Ever since Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin got a bit of a spotlight in July’s Japan-only Nintendo Direct Mini Partner Showcase, I was crazy excited to finally try to judge the combat that I saw shown off in the trailer. I’m a very big fan of “character action” games and stylish combos. However, while that is what initially drew me in, I found something even more special in Sakuna: the rice farming mechanics.
The plot starts with our title character Sakuna, the daughter of the Great Warrior God and the Goddess of the Harvest, drunkenly running into a group of humans coming from a land of war and famine and mistakenly leading them right to the home of the Gods. After a whole lot of chasing, Sakuna finds these humans feasting on the Gods’ rice offerings, which soon get burned down by the motley crew. As punishment, the Gods banish Sakuna and these mortals to the Isle of Demons and task them with expunging the beasts from the island.
From here, you’ll get thrown straight into the action, surrounded by beautiful cel-shaded graphics that make the soft art style pop even more. The side-scrolling platformer combo beat-’em-up hybrid reminded me a bit of games like Viewtiful Joe. In this game, however, you’re given a new asset to traverse and duke it out: Sakuna’s Raiment scarf. Think Spencer’s bionic arm from Bionic Commando mixed with Nero’s Devil Bringer from Devil May Cry. This awesome tool opens up more options in terms of both combat and movement, and soon I found out that those aspects of the game weren’t the only things that made Sakuna so special.
During these platforming sections, you will run into bushes and metals on rocks that you can farm for materials such as iron ore, amber, hemp, oak, and more. After finishing up one of these many exploration segments, you’ll return home, and that’s where the meat of the game begins. That would be the farming, which is what truly made me believe that Sakuna is a masterpiece.
The gang that has been exiled to the island begins a rice farm together as their main source of food for the cold of the winter seasons. It’s Sakuna’s job to grow that rice and to grow it well. You see, as the daughter of the Harvest Goddess, Sakuna grows stronger when the rice grows well. She gets more special skills and raises her stats depending on how the rice is grown and farmed.
The game gives you an option to have an AI character farm the rice, but the farming goes deep for players who decide to do it themselves. In the beginning, I had no clue how to go about planting the rice and I completely wasted my first season, resulting in the characters having only a small amount of rice to make it through the winter. After this first failure (which is intended by the game), you’re given a bit more help in scrolls titled “Art of Farming,” as well as the jolly former samurai Tauemon’s advice. The game actively shows how the planting should be done while still giving you enough room to learn on your own through trial and error. This help was a godsend, as Sakuna doesn’t hold back when it comes to the ancient art of farming.
The farming begins on a completely 3D plane with the actual planting of the rice seeds. These hundreds of seeds must be planted one by one using perfect spacing, and the growing must constantly be monitored for weeds to pull, pests to get rid of, and pest-killers to find and release. Along with this you’ll have to manage how much water surrounds the rice plants, depending on how tall they’ve grown throughout the season.
You’re also tasked with finding materials during the action levels to make the fertilizer for the rice. The materials that you choose to put into the fertilizer will produce a variety of results, changing the yield, stickiness, taste, hardness, toxicity, herbicide, pesticide, and more within the growing rice plants. All of that will give you a variety of different level-up bonuses depending on how your rice comes out. However, you’ll want to manage your time while you’re out gathering materials, as you don’t want your rice to go unmonitored for too long. Not to mention that the stronger demons come out at night, and you’ll want to yield the best rice possible to level up more and be able to take them out.
These mechanics became second nature for me and ended up being one piece of the game that had me super addicted. But that wasn’t nearly the end of it, as the true manual labor came in with the harvesting season.
Harvesting means having to cut down each rice plant and hanging the bunches of them out to dry. Once they’ve dried long enough, you’re tasked with threshing the rice, which entails sitting and removing the rice husks from the plants through a monotonous but equally tranquil minigame. This is followed by the hulling of the rice, which means you must pound the rice to remove the husks even further. This job is also one of the most important ones, as the more you hull, the whiter the rice becomes, which can result in different takeaways from your harvest compared to the less-hulled brown rice. After this process, the rice is finished, you go till the field, and it all begins again.
While this may sound monotonous and boring, it was quite the opposite for me. I found myself getting completely lost while hearing the beautiful music and witnessing the skills behind rice farming. While playing through these minigames, I found a new appreciation for a culture not of my own and ended up falling in love with the passion of the development team behind Sakuna.
Developer Edelweiss put in the hard task of implementing such a system in a way that can coexist and add to the platformer beat-’em-up genre. The team did as much research as possible to honor this ancient craft and even went as far as cultivating rice in their own homes. This game oozes respect for the art of rice farming, a staple in Japanese culture, and in so doing, it becomes a true ode to the historically important craft. The work that they and the amazing localization team at XSEED Games put into Sakuna is a marvel.