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Gaming Gems: Rune Factory Frontier

The Harvest Moon series are single player games based on surprisingly virtual-worldly premise: you're a farmer given a plot of land on which you must raise plants and animals, upgrading your farm from the profits, and eventually romancing a local village girl to marry and birth a child.  You can almost hear Elton John singing, "Circle of Life."

To an extent, Harvest Moon was already a fantasy game.  It offers the tantalizing prospect of a simpler time which largely holds appeal because they've omitted all the bothersome details of farm life (like swine vesicular disease).   They even introduced such things as faeries and harvest goddesses.  However, the Rune Factory series, a spin-off from the same company, magics things up even further.
Rune Factory Frontier Box Shot

In Rune Factory, your farmer is the stereotypical warrior of a mysterious past in a world of commonplace magic and monsters.  Weapons, accessories, and magic join the ordinary farm tools of Harvest Moon.  In addition to your above-ground farmstead, you can now delve dungeons and brave monsters in order to reach underground plots (apparently the veggies are magical too, as they require no sunlight).  Your farm animals are now considered monsters which you will encounter in the dungeons and may choose to tame.

Harvest Moon meets the fantasy roleplaying game - why the hell not?  There's been three Nintendo DS Rune Factories (the third has yet to be released in the U.S.) and one for the Nintendo Wii called Rune Factory: Frontier.   It's the Nintendo Wii game I'm mostly writing about today.

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At 48 hours and still counting, Rune Factory Frontier has been some of the better entertainment buck I've spent in a while.  A lot of this lasting appeal has to do with an absolutely shameless exploitation of classical conditioning on so very many tangents:
  • Plant something, water it every day, be rewarded down the line with the veggies you planted.  Buy some "greenifier," and invest it in your seeds for the promise of even higher level (more valuable) plants.
  • Tame monsters, brush them every day (which is a little weird when your menagerie includes orcs and goblins along with sheep and cows) and be regularly rewarded with additional help on the farm, crafting materials, or battle companions.  
  • Go to a dungeon, fight monsters, and be rewarded randomly with the items the monsters might drop.  As you explore, you have the potential to be rewarded by encountering new monsters (which can be tamed for your growing menagerie) or crafting material.  Defeating monsters raises your experience and level.
  • Crafting is in the game in terms of fishing, cooking (five kinds), alchemy, weapon crafting, and accessory crafting, offering a dizzying variety of equipment to earn.  Like every other skill, crafting raises your levels, making higher level items accessible or easier to craft expertly (rigged to a timing mini-game).
  • You will regularly encounter various villagers including thirteen potential brides for your little Warrior Farmer.  That's right, even your libido gets a light tap as you engage in a bit of virtual dating that mostly involves giving the girl regular gifts that she likes.  (It's sort of odd there's no polygamy in such a harem-anime-like backdrop.)
B.F. Skinner would probably shake his head in amazement at seeing so many different kinds of conditioning structured in one game.   However, a hardcore gamer like myself can really appreciate a game that goes out of its way to be compelling, while simultaneously not being satisfied over the few things it does wrong. 

The primary limitation this game suffers (beyond the limitations of maintaining a kid-friendly exterior and thus pretty vapid dialogue and low-intensity environment) works out to the monotony of the daily grind.  For example, you might have a daily schedule in the game that goes like this:
  1. Wake up at your farmhouse.
  2. Manage your farm plot, doing whatever it is that your pets aren't able to do for you.
  3. Pet your pets, maintaining their friendship level.  If you have 50 pets, this is probably going to take about 5-10 minutes.  (Whereupon you hear your protagonist say "Hey there!" followed by the sound of the monster being pet, 50 times in a row.)
  4. Take your best appropriate pet and ride it down to dungeon 1, maintaining your plants there.  
  5. If it's past 3pm, take a bath to restore your rune points.  (Your rune point count limits the amount of work your character can do a day.) 
  6. Go to dungeon 2, maintain your plants there, see if you can get further in it before it's so late in the day that you risk catching a cold or collapsing if you don't return to your farm to sleep.
  7. Back in the farmhouse, blow through any residual rune points, bringing yourself to the brink of collapse, in order to increase your trade skills.  (Maybe gorge yourself on food to restore your rune points until everything is converted, if you want to convert everything in exchange for a lost food profit and a punishing grind.)
  8. Sleep and go to step 1.
The player has complete freedom over what they want to do during a day, but these schedules will emerge as the most efficient way to get things done.  It's self-limiting and prevents the player from really having much variety to their gameplay experience.  The resulting lack of variety facilitates boredom.

These are a few events that may bring players to mix up their schedules a bit, for example:
  • There's a random chance you will encounter weather (such as rain or typhoon) that will change what you do that day. 
  • There are holidays with unique activities, including a weekend in which the peddler visits with crucial home upgrade sundries to buy.  
  • There's a seasonal change every 30 virtual days which changes which crops can be planted above-ground and the overall appearance of the environment.
However these agitating factors are a little too rare, and this will result in falling into a habit of most-efficient (and boring) daily schedules.  Though the game does not force you to mix up the action, it's to your advantage to force yourself.

Another thing this game is lacking is a tool to quickly harvest more than one plot of crop at a time.  Above-ground, the monsters will assist you, but below ground there's no such luck.  Clearing a field of 72 strawberries by hand, each taking about 5 seconds, is a very monotonous activity.

Despite its flaws, Rune Factory Frontier is nonetheless pretty outstanding.  Animal Crossing is practically kindergarten in comparison on the tangent of overall game play sophistication.  As with any other game, I recommend giving Rune Factory Frontier a rent first and purchasing it if you're hooked.
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