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My new Switch obsession blends Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley

Rune Factory 4 Special is the perfect combination of slice of life and action

The main characters in Rune Factory 4 Special. Image:  HAKAMA Inc. and Marvelous Inc. / XSEED Games

Animal Crossing: New Horizons may be mere days away, but some folks are running out of patience. On social media, many are pleading for Nintendo to release the social life sim early, but what are the chances that a famously rigid company would do something like that? Instead, I’ve had to find other ways to keep myself entertained, at least when it comes to video games.

Rune Factory 4 Special, a remaster of the 2012 slice-of-life 3DS game, has come to my aid. The RPG captures the chill vibe of games like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley, while also providing the option of more action if I want it — so, kind of like Fantasy Life, but way more anime.

You’ll find the usual JRPG trappings here; you’re a hero of mysterious origin who has somehow lost your identity. There’s a talking dragon who flirts with you and everything. But, as luck would have it, you happen to stumble into the friendliest little town ever, and its reigning prince is more than happy to trade places with you so he can conduct some important business.

Being a prince means you can order the community to do things, provided you have enough points to do so. You get “prince points” by completing highly important requests from the townsfolk, such as fishing a mackerel or harvesting a potato. The beginning of the game is a little slow-going as Rune Factory explains how to do basic things, like farming or mining, but once it gets going, you have an endless number of things to do.

Some characters and a dragon in Rune Factory 4 Special. Image: Hakama Inc. and Marvelous Inc. / XSEED Games

The first order I put in was for my burg to hold a cooking festival, which is judged by a character in the game. Beyond that, I have no idea what the criteria for winning was. At this point in the game, I didn’t know how to make anything particularly complex. Beyond having a cooking license, which you purchase with prince points you need to buy the right cooking tools and have cooked enough simple things to gain higher cooking levels. Assuming, of course, you’ve grown, bought, or prepared the right ingredients.

So, yeah, I lost the competition to a grandma. But the event brought more tourists to my town, which helps the local economy and moves along my general unlock path. Since then, I’ve been cooking up a storm — it’s just a matter of picking ingredients from a menu. My townsfolk must be sick of eating my handmade onigiri, but the good news is that I just learned how to make sushi. It’s a whole new world for everyone’s tastebuds.

One of my other favorite activities is fishing, which is simple yet rewarding. Like Animal Crossing, you throw your line into the water and wait for the lure to fully submerge. The trick is to not fall for any false or tentative bites. What makes Rune Factory’s fishing a little more complex is that multiple fish can make my lure bob, making it a good test of my reflexes and patience. The game also keeps track of the biggest and tiniest catch of every type of species you capture, which is a fun detail.

Recently, I also built an in-game coop for pets using my prince points. The catch is that I have to tame wild monsters by giving them gifts. Pets can produce things like eggs or raw materials daily, which is useful, but more crucially, if they like you enough, you can have them perform chores for you. I haven’t played long enough to get to that point, but I’m looking forward to it. Right now clearing land, planting, watering, and general crop upkeep takes up more time than I’d like — and I’m only unlocking more options, like fertilizer and fast-grow salves.

The townsfolk all seem to have a general schedule and preferences, which you can use to get to know them better and eventually, befriend them. Every day, they all have new things to say. I don’t find them nearly as charming as the creatures in Animal Crossing or the folks in Stardew Valley, but I appreciate the level of detail. If you’re into them, though, one of the big new things that this remaster offers is something called Newlywed Mode, which lets you play out voiced romantic scenarios with your spouse, cutscenes and all. For those of you who have played the original game, you can’t just jump into this mode — you have to actually marry someone in-game first.

Combat in Rune Factory 4 Special. Image: Hakama Inc. and Marvelous Inc. / XSEED Games

If I haven’t spent much time talking about the dungeon crawling segments of Rune Factory, it’s because I’ve spent the least amount of time in this area of the game in the week I’ve put into it. From the handful of times I’ve explored this portion of the remake, combat seems simple and a little repetitive, with me often pressing the same button over and over again. The result is that I’m ignoring the main story, instead becoming hellbent learning how to be the best chef my town has ever seen. But, every so often, the combat is a nice distraction from the day-to-day of the game.

It’s very easy to switch it up and have a different experience. If you get sick of building a mega farm, perhaps you can go mine materials to upgrade your gear. Or maybe you can spend time crafting the perfect gift for your crush. Or perhaps you’d like to earn an airship license?

Rune Factory 4 Special does something specific that folks who are socially isolating right now might find comforting: It provides lots of structure and a constant sense of progression. My in-game to-do list is long enough that there’s never quite enough daylight to do everything that I want to do. Time goes by fast here! With the listlessness that comes with being stuck indoors, where there’s an ever-shrinking number of things to do, Rune Factory 4 Special provides a gratifying sense of purpose.

Plus, it’s a great way to pass the time until Animal Crossing: New Horizons gets here. We’re only a few days away, people.

The next level of puzzles.

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