It was a concept I never knew I wanted until I tried it for the first time: the mashup of Harvest Moon's farming gameplay with the at-the-time simplified trappings of an action RPG that first appeared in Rune Factory: A Fantasy Harvest Moon. Created for Harvest Moon's 10th anniversary alongside the forgotten Innocent Life, it took on a life of its own, growing alongside developer Neverland as they mastered their art.

As this year dawned, I knew that there was a fresh new entry in the series already out on the DS in Japan as Rune Factory 3, and that it had a curious hook—a main character who led a two-sided life as both a human and a bipedal sheep—and I had no idea whether it would ever make it here. The rest of the 2010 story of the title is known, of course, chronicled here and elsewhere, save its conclusion: while I suspected I'd like Rune Factory 3 (which, I must disclose, I received for review from Natsume), I didn't know that it would render the entire series thus far basically obsolete.

Past Rune Factory games have been measured, methodical affairs, playing out idyllically as you managed your farm, made some cash, did quests for villagers, and slowly worked your way further and further into the game's handful of caves. As you delved further, you'd plant crops not for harvest outright, but for the runes: little white balls of energy that would spawn daily in fields of fully-grown, unharvested flora. As you seeded the land, you could these pick up on your way in to replenish your stamina, clearing for yourself a path bit by bit. I'd spend many in-game days in each cave or area just going a little further in each time, leveling up a little. It sounds dull, perhaps, but there was a marked addiction to it, particularly as I'd also learn some cooking and forging as I grew in power, enabling me to create life-sustaining foods and more powerful weaponry and equipment.


Rune Factory 3 took that foundation of gradually pushing further by using the energy of the land—mostly intact since the original game, leaving the little experimentation in Rune Factory 2 and Wii title Rune Factory Frontier to play second fiddle—and mostly just threw it right out. It's still absolutely true that you'll be needing to look over your farm to make yourself money, and you'll still run up into some resistance when you first stick your head in a new area. But instead of making you forge your path directly by turning the caves into auxiliary farms that don't actually grow crops, you'll find the most effective way of keeping your stamina and strength up is through the foods, medicines, and crafted items you create from the resources harvested from your farm and elsewhere. It changes the focus of the game, and very much for the better. (For what it's worth, runes do still appear, but as random drops as you harvest; they now give you only a token stamina refill, but more importantly, boost stats.)

Of course, it wouldn't be possible without the best combat, crafting, town life, and many other system the series has seen yet. Combat feel, already a great improvement in Rune Factory 2, has been polished up even further. In particular, fighting with swords or in sheep-form is a highly kinetic experience with a fantastic feel to it. (There's a wide variety of other options to be had, improved over their predecessors to varying degrees.) Crafting is far less a grind of locating and dragging items you need, with recipes for food and forging that you already know automatically pulling from your primary and secondary inventories. The new top-screen town map showing where people are and where they're going, eliminating the need for them to stand still in one spot for hours on end, makes the town itself feel so much more alive, with everyone scurrying about doing various things all day with little feeling of repetition or schedules.

I need to address those townspeople further, too, because there's been another interesting change that the series experienced, this time when it was localized. Past games have always had character, but this game's script is largely great—stereotypical tropes and all, granted, but they're entertaining tropes. (Just for the record, the screenshots we have, dating back to E3, are of this game before it got this loving polish... but you can catch a few modern shots like this one from other sources, though you won't get the references that really make that joke till you play the game.) Not everyone is funny, and not everyone is interesting, but as a whole the town is quite entertaining.


There's also a brand-new multiplayer mode, too, which I only got to try out for a few hours (it's multi-card, after all; I'm just lucky I knew another Rune Factory 3 player in town), but still has impact even for single-playing Rune Factory 3 fans. There's a set of randomly-generated dungeons, ranging from introductory in skill to way, way above the levels I finished the game at, that you can head into, beat up monsters and a wide assortment of bosses (including many appearances from past games), and pick up loot in. In multiplayer, you get to do the same thing, only together. You also have the opportunity to play as characters from town, with interesting bonuses—one, who loves to receive your cooking failures as gifts, will actually get a huge HP/RP boost from eating a "super fail." It's all available by yourself, if you can't find another to play with, but it's really good with another. (Just make sure you're at least on somewhat similar levels.)

With all this, what is left to criticize? Very, very little. I know some people have burnt out on these games before, but I think that the way Neverland has changed the game up will keep interest going; the pacing blows every past entry away. I could pick at the occasional awkward translation, the most prevalent errors stemming from missing articles, and a few that seemed to be literally translated, missing the polish stage entirely. I was also a bit bothered by the phase of the story that required me to pick a bride to proceed, leading me to go through quests to woo one that I'd otherwise have enjoyed in a more varied setting, but growing a bit tedious as I pushed through them one after the other just to get further. Both of these complaints seem piddly, though, in the face of how great the rest of the game really is.

Neverland was right to have the guts to mess with the core of a key franchise as much as they did. Much of it is still very similar, of course, but the changes pushing me into playing it differently than I had before, coupled with the attention paid to the pacing and mechanics along the way, made me appreciate this game as the pinnacle of the series thus far. We're still looking at more games down the road, of course, but it's really great to know that Neverland keeps pushing that envelope, making it better and better as they go. I don't know how I'd top Rune Factory 3, and maybe I shouldn't try. For now, I'm thankful that they did what they did, and—as this is almost certainly the last entry on the series' inaugural home on the DS—they're sending it out with a bang. If you've been looking for a good point to jump in, this is absolutely it.