Feb 25, 2020
  • Release Date (NA): February 25, 2020
  • Release Date (EU): February 28, 2020
  • Release Date (JP): July 25, 2019
  • Publisher: XSEED Games
  • Developer: Marvelous Inc., Neverland, Hakama Inc.
  • Genres: Farm sim, Action RPG
  • ESRB Rating: Teen
  • PEGI Rating: Twelve years and older
  • Single player
    Local Multiplayer
    Online Multiplayer
    Co-operative

Review Approach:

Played on "HELL" difficulty up until the end of Obsidian Mansion, and "Normal" from then on.
Takes "putting down roots in a town" literally.
Adrien Montgomery

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Rune Factory 4 Special is a game about a stranger posing as a political official in order to become a wealthy landowner and usurp the local government of a small rural town.
...
Alright, not really.

Rune Factory 4 opens with a lofty airship and the veiled choice to be either a boy or a girl. I didn't realize what was happening until I had my gender assigned after choosing an option, but it was worth a laugh, and the game does give you a direct choice of gender directly afterward.

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After a surprise attack by stowaway soldiers, you're kicked off the edge of the ship and you fall to your doom, the end.
Only it isn't the end, as you fall through the roof of a nearby castle and land directly on a large green dragon. Said dragon, introducing herself as Ventuswill, gets pissed, and you get amnesia, which is a fair trade. Ventuswill and her staff proceed to take you to be the prince/princess of a neighboring nation who was expected to visit, against your protests, and expect you to perform all of the duties the young heir was meant to do. Upon discovering that your character is what they call an "Earthmate," a being with a magical connection to the earth with the capacity to control the powers of runes, the earth, and spirits at will, Ventuswill asks you to maintain the farmland inside the castle's courtyard in order to produce earthy rune spirits.

Farming, Your Neighbors, And You.

A large part of this game (about half, depending on how you choose to play, though late game it's possible to focus almost exclusively on this), consists of doing various activities in town, and honestly, it's by far the strongest part of the game. The main parade, as it were, is definitely the dirt tossing you'll be doing to get the earth to spawn delicious goods, but there are all kinds of things to interact with, expand, and maintain in your little town.

The process of farming can be as simple as tilling the earth with a hoe, throwing down seeds, getting them all moist with the wetness, and then waiting for them to grow, but there's soon more you come to understand about the process. The tools you end up using are axes (for chopping wood), hammers (for mining), sickles (for cutting grass), watering cans, and hoes (for tilling). Farming all happens on a grid system, and tools can be upgraded to cover larger amounts of these blocks at once. Eventually you get the ability to buy a magnifying glass which reveals hidden stats about the dirt patches, showing you the health, defense, growth rate, etc. of the patch of ground selected. If you farm too frequently on the same patch of soil, it loses its health and crops begin to grow more slowly in it, meaning farming on a rotation is key to making the most of your farm.

The soil quality mechanic adds more depth to how you plan and optimize your growing setup, and whether you think using fertilizer is worth the immediate soil recovery. I just wish that the stats were a bit more granular, as in good old real-world farming, you have to keep track of the nutrients in your soil by taking samples, and replenish those nutrients lost with cover crops. It's not necessarily a matter of "how many nutrients are in the ground" as it is "which nutrients are in the ground," and since there's variance in what nutrients each crop eats/produces, you can optimize by having a cycle wherein each successive planting of crops use nutrients that the previous crops left behind. Granted, it's definitely more complicated than that, but that's the basic gist. In the future, I'd like to see a more dynamic system like that implemented in the game, as I think it'd be the logical way to deepen the system already present.

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The game goes through four seasons, each roughly the length of a month, and certain crops grow better in each season. The game also has four abandoned plots of land out in the world which exist perpetually in each of the four seasons, making it much easier to grow specific crops even out of season. Crops can be sold for a tidy profit, or cooked into dishes, which both raises their sale price and makes them edible to restore health and RP while adventuring.

But the town's larger than just your farm, and it's got its own interesting elements to play with. For starters, there's a talking request box that you can visit which doles out requests that the townspeople have submitted. By completing the task, typically asking you to deliver something or kill some monster, you gain affinity with that person and are awarded prince/princess points. Prince/Princess points (which I will henceforth refer to as P/P P because I'm a three-year-old and it amuses me) are used to make orders of the town, as they're a representation of how much people respect you. By releasing your P/P P, you can do rather large things like expanding the size of your adventuring backpack, expanding the sizes of your storage box and your fridge, expanding the inventory of shops, causing new shops to appear, organizing festivals, and eventually, expanding your farmland. As you can imagine, storing your P/P P over a long period of time is integral to unlocking much of the game's more advanced mechanics.

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While requests do give P/P P, there's a limit to how many you can complete each day. It starts off at just one, but by the time I'd finished with the main story, it had only grown to three. Instead, you can gain P/P P by selling your items/crops each morning at 8:00am. Vishnal, one of the butlers of the castle, will come by each morning and collect all items in the sale box in your farm, instantly giving you their value in gold, in addition to throwing you some P/P P. The more you produce, the bigger your P/P P gets.

Processing raw ingredients in the form of cooking and forging is also a large part of the game. As you increase your skills and spend P/P P to unlock licenses, you can order a forge, many cooking utensils, and a crafting table. The forge can be used to smith better weapons and gardening tools, the crafting table to create stronger armor and accessories, and the cooking utensils to make various forms of cooked dishes. Gaining recipes for all of the above is interesting as, while it is tied to how high your skills are in each activity, it's also somewhat randomized. The chef of the town, Porcoline, will sell a set number of recipe loaves each day, and eating these is the only way to gain new crafting recipes. As your prince/princess level increases, you can order Porcoline to stock more and more bread each day. It's an interesting idea, and the manner by which you accelerate your recipe gains each day is fulfilling, but by the end of the second month, I was stockpiling bread that I couldn't eat because my skills couldn't keep up. Eventually I took a break from buying bread, since I just had so many loaves I just couldn't eat.

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Aside from the skills you can increase by cooking, forging, and the like, the game also keeps track of each townsperson's affection towards your character. This affection can be raised by giving gifts they enjoy, but raising the affection is also as simple as talking to them once each morning. Doing so often gives them lines detailing more of their character, context for another character, or just humorous anecdotes. Honestly, speaking to the people of the town feels incredibly wholesome, as everyone greets you with a beaming smile and a hello. It's genuinely adorable. Raising their affection enough increases their chances of agreeing to go fight alongside you while adventuring, but it can also lead to marriage. There are six eligible bachelors and six bachelorettes you can romance, though you can even proclaim your undying love to those who aren't marriageable (though unsuccessfully), to amusing results.

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There are all kinds of little character-specific events that happen in the town as time goes by in which your character can participate, which are always fun to be a part of. Little misunderstandings, people embarrassed about one thing or another, someone prickly and distant trying to open up; there are all kinds of charming events and each one gives more insight to the characters taking part. These are things I try and make sure never to miss, just for how cute and fun they are.

If you raise a character's affection high enough, go on a few dates, forge a wedding ring (if playing a male protagonist), and watch a character-specific event, then you can in fact marry them. You'll also need a double-size bed because, spoilers, you can also make a wee babe with them. Make no mistake, there's nothing erotic shown in the least, but you and your spouse can indeed produce a little spud of a human via the implied consummation of your relationship.

The truly fun part of the farming, the fishing, the requests, etc, is that what you gain always feeds back into other core gameplay elements. Adventuring procures materials to work with, crafting/forging spends materials to gain skill levels (unlocking the ability to craft better armor/weapons) and provides equipment for adventuring, gardening boosts the farming skill level while also providing raw ingredients for cooking, cooking boosts the cooking skill, but also provides food for healing or sale, which in turn nets more profits to buy more seeds, etc. It’s a sequence of at least three distinct gameplay loops, all feeding into one another, and it makes everything feel important. There's no way to min-max the process unless you consider all elements, which is what makes the system engaging.

Really, there are only a few, very minor things I would change. Firstly, I'd like for excess crafting items made to overflow into their respective storage compartments, be it either the box or the fridge. If you try and craft more items than your backpack has room for, you just get a message of "not enough space!" without it even telling you how much space you do have. Producing mass quantities of a weapon or tool is very common, as it's the fastest method to increase your skills, as well as make a bundle of cash. Secondly, I think it'd help to have mining performed with the A button while near minerals, instead of having to open the menu and swap your weapon for the hammer, then swap back when finished. This is only really an issue due to how often one comes across mineral deposits. Lastly, maybe dedicate a button to moving an item from the storage box directly into the selling box, without having to withdraw and move it yourself. Those are about the only changes I can think of, because in the end, it's the most polished part of the game.

Adventuring, Exploration, and Combat.

While it might surprise those unfamiliar with the series, Rune Factory 4 attempts to be as much an action RPG as a farming simulator. Adventuring is the primary way in which you progress the story, consisting of travelling through four areas themed after different seasons and progressing through dungeons. Dungeons are typically room by room battle zones full of enemies, though there is some light puzzling involved occasionally in the form of hitting switches to lower obstacles.

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Speaking on the whole, I have to say that, while the efforts Rune Factory 4 makes towards having a diverse combat system are admirable... it's almost a complete failure in execution.

Alright, before I let that hottest of takes settle in, I want to first describe everything the combat system does right, because it's quite a bit:

  • 7 weapons to use, all with unique movesets.

You can use Swords, Longswords, Spears, Axes/Hammers, Dual Blades, Gloves, and Staves. Each one has been made to feel very different in how they play, with combos of varying lengths, endlags, hitboxes, and startups. This kind of variety is definitely appreciated in a game like this, and had things gone well in other areas, this spread could have gone a long way towards keeping combat engaging. The staves in particular all have different charge attacks based on their element, and by fusing boss materials into them, you can change their charge attack completely. Many staves have different levels of charge, with some levels producing an attack of a different element altogether.

  • Weapon proficiency unlocks new moves.

Each of these weapons eventually learn a dashing attack, a charge attack, and an "ultimate" attack, the latter of which serves as a combo finisher, as your individual skills in each weapon increase. It's a great way to slowly evolve combat as players become more proficient, at least early on.

  • Technical quirks.

For example, you can: cancel the 2nd hit of a hammer into a dash attack, use the menu to swap-cancel any attack and follow up with a different weapon, or charge an attack during the endlag of your previous strike. It's not anything mind-blowing in terms of complexity, but little things like this can go a long way towards keeping the player learning, and it's very appreciated.

  • Bunches of equipable spells and weapon artes, with a total of 4 hotkey combinations to use them during combat.

Elemental spells and weapon artes can be "cast" for RP with the X and Y buttons, with two additional slots on R+Y/X. Spells are decently varied, but most often manifest as some kind of elemental projectile. The best spell early game is the aqua laser, for its speed and multi-hit properties.

  • Able to recruit monsters to adventure with you.

Give 'em food, change their mood~ Throw goodies at them and they'll be your bestest pal. They'll help you out on the farm from then on, and some even produce items like milk and eggs, so long as you keep them fed. Taking monsters adventuring is helpful to draw aggro away from the player. They can also be leveled up to the point where they do massive damage to bosses.

  • MP free warps out of a dungeon, and then another for going back home.

Alright, admittedly, the above is more in the "adventuring" side than actual combat, but I thought this was as good a place to mention it as any.

So what could ruin a system with seemingly so much going for it?

As far as "how bad could it be," the answer is, unfortunately, pretty terrible. So let's talk about some of the things it does...not so well.

  • INCONSISTENT COMBOS

An easy example is the longsword, a cumbersome weapon, but not because of its weight. The first two hits of the combo hardly advance the player character forward as they strike (in fact, landing hits can actually push the player backwards), which seems like a non-problem until you realize that these strikes also deal decent knockback, meaning the first hit will often knock the enemy out of the range of your second hit, leaving you to be punished while still locked in your own endlag. This makes the player subconsciously want to engage the enemy as closely as possible for the initial hit, just so the second hit can still reach, but not so close as to be in danger of retaliation during windup. Depending on the enemy, there may just be no such distance, and swinging your weapon turns into a roll of the dice.

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Trust me when I say that I was pushing the left stick towards the enemies as hard as I could.

The longsword's only the first of the weapons for which I noticed the problem, but it exists for nearly every weapon. So many weapons' attacks will cause combos to drop; the second hit of the shortword (as shown above), the third hit of the gloves, the second hit of the hammers/axes, the second thrust of spears, etc. It also doesn't help that enemies jitter terribly when hit, once every frame at 60fps, so I'm never actually certain if I'm aiming at the enemy's center. Because of how incredibly narrow so many of your hitboxes are, not aiming dead center will make your combos fail, which equates to you taking a hit in the face. It's commonplace to see a vertical strike or a thrust visually go directly through an enemy, only to have the hit not register.

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Attack didn't connect once.

  • PROJECTILES FIRING FROM FAR OFFSCREEN

In the second dungeon in particular, this problem becomes oppressive, with projectiles so frequent that there is almost never a safe moment for any attack commitment larger than just a single poke. Enemies can be moved quite a distance off screen before they become inactive, too, meaning you won't be able to see projectiles coming. You'll often commit to an attack that has met all the requirements for being safe: only enemy on-screen, not in super armor, in-range, but as soon as you strike, an arrow or a rock will fly in and punish you during the endlag of an attack which, from all information given, was meant to be safe. It isn’t just that the projectiles are too hard to react to, it’s that trying to press the dodge button during endlag won’t make the move cancel quickly enough. This means the player will never feel secure whether or not they’ll be randomly punished for simply playing the game.

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  • FRAME ONE SUPER ARMOR FOR ALL ENEMY ATTACKS

You heard me right, the very first frame an enemy begins an attack, it cannot be staggered. Those of you familiar with fighting games might be wincing right now, but for anyone else, let me break the consequences down for you. Imagine, you and an enemy, alone in a room. Just one mook. And you. Staring into each others' eyes. Very romantic. He winks at you. You blush. Now pretend you also know what his attacks look like by heart, and can recognize anything he does as soon as it begins. Already this setup requires you've at least a good amount of previous gameplay knowledge of this enemy, unrealistic for a first encounter with your true love, but let's continue anyway.

You walk up to him. He stands there. You decide you don't like his face, so you begin to swing your weapon at him. Your weapon has 13 frames of startup lag, not the fastest, but not the slowest thing out there. You watch your weapon, in slow motion, approach his gormless face, still standing in his idle animation. 7 frames done, 6 frames until collision... 5... 4... 3... suddenly he gets a clue and starts the first frame of his attack, just three frames before you make contact, and...

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By jove, you've just been hit. You don't know how or when it happened, but suddenly you blinked and 20% of your health is gone. You're stunned. You don't know what you did wrong. "What God could let this happen??" you cry into the sky, but God refuses to answer for their crimes. Keep in mind that the first hit of the longsword by itself takes 22-24 frames to make contact, and that's not nearly the slowest attack in the game.

And that's the problem: if you attack, there is always a chance you can take damage mid-swing or during your endlag, before you have a chance to react. All enemies come in mobs, too, so even if you successfully combo one enemy during their endlag, any of the others around them can still hit you through your combo, even if you've hit them first. This, and the fact that most enemies have little to no endlag, heavily favors a "poke and retreat" playstyle, where you only do your quickest hit before evading. After all, if the enemy can attack through your combos at any time, then the only safe way to play is to always expect that to happen. Unfortunately, because of long-range enemies and the limited reach of so many weapons, even this is never 100% safe.

This is probably the worst thing this game has going against it, as it invalidates almost the entirety of combat design, and makes spells the only viable form of combat. Nothing can break an enemy's super armor, not even your spells, but super armor only activates when an enemy attacks. If an enemy doesn't get close, they don't attack, meaning you can stunlock them from afar with spells. Spells also knock physical projectiles out of the way, meaning they're the best way to deal with ranged enemies as well. After all, the amount of times I've been shot, point blank, by an enemy I was in the middle of comboing is staggering, so melee engagement is far from ideal. On most difficulties, this results in fast death.

Up until you get spells, combat is overly defensive at best, and deeply frustrating at worst. It doesn't help that spells and staff charge attacks do such massive amounts of damage that they seem to be not just the only safe weapon, but also one of the strongest. Repeating ranged charge attacks and casting spells for every encounter makes for a mind-numbing experience, where you just take pot-shots at the enemies, but it's the only way to make the combat any kind of balanced.

The panacea it needed.

There are three major fixes that would need to be made in order to make this combat system balanced.

First, and I cannot stress this enough, remove defacto frame-one super armor on every enemy’s attacks. Now, "super armor" isn't exactly a four letter word, and there are many ways it can be used to great effect to create a deep and engaging combat system. Certain enemies having super armor during later parts of heavy attacks, or during heavily telegraphed attacks is a common concept, and it keeps enemies feeling unique. That being said frame-one unflinchability throughout the entire attack breaks a combat system where enemy attacks can begin and finish before you have a chance to react to them, and player attacks aren't cancellable on every frame of their animation.

Second, make player combos less fragile. Either decrease the knockback of some weapons’ attacks, like the longsword and shortsword, or increase their forward momentum during strikes so that combos don’t drop. You can also go the Smash Bros. route of adding an outer hitbox which knocks inward, and an inner hitbox which knocks outward for every attack, so that enemies are only knocked back if they're still in-range for the second hit. If you do increase the combos’ forward momentum during strikes which typically drop combo (usually 2nd or 3rd hit in this case) you can create a system where crowd control and forced positioning are a meta, and enemy attacks can be on the relentless side, since attacking controls both the enemy’s position as well as your own. If you decide to reduce knockback, combos become consistent, but situational awareness remains emphasized, as the player is more vulnerable. In that latter case, the frequency of projectiles firing would need to be toned down, otherwise you’d just arrive at the “poke once and leave” conundrum all over again. Some weapons, like the dual blades and gloves, have both secure forward momentum and low knockback, but again, some hitboxes can be so narrow and shallow that enemies slip away regardless. As it is now, fighting is almost like trying to pin down jello on a greased surface, only you receive an electric shock whenever you miss.

Thirdly, projectiles should not be spawned from offscreen. I mean, it's really as simple as that.

As far as just quality of life changes to improve game feel, adjusting enemy hitboxes would be a big one. This is a much less simple fix, as what needs to be done varies from attack to attack, but it's also not as important as the previous three fixes. This is especially a problem on the bosses, who have hitboxes so large that your tiny dodge can't actually avoid them, making blind healtanking the most effective way to fight. The water jet spell, the longsword charged uppercut, the spear, the first hit of the axe/hammers; so many of these attacks can visually collide with enemies and projectiles (as in their sprites overlap by a large amount) and yet not register a hit. Enemy hitboxes could also use better conveying via some manner of “smear” effect as their weapon swings, similar to the player. It doesn’t need to look fancy, just be functional for defining range.

And then there are some hitboxes which are just SO BAD that I can't believe they made it into a finished game.

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Well hello there Dark Souls 2 grabboxes, didn't expect to see you here.

The game also has a number of smaller problems, like having bossfights in areas much too small to move around, so that an attack can cover 70% of your space, or how bosses seem to have less health than most enemy mobs in their dungeons, meaning they die much too quickly.

It's frustrating, because there's clearly been so much work put into many of the combat mechanics, but unfortunate decisions like frame-one super armor invalidate almost all of it. It's got the right ideas for fun combat, but they're all ruined by their implementation. If just those three changes listed above were made, I'm confident this combat could have been turned completely around.

What's the "Special" in Rune Factory 4 Special?

The most immediately obvious difference in gameplay is certainly the resolution the game runs at, due to the progression between the 3DS's 400x240 pixel screen to the Switch's 1080p (720p handheld). Side by side screenshots show a world of difference between the two:

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Go ahead and click that bottom one. Isn't it night and day?

Textures inevitably look much more blurry when upscaled like this, but it's not the worst thing, in my opinion.

RF4S also provides a "Newlywed Mode," which can be selected from the main menu. Upon marrying a certain character, you unlock an extra scene depicting their life while married, which can be viewed through this mode. Unfortunately, each scene consists merely of 6 or 7 very rudimentary lines apiece, and don't really provide insight that we couldn't have easily guessed ourselves. It strikes me more as fanservice than anything, so I'm sure some fans will find these scenes very cute.

There's a brand new animated opening cutscene as well:

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Finally, there's a selection on the main menu labelled "Another Episode," in which you can apparently view little postscripts regarding characters of the town. I say apparently, as the only one available at the time of writing is Ventuswill's, which depicts a small scene in which she and the male protagonist are married. Yes, you view a "what-if" scene where you marry the dragon, and Ventuswill is best girl, fite me. I can only give my thoughts on this episode, but you can essentially copy-paste my thoughts on the "Newlywed Mode" scenes here.

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I'm further conflicted on this addition as, while free for a while after launch, the rest of the episodes will be paid DLC. Considering you get about a minute's worth of story out of them, tops, I can't really see their eventual monetization as a positive.

Verdict
What We Liked . . . Extremely charming characters Wholesome story Farming is fantastic, and all elements of it feed back into each other well Tons of ways to interact with both your farm and your town Finding the way to optimize your farm's production is satisfying What We Didn't Like . . . Frame one super armor on all enemy attacks ruins fairness of combat Combos drop themselves due to maladjusted hitboxes Hitboxes of many enemies/bosses damage you even if it doesn't make contact visually Healtanking is the most efficient way to deal with bosses, ignoring the need to try and dodge
9 Presentation
Considering this is an enhanced port of a 3DS title, I can't exactly fault it for having models on-par with the 3DS. I think I'd have really liked if weapon models could've been more fleshed out where so many are just two textures put together. Background textures look more muddy than perhaps they should have, but it's negligible. Character art is adorable and expressive, and the game definitely has some standout tracks. (Autumn Road slaps, change my mind.)
7 Gameplay
Farming gets an 8.5 or 9, but the combat gets a 4 or 5. Your mileage in terms of this category entirely depends on how much value you put into each of those aspects, so I've taken a rough average.
9 Lasting Appeal
The story can be beaten within just the first two seasons, but the game keeps going regardless, potentially in perpetuity. The ability to marry and raise a kid is a decent incentive to keep playing, but even if it weren't there, the farming aspects are entertaining enough to keep most people playing for a good long while.
8
out of 10
Overall (not an average)
It's hard to accurately rate this game, with such differing levels of quality between its two components. Every aspect except for combat is delightful, but combat is a large portion of what this game is. If the combat had just a little more tweaking, the two sides of Rune Factory 4 Special would work in synergy and produce something much better and more unique. If poor combat bothers you greatly, then you might find this game deserving of quite a lower score than an 8. However, if you're just here for the fantasy farming simulation, and you're willing to push yourself through some unavoidable sequences of displeasure, then you'll find one of the most polished and satisfying farming systems I've come across. In short, your mileage will definitely vary with this one.
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