Rune Factory Frontier

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Mar 17, 2009 Rune Factory Frontier NA
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Title: Rune Factory Frontier
Publisher: XSEED Games
Region: America Release: Mar 17, 2009
Rating: RP - Rating Pending
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
In Short:
A beautiful action RPG well-woven with near-bottomless depth.

It's pretty standard RPG convention to have the tools of your trade (waltzing into caves and beating up monsters, naturally) available for sale in each new town. Of course, there are growingly prominent exceptions for weaponry you may obtain as the result of a quest (which you execute by beating up monsters) or perhaps even assemble from the parts you get by, well, beating up monsters... but you can generally still increase your net effectiveness if you've got a pocketful of gold.

Previous entries in the Rune Factory series tended to at least acknowledge that convention and dabble in a few others. But Rune Factory Frontier seems to be confident enough in its systems to finally ask the question: "what if you had to do it all yourself?"

The Rune Factory series has been, across its two DS entries and now Frontier on the Wii, a bit experimental, marrying the idyllic farming gameplay of Harvest Moon with the trappings of an RPG. But even though both games would lock up the best weapons behind a forging system that required you to acquire materials as well as use a novel "rune" system for encouraging you to grow crops to recharge your stamina, the Harvest Moon and the RPG still kept each other at arms' length. You could be a farmer, a fighter, or both, but you didn't really have to do it all to succeed.

Frontier changes that. For starters, only the most basic of weapons are available for purchase; if you want to get a stronger blade, you'll have to collect the materials and forge it yourself—fair enough, not a huge change here. But there are a number of other changes that make the experience much deeper by default. If you need to recharge your HP, your only option is food... and of course, the most effective food is obtained by learning how to cook the crops that, you guessed it, you grow (in Harvest Moon style, natch). Rune Factory vets may be asking "what's changed here?"—the answer is that it's all finally tied together so that if you want to succeed, you must do all this. It gives the game a much deeper and more integrated feel. The depth has always been there, but now you must traverse it.

The systems themselves are a little more interesting as well. To create anything, via forging or cooking or what not, you'll now engage a brief minigame (don't worry, there is almost no forced motion control in this game—you can actually play it with the Classic Controller, except for one rarely-needed action) where the timing of a button press determines the outcome of your creation. You've still got your level at the action to watch for; some things are way beyond your reach without practice and others give you a tiny zone to hit "A" in, but it's more fun than the old chance-and-level-based systems.

There is one system that bothers me, though, and that's the Runey system—the little floating glowy guys you've likely seen in screenshots. When exploited, it can net you crop efficiency; if left to its own devices too long, it can hinder your growing efforts. I initially loved it because it held a lot of promise and intrigue, but eventually I came to realize that they're really a bit obtuse. For all the precision implements that you use to farm and fight, managing Runeys—which is done by trying to keep all the areas in town prosperous by balancing four types of the little guys—is awkward. The harvester is an indiscriminate tool that will take up any of the Runeys hanging out nearby, and you can only actually count them for the aforementioned balancing by using a device or NPC that might be across town. Compound the tedium in adjusting Runey counts with a system that isn't explained tremendously well, in-game or otherwise, and it sadly misses the mark.

Systems aside, the action RPG part is pretty good, too. Though it took me a little getting used to (I'd find myself swinging off to a monster's side rather than taking it head-on, for example) and it's not particularly deep, there's still a wide variety of monsters to battle (and befriend, with the right tool and enough HP to take a few hits while doing it), all exhibiting unique behaviors and challenging the unprepared adventurer. The dungeons themselves are sizable, and you'll get to learn all their ins and outs as you take repeated trips in, getting a little deeper each time as you get stronger—yet they never get boring.

The game is a real visual treat as well. The town is lush in greens and yellows, and frankly I got a little lost at first due to the many winding paths—but it all looked so delightful I didn't mind one bit. It's particularly cool to see parts of the town as night settles in areas with dense Runey populations, the multicolored glow of hundreds of them floating just above your head. Underground dungeons and the stone of the town itself have a look to them that suggests they've weathered time immemorial. Much like the hand-drawn (or, at least, hand-drawn-looking) backgrounds of Rune Factory games prior, you can really feel the land you traverse.

Rune Factory Frontier, if it was the last game in the series, would definitely count as going out on a high note. It's clear that the developers have really found their stride and created something special, their confidence in what they've created being well-supported by a myriad intricate interlocking activities. It looks great and plays great, and it has the potential to suck you in for many tens of hours just to get to the conclusion of the main quest... though you don't have to end there, either. The Runey system ends up its single sore point, but it's not a serious enough problem to wound an otherwise fantastic package. If you've ever thought you might like to experience what it would be like to be an adventurer who was responsible for everything—sword to seed—Rune Factory Frontier will show you all that and more.
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