Obscure but one of the better RPGs on a system the world forgot, Rune Factory Frontier is a Nintendo Wii farming-sim fantasy game by Neverland Co., Marvelous Entertainment and XSEED Games. Frontier is the third entry in the Rune Factory series, which is a spin off of the Harvest Moon franchise (now known as Story of Seasons). Where Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons has traditionally been all about the farming, raising animals, mining, fishing, making friends and getting married, Rune Factory Frontier takes those core elements and builds upon them by adding action-RPG gameplay. Producer Yoshifumi Hashimoto described Rune Factory as “Harvest Moon where you wield a sword”.
However, it remains to be seen whether those elements serve to raise the quality of the game or if they merely seem tacked on.
Rune Factory Frontier introduces Raguna, a lonely young man who has apparently lost his memory and his home. In his wanderings, he encounters a girl who gives him food and new memories to enjoy, until she disappeared one day. Raguna ventures off in search of the girl who helped him. He staggers into the village of Trampoli in the night, exhausted from his journeys.
The following morning, after resting in the village church, Raguna runs into Mist, the girl who went missing. Surprised he found her so easily, he asks her to come back with him but Mist is convinced she needs to remain in this village because she hears something calling to her. Mist tells Raguna that he can move into an empty house nearby and tend the homestead farm.
And on that pretty flimsy basis, Raguna is now a resident of Trampoli. He notices a floating island above the village which happens to resemble a whale. Yeah. Okay.
Once Mist and Raguna arrive at his new residence, a countryside cottage with un-tilled field, Mist gives him some cheap farming tools and some turnip seeds. And from that moment on everything is pretty much open ended. You can choose to tackle a variety of tasks in nearly any order.
The game begins on Spring day 2. There are four seasons in Frontier each with five six-day weeks, the sixth day known as Holiday. Various events such as dates with girls, birthdays, and festivals are added to your calendar as the game progresses. Each of the four seasons have their own unique visuals and crops that can be grown, except for in Winter when you can’t grow anything in your field.
There is no end to Rune Factory Frontier, which was part of its appeal for me. You can play through an entire year, Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, and then do it over again in a second year with better items, equipment, friendships, etc.
Taking its cue from Harvest Moon, Raguna can clear his field of debris and begin to cultivate some crops. It’ll be slow going at first since you only have access to rudimentary tools but you can eventually upgrade these to legendary qualities and turn your field into a veritable gold mine of cabbages, pumpkins, carrots, yams, and so on.
Your home can also be heavily upgraded by spending the cash you earn through farming. The addition of a farm for raising beasts, an alchemist’s lab for screwing around with herbs, a kitchen for cooking up dishes, an armory for crafting your own equipment, a second floor, and tons of space to hold more stuff… there’s a lot to work toward. Heck, there’s even room for a Yogurt Maker!
The village of Trampoli boasts several amenities and the surrounding countryside can be explored (to a limit). Also, the villagers of Trampoli play a major role in the game, hitting story beats and often aiding in Raguna’s vague “quest” to just exist and tend this farm he got for free. Again, as in Harvest Moon, you can befriend these villagers by talking with them, giving them gifts, participating in their special events and being an influential part of their lives. In many cases that means seeing them grow as characters, which is incredible to see over a great length of time. A lot of the characters begin as caricatures but you eventually come to understand how many of them function and live their lives.
Raguna is the ultimate playah. Chief among the villagers are of course the babes, the dolls, the broads, the dames. *ahem* The Bachelorettes. There are thirteen eligible women (if you count the twins separately) which Raguna can befriend and eventually woo, wed, and have a child with. As I understand it, some of these bachelorettes have appeared in previous Rune Factory games.
Mist, who has already been introduced, is the girl-next-door who always seems a little scatterbrained and silly. She has personal history with Raguna and is the game’s sort of “default” choice to marry. There’s also Melody, the cheery, witch-hatted owner of the bathhouse. Eunice is a hard worker at the inn who is for the chubby-chaser, but she slims down over the course of the game if you tell her you like thinner girls. Selphy is a stranger to Trampoli but moves into the library since she’s a lover of books. She is forgetful and carefree, often forgetting to eat for days if she finds a good read. Bianca is the resident rich brat of Trampoli who dwells in her elaborate family mansion. It’s only when you befriend her that you discover she has a caring heart beneath her abrasive, snobbish exterior. Tabatha is an elf who works as a polite maid for Bianca and enjoys animals.
Cinnamon is a bespectacled student of the magical arts, a kind of scientist-girl who is usually uninterested in making conversation. Lara is a nurse and healer at the church with a solemn and serious disposition. Anette is the local postal worker with a perky attitude, an energetic lifestyle, and big aspirations. Rosetta is Mist’s direct rival, a pragmatic and competitive girl who works for a local business and will fight for your affection. Uzuki is a young, extremely formal, and inexperienced warrior from the east who is searching for her missing brother. And finally, Iris is a survivor of a vampiric race who was magically separated into twins: Iris Noire and Iris Blanche. They are heavily tied to the storyline. And yes, you can only marry one Iris, sicko…Clearly, there’s a wealth of gameplay to be enjoyed just with working your charm on the girls and experiencing events in their lives. That would generally be where a Harvest Moon would’ve reached its limit, tending fields and making friends. But this is Rune Factory. There are dungeons.
First off, Raguna has both an HP and RP meter. RP is your stamina bar and it decreases every time you swing a weapon, use a tool, or do just about anything that isn’t walking or talking. Your RP level increases for each category of ability (Weapon, Crafting, Cooking, Fishing, etc.) the more you use that ability. Leveling up your RP bar is crucial to exploring deep into the dungeons and finding all of the treasures, capturing all of the rare drops from the baddies. Raguna also levels normally like in a traditional RPG.
Dungeons are massive resources for items and experience. Powerful bosses await at the very bottom. The enemies that swarm the dungeons can also be tamed and raised on your farm. The produce of tamed animals , and you can also raise crops in them in certain areas. Seasons outside of the dungeons don’t matter, so that means you can raise any crop you want regardless of whether it’s Summer or Winter! They function like the greenhouse upgrades of Harvest Moons of the past.
Your goal is to make as much money as possible selling crops and produce, exploring dungeons, uncovering the hidden menace, making friends, getting married, building up your homestead… there’s just so much to do. Even though one second in reality is one minute in game time, you’ll still run out of time for all the things you want to get done each day. You may even get to the end of a second year before you manage to get hold of everything there is to get in the game. It’s time-consuming. Not least because of those Runeys… More on that in a moment.
The 8-bit Review
I don’t want to sound like a weeaboo (I’m not into anime, I swear) but Frontier isn’t overly “kawaii”, thank you very much. An overwhelming obsession with cuteness was the eventual turn off for me from the Harvest Moon series, and I thought I didn’t have any kind of aversion to “baby games”. I’ve played most of the entries, enjoying the first Harvest Moon on the SNES and the one on the 64 and Friends of Mineral Town, which I consider the best. The last one I played was Animal Circus for the Wii but it was so steeped in super-deformed, ultra-kiddie characters and lovey dovey everything that I had had enough at that point. I was originally drawn to the Harvest series out of a love for nature and I encountered more of that in Frontier.
One of the things I loved most about Rune Factory Frontier is it distanced itself from cutesy-ness with greater visual detail rather than succumb to the cartoonish impressionism of Harvest Moon. There’s a sense of tangibility, magic, rural environs, and the organic beauty and austerity of nature in Frontier. The world is soft pastels. It may just be one of the best looking games for the Wii.
Clumsy 3D models are Frontier’s only visual flaw. Returning to the game after several years of absence, I really noticed how unrealistic and staggering Raguna looked while running. The cumbersome style of animation unfortunately translates to nearly every other model in the game, monsters included. They look particularly stiff. I’m glad that 2D images are displayed for the characters during conversations, which remind us that this is a JRPG.
The soundtrack for this game was notoriously hard to find online. Considering I’d played through two years of this game, I sort of got sick of the music. Especially the tracks that are heard consistently, like the one which plays in your house. But I still remember being initially impressed by the soundtrack, particularly “Spring” (above). Musical scenery with a lot of appropriate mood.
Making use of traditional instruments (the guitar, flute, piano, etc.) for most of the soundtrack, the music adds to the sense of rustic rurality, of “smallness”, of being in the country and in the wilderness. The music won me over, though not all of it is entirely a success. There are some ugly, repetitive sound effects. Some of the voice acting is… lackluster. I’m not a fan of some of the synthetic tunes but this OST is more than an average, at the least.
Alright so this is complicated. There is just so much to do in this game. Almost all of it is extremely addicting and fun. Raising crops of varying quality? Fun. Taming beasts and taking them as buddies into battle, even riding on their backs?
Fun. Crafting tons of rare equipment by collecting drops? Fun. Macking it up with some anime babes? Baker’s dozen fun. Having to spend a couple of hours every in-game day balancing Runeys? Not fun. At all.
Let me explain. Runeys are a central part of the storyline in Frontier. They’re colorful nature spirits floating through the air in every exterior area of the game. There are four types: Water, Rock, Tree, and Grass. In a nutshell, there’s a food chain with the Runeys. Water predates on Rock, Rock on Tree, Tree on Grass. Yes, the cute spirits will eat each other into extinction. If you don’t intervene, Water Runeys will eat all the Rock and Tree Runeys will eat all the Grass, then Tree Runeys will die of hunger and the areas will be dominated by Water. When this happens, it slows down time it takes for your crops to go and diminishes their quality (and thus their value).
The only way to “intervene” is with a tiny handheld vacuum that lets you suck the little spirits right out of the air and distribute them wherever you need to. If you’re clever, you can create massive Runey ecologies throughout the various areas surrounding your homestead (the only place where the food chain doesn’t occur). Once you do this, you reach “prosperity”. There must be more than 35 of each type of Runey in an area to reach this, but once you do you’ll see sped up crop growth, equaling Scrooge McDuck amounts of wealth.
Problem is, you’ve got to then maintain the Runeys to maintain prosperity, or slip into financial ruin. And it’s meticulous and tedious. Grabbing one or three Runeys at a time and trying to distribute them intelligently is extremely time-consuming when you have much better things to get done. In the game, I mean. This is the main reason why I gave up Rune Factory Frontier, despite everything it has going for it and all of the hundreds of hours I sank into it. It’s not impossible to manage the Runeys but it isn’t fun and takes away from the laid-back and relaxing nature of the game.
I never married Cinnamon, who I was buttering up for the job, but I don’t think I could ever pick Frontier back up again because of the Runeys.
I haven’t played any of the Rune Factory games before Frontier, so maybe that would help clear up the matter of narrative but as it stands it made no sense to me. There were some characters that seemed to come out of nowhere and there’s no tension at all. This is an inherent problem with open gameplay, as I touched on before in my review of Arkham City. Too much sidequesting erodes a sense of narrative pressure on the characters. It’s hard to envision any threat to the characters when you can just delay a boss fight by picking pumpkins or making friends.
Thinking back, I played for over 100 hours and I couldn’t tell you anything much about the story right off the top of my head.
How could a game about farming be so hard? Aren’t games in the vein of Harvest Moon fairly accessible? Yes, they are. Rune Factory Frontier is not. A lot of its mechanics remain mystifying and it is surprisingly hard to woo a feminine specimen. Even crafting the best gear is very difficult. It’s also easy to pass out by running out of RP or taking too many hits in relentless battles in dungeons. Contrariwise, there aren’t a huge amount of upgrades to get for your house in this one so working so hard to get a ton of money doesn’t have this massive payoff that it does in other similar titles.
Two things balance out this score. The gameplay is very addicting with so much to accomplish. But then there’s the tedium of the Runeys. In the end, it balances out the replayability. I don’t think you’d ever want to start a new game again after playing it for over 100 hours… but then again, you did play it for that long in the first place and that says something.
There aren’t a huge selection of these kinds of games for consoles, with most Harvest Moons, Story of Seasonses and Rune Factorys sitting pretty on handhelds. This was the first Rune Factory title I played and the fusion of farming-sim with RPG tradition was a welcome addition to a tried and somewhat tired genre.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
I can still remember playing Frontier on a rainy autumn day, immersed in the relaxing visuals and music and repetition. That’s what this style of gameplay lends itself toward. I will always have fond memories for this game, though I may never be able to return to it. I fully recognize that this kind of cheery, simulation,”kiddie” game isn’t for everyone but if you enjoyed Harvest Moon in the past, then Rune Factory is the logical next step in its conceptual evolution.
Aggregated Score: 7.0