Straight up, Rune Factory 5 on Switch was my most anticipated game of 2022. I loved how earlier games in the Harvest Moon spinoff series seamlessly incorporated fantasy worldbuilding into a farming simulator. Obtaining milk from weird-looking monster cows and harvesting leather off goblins was always a lot more interesting than thinking about more true-to-reality, likely smellier portrayals of farm life. It’s a shame, then, that Rune Factory 5, in shifting the series into the realm of 3D, open-world games, seems to have forgotten what made this series so fascinating to begin with.
Rune Factory 5 is mechanically the same as previous chapters. You play as an amnesiac ranger in SEED, an armed force that protects the town of Rigbarth from monsters. Most of your days will be spent growing crops, battling monsters, crafting items, fishing, befriending local villagers, and fulfilling requests. You can tame monster companions to help with farming, or mix special fertiliser formulas into the soil to increase the productivity of your farm.
Juggling all of these tasks might seem daunting to a Rune Factory newcomer, but as you obtain better tools, your farm becomes more manageable. For example, you can obtain a crystal that causes rainfall and items that improve the fertility of the soil. The game also rewards you for nearly everything you do. Sometimes I’d just be walking around and would hear a small jingle; ah, I’d gained a level in walking. If I ate some food, then I would gain a level in eating. It’s a neat open-ended system that helps take the pressure off grinding any specific activity. If you’ve played a Rune Factory game in the past, then you know what you’re signing up for: more of the same.
Except there’s one difference. Whereas previous entries have been traditional top-down games, RF5 takes place in a three-dimensional space, and this newfound technological ambition is the source of its many issues.
The graphical quality of the game reminds me of Pokémon Legends: Arceus, but without the star power of a well-known IP. I can appreciate that the stylised blur effects are meant to simulate the texture of paint. But in practice, the landscape appears muddy. Despite the well-designed interiors, the fidelity of objects in the open world is all over the place. The inconsistency impeded my ability to enjoy a game in which most of the core loop revolves around grinding in the same areas for materials.
I like bright colours in my video games–it’s actually one of my main grouses about open-world games that stack brown upon grey upon a lighter shade of grey. But RF5 takes that to the other extreme. On the Nintendo Switch OLED, every hue in its natural landscape is blindingly vivid. The sickly pink blossoms, the sky-blue river, and the bright greens of the grass lend a strange feeling of artifice to the environment. In contrast, the explorable areas in previous games felt more visually varied, and I relished returning to my usual monster grind. When I think of Rune Factory, I think of environments that are elevated to the level of fine craftsmanship through the inclusion of charming, handcrafted details. RF5 is not that game. Not only are the landscapes garish, but there’s also just too much space everywhere. The areas feel repetitive, and the open world isn’t filled with the whimsical environmental designs that made previous games feel so magical.
RF5 relies on the same farming, battling, and monster taming mechanics as its predecessors. The formula has been so successful in previous games that I can see it retaining players who are new to the franchise. However, I’ve grinded hundreds of hours across the series. While I still feel a sense of accomplishment from improving my character’s skills and buying upgrades for the farm, I’m left cold by the lack of new mechanical additions to the game. The main change is that there are new villagers to befriend and potentially marry.
Do they charm? Not exactly. Despite the introductory scenes that try to flesh out each character, I never felt very compelled to meet my neighbours. Their introductions are trite and lack narrative weight, and the characters themselves are bland and uninteresting, particularly compared to the series’ high mark. Rune Factory 3 set the standard for interesting villagers in the series, giving them flaws that actually hindered their relationships with other people. I was disappointed by how safe the characters were in Rune Factory 4. From what I’ve seen so far, Rune Factory 5 seems to have completely sanded off its NPCs’ edges. They have quirky traits, but the game takes too long to start offering any real hint as to what might actually make them compelling characters. Conflicts are usually resolved in the same interaction they’re introduced, which diffuses any feeling of urgency I might otherwise have to experience the next segment of the story and lessens any sense of ongoing character depth and development.
The controls also feel very haphazard in play. In a farming simulator with field grids, where you often want to arrange things just so, it helps to be able to aim and position yourself very precisely. RF5’s controls, however, do not allow for this kind of precision. The analogue stick is so sensitive that I accidentally plowed into my turnip plot and ruined a perfectly good plant. It is also nearly impossible to arrange my furniture in a straight line, which drives me bonkers. I try to be more careful, but having to carry out hyper-precise tasks makes farming feel like…well, a chore. I don’t need hyper-sensitive controls. I just want to stop destroying my harvests by accident.
I feel that Rune Factory 5 gave up a lot of creative manoeuvrability by shifting from an overhead-view farming sim into a 3D, open-world game. Rigbarth doesn’t have the same intimate fantasy charm, the characters are forgettable, and the world feels emptier than Rune Factory has ever felt. Rune Factory 5 needed a focused creative direction, not open-world freedom.