Starting a new JRPG experience can be a daunting thing. You'll often unassumingly boot up the game, unaware of just how many new mechanics, characters, and events you'll need to get to grips with. Especially for a JRPG newcomer, that can be a whole lot to take in, but Rune Factory 5 does a good job of orienting new players, while also giving loyal fans a follow-up that absolutely does what it says on the tin.
Almost a decade after Rune Factory 4 arrived on the 3DS, this much-anticipated sequel brings the formula back in a way that may not surprise diehards, but will satisfy them nonetheless. It updates the farming, romance, and combat mechanics for new hardware — and a new 3D perspective — even if the performance isn't quite as smooth as you'd expect.
Yet for new players too, it's never too much to swallow. Thanks to generous tutorials, extensive dialogue with NPCs, and gameplay that lets you delve deep into elements you gel with but ditch those you may not, it's a game that'll crank out hundreds of hours of relaxing gameplay if you've got the commitment.
Sowing the Seeds
Of course, the bread and butter (ahem) of Rune Factory 5 is farming. It's a multi-faceted and deep gameplay mechanic, where you care for each and every part of your fledgling garden in the same vein as games like Stardew Valley. Luckily it's hugely enjoyable, as you hoe the land, plant seeds, and tend to your crops with water. Finding a new array of seeds, and partaking in menial work like clearing up weeds and stocking up your fertiliser, is surprisingly fun.
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Luckily, the game makes it very easy to get into as well, with a control scene that means you don't have to fiddle around with ploughing the right patch of land. Repeatedly tapping B when facing a stretch of ground will automatically move your character one step forward each time, making it a lot easier than toiling over your soil. Equally, you can recruit wild monsters to become de facto farmhands, doing the busywork in the background while you're off on quests.
Welcome to Rigbarth
The good news is that those quests in question are more than enough to keep you busy, as Rune Factory 5 has a plot that's interesting enough to justify ploughing through. It starts off in familiar JRPG territory, as you're amnesia-addled protagonist (either Ares or Alice by default) arrives in the sleepy town of Rigbarth after saving one of the townspeople. You're then introduced to the S.E.E.D. initiative: a group of rangers tasked with protecting Rigbarth from outside threats, dealing with monsters, and ensuring the runes that preserve the realm's balance remains in safe hands.
From there, you can likely guess where Rune Factory 5 takes its plot, as it emerges that nefarious forces are able to manipulate the runes with devastating effect. That leads to plenty of dungeon-crawling quests where you and an optional partner plough through caverns of ghouls, fiery beasts, and icy foes to ensure each rune is safe as it should be. It's not an earth-shattering plot in terms of its originality, but it does more than enough to keep the player occupied.
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The more intriguing hook is the townspeople of Rigbarth themselves. With more than twenty unique NPCs to meet, developing bonds and forming relationships is a key part of Rune Factory 5's gameplay loop. Romance has long been a staple of the series, and that's no different here with plenty of potential love interests, and the long-awaited ability to partner up in same-sex relationships.
World-building and writing are the key strengths as each character, from the animalistic Fuuka to the stoic Reinhard, has a fully developed personality and interests. Each is tailored with their own likes and dislikes, and if you gift them something they've no interest in, it'll backfire greatly. That sort of moment-to-moment relationship building makes Rune Factory 5 a game that's often more engaging in how you interact with characters than how you deal with enemy threats.
Fight For This Love
This isn't to say that the combat in Rune Factory 5 is disengaging, but actually quite tight. Your S.E.E.D. ranger has a vast arsenal at their disposal, from one- and two-handed swords to even hammers, to take on enemies in the wild. They range from cutesy sheep who can barely harm a fly to two-headed dragons, so there's always a new combat challenge to take on. The camera perspective is very reminiscent of open-world Nintendo titles like Breath of the Wild and the recent Pokémon Legends: Arceus, though Rune Factory 5's combat is a bit more focused on button-mashing.
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There isn't a dedicated block button in sight, and fights tend to boil down to slashing away and dashing the second an enemy indicates that they're about to launch at you. Magic spells are thrown into the mix to keep things varied, though you'll need to be at a reasonably high level because recharge times tend to be quite slow. However, it's clear from the get-go that Rune Factory 5 doesn't position itself as an out-and-out action game, so the slightly shallow combat can get a pass.
Running on Empty
Unfortunately, the one glaring problem with Rune Factory 5 is its performance on the Nintendo Switch hardware. It's not the most powerful console on the market by any means, but previous first-party titles like Super Mario Odyssey have proven the system's prowess at rendering sprawling game playgrounds. This game, however, is unable to utilise that, with consistently bad performance results in both docked and handheld modes.
It's most glaring when you exit a building and enter the admittedly impressive open world. The frame rate drops to almost single-figure territory, and remains janky for several seconds after that. Combined with long load times going into buildings, as well as glaring pop-in where NPCs and enemies can very well spawn right in front of you, and you've got an experience that doesn't quite match up to the sum of its parts.
Luckily, the problems aren't too game-breaking, and not once did I encounter a crash or broken quest objective in my time with the game. As such, some players will no doubt be able to overlook the performance issues, stuttering, and loading problems - but they're very present nonetheless.
Verdict - 7/10
Overall, Rune Factory 5 is a very competent JRPG that genre fans will no doubt lose themselves in for hundreds of hours. From its rewarding and interactive farming mechanics to the engaging NPCs, you'll truly lose yourself in Rigbarth life due to the quality of writing and range of characters. The plot is equally serviceable, though it isn't one you'll be writing home about any time soon.
The major disappointment in Rune Factory 5, and one that doesn't seem to have an easy resolution in sight, is the sticky performance issues. They're glaring, distracting, and disappointing when compared to the performance of other Switch-exclusive RPGs. If you can look past that there's a quality time to be had here, though its inability to fully utilise the hardware is certainly a shame.
Aside from that, though, Rune Factory 5 is a solid revival of a franchise without a new entry for the best part of ten years. It pushes the formula forwards thanks to its 3D perspective, and nails the gameplay that made the series such a hit in the first place.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch. A code was provided by the publisher.