Rune Factory 4 and Stardew Valley

It might be unfair to compare these two games.  Rune Factory 4 is a sequel situated within a venerable and long-standing series, made by a team of experienced developers who were paid for their work, designed as the ultimate capstone to close out Rune Factory with a bang.  Stardew Valley was mostly made by one person, as a stand-alone effort and a labor of love, without previous entries in a series or prior experience to draw upon for its setting and mechanics, but imbued with a simplistic sensibility and a lot of care and attention.

Even setting aside mechanical differences, which are numerous, each has a different setting, wildly different overall emphasis and tone.  However, they are both farming games with social and combat mechanics.  They both use an RPG-like progression system, including a stamina/energy limitation mechanic.  And so, as I play both of these games, I can’t avoid making comparisons, even if those comparisons might be off-base.  So that’s the idea I want to play with today.

I was a fan of Harvest Moon back in the day ever since the N64, with Another Wonderful Life on the Gamecube being a personal favorite.  It was rare for games to let you play as a girl in those days.  I got into Rune Factory with the first game on the DS, on a whim.  I was at my local game store, I hadn’t played a Harvest Moon game in a while, and I saw “a fantasy Harvest Moon” on the cover, some anime-looking art.  I said hey, why not.  Completely random purchase.  This was also how I first discovered the Etrian Odyssey series and Disgaea, so I’d say I had pretty good luck with impulse buys of anime-looking games in that era.  After the first RF game, my favorite prior to 4 was RF Frontier on the Wii.

Over the years, Rune Factory as a series has waned in popularity (I think), to the degree that RF4 appears to be the final entry in the series.  Long-time fans of the series couldn’t ask for a better finale, however.  Mechanically and in terms of player choice, the fourth and final entry in the series is far and away the best.

RF4 centers around an extremely-anime plot wherein your protagonist (you can be either a guy or a girl in this one, for the first time in the series) falls out of an airship, gets amnesia, lands on a benevolent dragon goddess, and is immediately mistaken for a princess or prince and put in charge of the town’s farm for mysterious reasons.  Eventually, the real prince shows up, but he decides he doesn’t really care and lets you keep acting as royalty in his place, so he can focus on reading or whatever.  From there, you go through 3 main episodic story arcs that deal with first rescuing a group of the dragon goddess’ friends who’ve been turned into dungeon bosses, then dealing with the fallout of having done that, and finally fighting off an evil empire invasion.

Stardew Valley’s plot is mundane, but I found it refreshingly simple and grounded by comparison.  You work for a faceless corporation, but your dying grandpa left you a farm.  You leave your unfulfilling and empty corporate life behind to go get back to nature and rediscover reality in a small town.  The company you worked for has an outlet store in your new home, however, and Things happen from there.  There are some magical elements, but they’re pretty tame compared to Rune Factory.  What SV’s story lacks in silly spectacle, it makes up in much better and less trope-y writing and characterization.  Though sadly, there is simply much less of that writing on offer when compared to RF4.

Where Rune Factory 4 shines is in its nitty-gritty mechanics.  It may be at once the most mechanically satisfying and complex farming game I’ve played to date, and it’s a real joy to play as a result of its strong focus on systems and their interactions.  It both draws from its series’ long history, and breaks free of it in certain key ways, resulting in a very refined and focused experience despite its complexity and depth.

Two of the biggest innovations in RF4 are the “L-pocket” and the ability to stack items.  At any time on the field, you can press L to bring up a shortcut menu showing your inventory.  Using the d-pad up and down navigates between categories, while left and right select items within those categories.  Pressing A brings up a context menu for whatever you have selected, giving you options to equip or use items as appropriate, drop them, hold them, etc.  Pressing B or L again closes the menu, and you’re off and running.  It’s simple and extremely effective at speeding up the pace, since a lot of your time in these sorts of games is spent switching between various items and tools from inventory.  In previous RF games, you had to either use a radial shortcut menu with limited space, or open the menu every time, which could be cumbersome.  Coupled with the ability to simply hold down A and run around to pick up items of the type you’re currently holding, cleaning up your field and harvesting crops is a breeze in RF4.  It’s fast, satisfying, and fun.

Stardew Valley’s inventory system is pretty clunky by comparison.  You can press the left and right Z-buttons (I’m playing it on the Switch) to move a cursor back and forth on your inventory hotbar, and L and R to switch your hotbar from one row of your inventory to the next once you expand it.  But moving items around in your inventory has to be done via the start menu, by picking up the item to be moved, moving your cursor to the desired slot of your inventory, and then placing it.  There is no dedicated button for switching tabs in the start menu, either (left, right, L, R, and ZL/ZR all would have been great for this, but no dice); you have to move an inventory cursor up to the tabs, and then use left and right to move that cursor around and get the tab you want, then press A again to move to that tab.  You can press X to open the crafting tab directly, but this isn’t terribly useful, in my opinion.  Placing donated items in the museum is also done with a mouse cursor which you move by using the analog stick.  This kind of cursor-based interface is fine on a PC, but on a console it’s not the greatest.

In RF4, you can sort your inventory or any open container you’re looking at by pressing X (though the L-pocket renders sorting irrelevant outside of containers).  In SV, you have to move your cursor off to the right of the inventory (which often means moving it through many items to get there, one press at a time), then press A on a special sorting icon.

The RPG mechanics in RF4 are also much more complex.  Every item in the game has a level associated with it.  Higher levels are better: crops are worth more money, healing items heal more, meals restore more energy, armor blocks more damage, weapons deal more damage, etc.

The materials used to craft something also have their own level, which is partially determined by the level of the tool used to harvest those materials.  In the case of animal products such as milk and eggs, the level can be influenced by your relationship with that animal and how happy they are, which is also tracked by the game.  The level of materials carries over into crafted products that use them, so if you use level 2 bronze to make a bronze hammer, then use that level 2 hammer to harvest more bronze, you might get level 3 bronze, which you could then use to make a level 3 sword that deals more damage.  If you use a level 4 scythe to cut a level 3 crop, you might get level 4 seeds which you could plant to get crops of that level, and so on.  Soil health and soil level also influence the outcome in a granular way, and these can be helped along with fertilizers and by tilling in weeds which, you guessed it, also have levels.

Your avatar also has a character level, as well as a plethora of skills for everything from farming, sleeping and eating, to water, fire, and swords.  Watering your crops, for instance, raises both farming and water.  Using magic to heal yourself raises staves and healing.  Healing is also raised by drinking potions or using healing food.  There’s a skill for absolutely everything, and increasing them is easy and fast, leading to lots of tiny incremental upgrades that trickle in as you play.  Every skill level leads to a small increase in not only your effectiveness with that skill, but also in your health and Rune Points (RP), which you spend by taking any action.  So the more you play, no matter what you’re doing, the more you can do with each in-game day, and the better you get at everything you do.

In Stardew Valley, items can be regular, silver star, or gold star.  I’m not sure, but I think stars means it sells for more money.  You put things into your shipping box, and you’d better be sure you want to sell them, because you can only ever remove the most recent thing you put in there.

Animals in RF4 are tamed monsters.  So, if you want cows to milk, you need to go out into the wilderness and tame a cow monster by feeding it something it likes while it’s trying to bite your face off.  Humanoid monsters, such as kobolds and goblins, can be enlisted to help you work the farm (though the game never addresses the ethical questions raised by doing this).  They can water your crops, clean up logs and rocks, even plant and harvest for you, freeing you up to explore more of the game’s dungeons and world.

In Stardew, you have a variety of buildings that house various kinds of animals, which you buy from a shop.  The system is simpler, but allows for greater customization.  All you have in RF4 is a standard building that acquires additional rooms inside when upgraded, but whose external appearance does not change.  And when I say “building”, I mean a singular building.  More of the same barn is all you get.

Where RF4 features a huge variety, however, is in crafting recipes.  You can cook food of many different kinds, make clothing, armor, accessories, weapons, and tools.  Its combat system is also complex.  You can learn magic, and use special moves in combat.  You can use lots of different kinds of weapons (each with their own skill to level, of course), and you have different moves depending on whether you’re running, how long you hold down the button, etc.  Crafting different weapons using certain materials will grant them different special charge attacks.  There’s a large variety of enemies, most of which are tameable.

In Stardew, crafting items is done from the crafting tab in your inventory.  You can smelt bars or make mayonnaise and other items from specialized single-item crafting stations (similar to older RF titles like Frontier), but for the most part you just pull scarecrows, seeds, and fence posts literally out of your butt.  Combat is highlighting your sword on your hotbar and pressing Y to swing it.  99% of your enemies are just slimes.  You just have a sword.  As far as dungeons go, you just go down floors in the mines.  There’s lots of rocks in there.

RF4 has several dungeons to explore, each with their own theme and season and featuring boss monsters at the end of each one (and yes, they’re tameable).  Crops can be grown in fields in the dungeons and in special fields outside of your farm, and you can even grow random dungeons in your fields!  Villagers, once befriended, can be enlisted to accompany you on your adventures, and of course they have levels to increase and you can give them equipment to make them even stronger.  RF4 is a game that’s designed to be played indefinitely, incrementally increasing all those numbers and skills, making better and better equipment, folding in on yourself and going down a rabbit-hole of perfect crops and perfect stats.

So much for RF4’s mechanical complexity.  But it’s not my intention to say that it’s “better” than Stardew Valley just on those grounds.  Far from it.

Though it is definitely and obviously the work of one person, Stardew Valley shines over RF4 in the focus and strength of its theme, and in the reality and immersive quality of its setting.  Where Rune Factory 4’s characters are a collection of tropes and stereotypes, Stardew Valley’s are more grounded and well-developed.  They have less to say, but more of it has substance.  Where RF4’s plot is a loosely-connected string of rote anime plot devices, SV doesn’t really have a plot outside of its character interactions and theming (and some events related to the community center and Joja), leaving much of its direction up to the player.  Where RF4 is mechanically complex and polished, SV is rough.  It is deliberately simple and unrefined.  Stardew Valley has a clear and consistent vision, and the love and care that was put into it shines through very strongly.

At its heart, Stardew is about a return to nature, which is strongly associated in the game with a sense of wonder, mystery, and simplicity.  This is “nature” as it sits in opposition to “civilization”, particularly capitalism and corporate culture as signifiers of emptiness, thoughtlessness, and meaninglessness.  The “nature” of Stardew is shown to have an immanence, a reality and a meaning that capitalism lacks and that its agents, such as Mr. Morris, cannot possess or understand, though they claim to have it in order to lend their products a false air of having life all figured out.  In this context, simplistic mechanics are entirely appropriate and serve to underline the theme.

That’s why it’s not a problem that Stardew doesn’t have an infinite progression of skills with exact values, but rather a loose and small set of level-ups with vague bonuses like “+1 to watering can proficiency”.  What does that mean?  Don’t worry about it.  It’s not important.  How much stamina do I have?  I dunno, but the game tells you when you feel tired, so that’s fine.  It’s okay that you can’t hold down a button and scoot gracefully down each line of your crops in a fluid motion.  That would be too efficient, too corporate, it would miss the point.  Time-consuming, somewhat-awkward labor is in itself a major part of the end goal of Stardew, of the message it is trying to send about the purifying and reifying quality of putting your hands in the soil.

Do I necessarily agree with Stardew’s philosophy?  Eh, not entirely.  I don’t think that the nature/civilization dichotomy is anything other than an arbitrary distinction, for starters (after all, where else is civilization situated but inside of nature, composed of natural beings?).  I also feel that there’s a good argument to be made that the Joja Corp. is not the unequivocal evil that they appear to be, given that the Joja Warehouse path measurably benefits Pelican Town in a way that 20 years of Lewis’ mayoral leadership fails to do (until you show up out of the blue to do literally everyone’s work for them, of course).  But then, the fact that the Joja path is in the game at all is a testament to ConcernedApe’s depth of thought on these issues.  It’s not so much that Stardew is wholeheartedly endorsing a “return to nature”, so much as the game is playing around with these ideas.

All that said, I do think there’s merit to the generally environmentally-conscious message of the game, as well as its relaxed approach to game mechanics and systems.  The manner in which Americans approach video games has fundamentally shifted in the years I’ve been alive and gaming, away from games-as-fun-diversion and toward games-as-exercise-in-efficiency/logistics, and if I can sound like an old lady for a second, I blame speedrunning and Diku-inspired MMOs, such as WoW, for the shift.  MMOs in the post-WoW era contain a massive bloat of tedious, meaningless content, usually with the only new content coming out at the endgame, which incentivizes finding the optimal and most efficient blood-soaked swath forward to the end so as not to waste time unnecessarily on the “boring stuff”.  Speedrunning’s focus on efficiency needs no further explanation, but I feel the massive rise in its popularity has eclipsed other ways of approaching gameplay.  The most efficient path through a game is not always the de facto best way to play, and in fact often leads to dramatic restrictions in your available options for play.  Though many find this sort of thing fun, I personally do not, and it’s interesting to me to see a game wholeheartedly embracing the inefficient, the clunky, the outdated, the “natural”.

This is also to say that, while Stardew did come out originally during a time when the market was completely over-saturated with “retro pixel art” style graphics, it also just so happens to be the rare game for which pixel art is thematically appropriate.  By using 16-bit style pixel art, Stardew also connects its core ideas to that of nostalgia.  In this way, the constructed “nature” of the game bears a strong resemblance to the portrayals of “nature” in early Disney films, such as Bambi.  The game’s graphics are also quite beautiful, as well.  Every corner of the game, from its character portraits and sprites, to detailed leaf and water effects, absolutely everything shows a great deal of love, attention, and no small measure of artistic skill.

It’s worth mentioning here that Stardew gives you quite a bit more customization than RF4, both in your personal appearance as well as your farm.  While Rune Factory 4 lets you pick your gender, you’re always going to be the same basic green-haired anime design.  One for boys, one for girls.  There’s also no same-sex relationships allowed in RF4, unless you use a gender-swapping trick that requires immense time investment to circumvent that restriction.  Japan always was a bit behind on LGBT issues, sometimes embarrassingly so.  There’s also very little you can do in RF4 to customize your farm itself.  Right off the bat, Stardew impresses by offering you a choice between several initial farm layouts during character creation.  There are also a lot of purely decorative items and other more functional buildings you can get, something RF4 lacks with its focus on mechanics and combat.

In the end, I don’t really prefer one of these games over the other.  It’s a weird quirk of how we think of “genre” that they’re even considered to be in the same category, honestly.  Two games that happen to have RPG mechanics (though those mechanics are wildly different in important ways), that both take place on farms, they’ve got animals in them, relationships, etc.  But where Rune Factory 4 is about giving you an in-depth set of complex and fun farming-game systems to interact with, Stardew Valley seeks first and foremost to provide a space for peaceful relaxation.  Which you prefer on any given day will depend largely on your mood, and what you’re looking for.  Do you want fun activities and a sense of progression? RF4 might be the way to go.  But if you want to just take a breather from a long day at work, maybe Stardew can scratch that itch for you.

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