Oh Rune Factory 4, you tease. You had us going for a while back there, what with your developers going bust and that cancelled EU release. Teasing us with the stellar reception you received over in the US as we admired you from afar, the turmoil tearing us apart as we struggled with the logistics of importing you, before begrudgingly deciding you were too expensive. We'd all but given up on playing with you, lovingly tending to your turnips and wooing your villagers - but now we can finally play that sixth instalment in our favourite farming franchise.
Ahem. OK, so perhaps we're getting a bit starry eyed, but for a while, we were genuinely miffed that the latest game in one of our favourite series had been cancelled. Taking the relationships of Animal Crossing, mixing it with the farming of Harvest Moon, and adding a sprinkling of monster raising, dungeon crawling and synthesis, Rune Factory 4 is like all our favourite games rolled into one - and thanks to publisher Marvelous, we can finally play it on these shores.
The game opens with your character - a choice between bloke and a woman, for the first time in the series' history - travelling on board an airship, destined for a little town governed by a magestic dragon. Tucked safely upon your person, you happen to be transporting a gift for said dragon overlord - but as is always the way, things go a little awry. Before too long, you're ambushed by some bad guys and pushed off the side of the ship, tumbling down to the ground below. One amnesia-inducing impact and a colossal case of mistaken identity later, you soon find yourself as the new prince or princess of the town of Selphia, and, under the guidance of the great dragon Ventuswill, set about growing the little town into a bustling city, and sorting out the villagers' little problems - all whilst tending to a little plot of land out the back of the castle (for more on how this all plays out, check out our Rune Factory diaries). Of course, the plot soon thickens, as you find things aren't quite as happy-go-lucky in the kingdom as it first seems...
As a younger sibling to the Harvest Moon series, it should come as no surprise that there's plenty of farming to be done in Rune Factory 4. Given a royal field, a hoe and a watering can, it's up to you to generate your own income by lovingly raising turnip after turnip (and potatoes, peppers and flowers too, if you insist), shipping your princesserly produce out each morning in exchange for cold, hard cash. Crops take varying amounts of days to flourish, and are often restricted to growing in a specific season or two - seasons which rotate every thirty in-game days. Unlike Animal Crossing however, these aren't real-life days, and you won't have to be popping on your 3DS in the small hours of the morning to ensure your crops are watered - a second or so of playing equates to roughly a minute in Selphia-time, making a 15 hour day, for example, last roughly 15 minutes; an entire month, about 7.5 hours. As the game progresses, you can expand beyond simple turnips and 'taters to raising monsters, which include everything from the cow-like Buffamoos and chickens to little chipmunk-y creatures and goblins, who produce milk, eggs and fur for you to sell as well.
But it's not all sunshine and daisies - outside the little hamlet of Selphia is a very real threat. Stray too far from the town and you'll come across hordes of goblins, angry turtles and chickens with a taste for blood, in and around the many dungeons nearby. Fortunately, Rune Factory has a wide range of implements for keeping them in order, whether you'd rather beat them with a battle axe, slice them with a sword or hurt them with your hoe. Each dungeon is intrinsically linked to part of the story too, giving you a nudge in the direction of exploring a bit, rather than toiling in the fields all day - because all work and no play makes Arthur a dull princess. Combat is real-time, and along the same lines as Zelda, in that you simply mash the attack button in the vague direction of bad guys, perhaps including a few projectile magic spells for some variety. With several difficulties to choose from, which can be changed at any time, you can go from casual romp to hardcore battles in the blink of an eye - but with no 'game overs', the only real penalty is being a little out of pocket from the gold charged by the clinic in town for reviving you.
You'll come across all manner of items dropped by enemies and found in dungeons, whether it's the apples defeated Pomme enemies leave behind, bandages from goblins (for some reason) or turtle shells - all of these can be picked up and sold on. But they can also function as vital "synthesis" ingredients, which basically means they can be used for strengthening your weapons and farm tools at your forge. Mining for precious stones and metals inside dungeons is particularly handy, as these can also be incorporated into your creations. Likewise, collected 'food' components, whether homegrown, found or fished for, can be combined and cooked into various dishes, for health-restoring benefits in dungeons or to fetch more gold for your bumper turnip crop. There's a huge range of recipes to learn and make, across cooking, forging, crafting and mixing - if you're at all OCD about things, you could be at it for years. And while you're at it, you might want to give some of your townsfolk some of your created clothing, which they'll wear around town - perhaps decking the entirety of Selphia out in top hats for the lols.
Your royal responsibilities aren't just limited to tending to your little field behind the castle and smashing a few monsters though - it also falls to you to help make the little hamlet of Selphia the talk of the kingdom. Every action you do, whether it's chatting with the townspeople, defeating monsters or completing requests, earns you a number of 'Prince(ss) Points'. These can then be exchanged for various upgrades for you and your kingdom - from a bigger backpack, to more extensive shop inventories, to ordering a new festival, it gives you yet another thing to work towards and unlock. Speaking of things to work towards, Rune Factory has a stat for pretty much everything you can think of, and the more you perform each action, the better you get at it - whether that's magical or weapon-based attacks, various parts of farmwork or something more unusual like sleeping, eating or love.
Last, but by no means least, comes Rune Factory's relationships. As you talk to Selphia's inhabitants on a daily(ish) basis, perhaps giving them gifts here and there, your friendship level with them will rise, and you'll gradually learn more about them, unlocking character-specific quests and events as you go. These range from pajama parties, to 'smiling practice' with the socially awkward half-best man Vishal, to tracking down a mysterious seed thief, and there's rarely a dull moment in town, thanks to the game's crazy cast of characters. As you get closer to certain characters - depending on whether you chose to play as the male or female protagonist - your friendship may head in the direction of love and marriage, with a choice of six different bachelors/bachelorettes to pick from. Yet while all of Rune Factory 4's characters are awesomely entertaining, we can't help thinking they don't quite live up to the crazies from Rune Factory 3, particularly in the female protagonist marriage candidate's department. While you could only play as a guy in Rune Factory 3, you did have a rather eclectic choice of females - a mermaid with a morbid hatred of squids, a witch with a penchant for experimenting on people, a girl who was part phoenix and an insane artist obsessed with rainbows and dried sardines. By comparison, Rune Factory 4 seems to mostly be divided between broody moody poos and potentially underage guys (we're looking at you Kiel).
But we can deal with that, because everything else about Rune Factory 4 is awesome - from it's characters and story to its turnips and dungeons. Mixing farming and flirting with fighting may seem like a strange idea on paper, but it's the perfect way to fill in the time while you're waiting for your crops to grow, and the sheer amount of things to see and do will keep you going for months. It may have been a long time coming, but even as a £24.99 eShop download, it's well worth the entry fee, whether you've played and loved previous instalments, or are entirely new to the series. Just don't expect to get much else done over Christmas!