Same old traditional gameplay; additional layer of depth.
In 2007, Marvelous Entertainment released Rune Factory for the Nintendo DS as a celebration of the Harvest Moon series' tenth anniversary. While the mechanics and traditions of the franchise remained wholly intact, Rune Factory thrust the player into a fantasy world, filled with monsters and plenty of magic and weaponry with which to do away with said beasts. The game's release was a risk, but it quickly paid off when it was celebrated by many as the best entry the series had yet seen.
Rune Factory Frontier brings the handheld series to consoles, where the original Harvest Moon began. The game exists as a pseudo-sequel to the DS game, introducing events and characters that should be familiar to long time fans, but don't at all leave newcomers in the dark. After the lackluster Harvest Moon: Tree of Tranqulity, I'll be honest and say that I really didn't expect much from this game. Coming away from it now, I can safely say that I'm glad for that fact. If I'd gone into it with high expectations, I would have gotten exactly what I expected and wouldn't have been so pleasantly surprised.
Rune Factory Frontier stars Raguna, the confident and naive protagonist from the original game. After finding success on his farm in Kardia, Raguna has left his home behind in search of a missing young girl that remains very important to him: the strange and eccentric Mist. He arrives in the village of Trampolini and finds himself cultivating yet another farm from near scratch. Yeah, you've heard all of this before, a side from the preceding lead-in that can only be found in sequels, this is pretty much the same premise that has accompanied every game in the series since the beginning. Despite this fact, Rune Factory Frontier's plot is actually quite substantial when compared to prior games, though admittedly that isn't saying a lot. It's still quite generic, but fans of the original Rune Factory will find themselves with a certain feeling of persistence towards the reprising character roles. Those that haven't will still find themselves among a very likable and entertaining cast.
If this were any other Harvest Moon game, I would be quick to point out that the setting and characters are really all that matter. While the farming and ranching has been fun from the start, the two former points are generally all that differentiate the games. This isn't true with Rune Factory Frontier, however; while tilling the fields, growing crops and befriending villagers are still all very key to the enjoyment of the game, there is much, much more to this game than there ever has been before. Not to be isolated only to farm life, Raguna also seems to have a strong penchant for dungeon crawling and monster slaying. The game features four unique dungeons filled with a variety of monsters, all of which must be conquered in order to "complete" the game. Each of the dungeons are strikingly varied in their appearance and each features their own individual progress-halting mechanic that put those ever-trusty farm tools to good work.
Dungeon crawling leads to several other significant aspect of the game, the first one being item creation. Monsters roaming the dungeons are quick to litter the cavernous passages which various junk, such as metal scraps, sticks and chocolate. These can all be sold in the usual Harvest Moon fashion for profit, but they're much better used to create useful and far more valuable items. By expanding your home with a forge, kitchen and a laboratory, you can use practically any item in the game in recipes. Dungeon crawling is also the only way to acquire livestock in Rune Factory Frontier. Using the "Pet Glove," you can enter any one of the dungeons and tame monsters to live on your farm. Some monsters will produce wool, others with produce milk, and even more will perform monster-specific tasks on your farm, such as clearing the land of boulders, weeds and tree stumps. Some can even be taken into dungeons for use in combat or as mounts.
One of the big draws to the Harvest Moon franchise has always been the women. Perhaps the most challenging goal to achieve has always been getting married and starting a family and Rune Factory Frontier is no different in this regard. There is a large variety of eligible girls in Trampoli, but the game is quick to reveal that few of them are new. Most of them are recurring characters from the original Rune Factory, including Mist, Rosetta and a number of others. There is a bit more flavor with the addition of Eunice, Cinnamon and Selphy, but I personally found myself mostly entertained by the more familiar ones.
With this being a Wii game, I was a bit concerned about the motion controls. It really just seems that most developers feel that the motion controls have to be used for some kind of arbitrary mini-game, or that they have to be used in every aspect of gameplay. Fortunately, Marvelous has gotten it right. The motion controls are fluid in combat and work exceptionally well when fishing. This game's use of the motion controls prove that they can be more than just a gimmick and I hope that other hardcore game developers take a look and see that Nintendo's console can be used for more than quick, casual cash-in shovelware.
There are a few things about the game that I found a bit off-putting. The amount of time spent sitting idly while gazing at loading screens is ridiculous, especially given the compact-size of most of the game's environments. I won't pretend to know much at all about what it takes to actually make a game, but it seems to me that these loading times could have been drastically cut down by opening up more of the world without changing areas. I firmly believe that this wasn't a hardware limitation and I hope that they can fix this for future games.
The game also features something of a mini-game with the use of Runeys. There are four types of Runeys: rock, tree, grass and water. An imbalance or lack of runeys can cause some serious issues and while keeping up with them around your farm isn't in the least bit troublesome, balancing them so that growing crops in dungeons is reasonably possible can be troublesome. Moving runeys from place to place and keeping them well populated in certain areas is very cumbersome and is quick to feel like work, especially given that a certain number of Runeys die every day. The last complaint I have with Rune Factory Frontier is the occurrence of what I refer to as "character popping." This is where characters simply pop up in areas rather than visibly travel to them. It's not a big deal, but it seems off-putting to watch as Cinnamon strolls into your yard to fish while Mist teleports into your living room from her house.
None of these qualms were enough to cause any sort of dislike for the game, though the Runey management was something that I grew tired of very quickly. As a whole, there's very little to complain about and such a variety of activities to participate in while playing that it would take quite a lot of playing for any of them to ever feel boring. Rune Factory Frontier remains competent as a Harvest Moon game, but the layer of depth it tacks onto the formula is astounding. As far as I'm concerned, this game is nothing short of a must-buy for any Wii owner and considering the drought of decent games for the platform, there's no excuse not to add this to your library.