Harvest Moon is a well established franchise, so it was a bit surprising when they decided to throw in dungeon crawling with "Rune Factory: a Fantasy Harvest Moon" for the DS. I never played that game, but I recently picked up the series' first console release.
If you've never played Harvest Moon before, let me give you a rundown. You are a farmer who has purchased, inherited, or otherwise come to own a run down plot of land. It is up to you to restore the farm to its former glory, and rake in a living all while juggling your social life and trying to court a potential bride. Rune Factory takes this same concept, and adds RPG dungeon crawling, as well as a few changes, such as swapping the usual cows and chickens for monsters.
The story is that you, Raguna (or whatever you choose to name him), has come to the village of Trampoli in search of his old friend Mist. After finding her, he settles into the village. Doing a bit of exploring, Raguna waters an odd plant which grows a sprout which he climbs to reach a floating island in the sky. The island is shaped like a whale, and begins to talk to Raguna. The whale asks Raguna to explore him and discover what is weakening him. There are multiple plot elements added throughout the game, but I won't mention them here. The game is a direct sequel to the first game, and does make a couple references to it, however if you have not played the first game, you'll be fine. There are some continuity issues, however. What if the player marries Mist in the first game? It would make little sense for ehr to have moved away. In fact, what if the player got married to anyone at all in the first game? Did Raguna move to Trampoli to do the hanky panky or something? I think they would have been better off using a new main character.
*Screenshot from beta
The graphicsin Rune Factory Frontier are a mixed bag. The actual renders are slightly jagged and textures are a little blurry. The most beautiful part of the game are the hand drawn stills of characters when you talk to them, and the short FMV sequences when you meet new characters. There is a lot of attention to detail, and animation is smooth overall. It's neat how you, as well as the other characters, can wear trunks and bikinis on the beach during summer, but I would have liked to see them do something similar with other seasons, like heavy jackets for winter.
The sound effects are not bad, but they are very repetitive. The same can be said for the music, which is relaxing, but limited.
the best part of the sound design is hands down the voice acting. Now, these voice actors aren't going to be winning any awards, but they are heads above a ton of other English voice actors in Japanese games.
I'm going to break gameplay into 2 sections - the dungeon crawling, and everything else. Let's start with everything else. As with Harvest Moon, you may do a number of things such as grow crops, raise monsters, cook, socialize, and fish. There are a total of 8 bachelorettes (officially referred to as Maidens) for you to potentially marry as well as a number of villagers for you to befriend. They all have their likes and dislikes, and you'll have to learn them to effectively get them to like you. As you perform tasks throughout your day, you will deplete Rune Points. One they are gone, you will take away from your HP instead, and if that depletes, then you will faint. You can eat or take a hot bath once a day to restore your RP and HP, though. Overall, it's standard Harvest Moon fair, thought Trampoli feels a tad less expansive than some past games. Possibly the worst addition to the game is the Runey System. Runey's are magical beings that populate the village and appear as little floating spirits. There are 4types of Runeys that form a rock, paper scissors relationship, and you have to keep a close check on their balance or your crops will grow slowly, which can put a huge dent in your pocket. By the time you learn the ins and out of Runeys, you may already be suffering adverse effects, and it's also quite time consuming. It's not enough to completely ruin the experience, but it does put a damper on things.
As the seasons change, so do the crops you are able to grow. On top of this, you can also grow crops within dungeons, and since there is a dungeon related to each season you can grow crops out of season if you know which dungeon to plant them in and don't mind the hassle of going there to water them. All of your tools can be crafted and upgraded, eventually allowing you you water 6 squares at once, or plow multiple plots at once.
Dungeon crawling is simple, but not boring. Basically you move, block, and attack. Different weapon types have various speeds, effects and statistics. Hammers are slow, but deal heavy damage, while swords are sift and allow you to easily chain multiple hits, but do less damage with each individual hit. There are also axes, spears, magic staffs, or you can even wield your hoe in battle if you want. Perhaps even more important than having a good weapon is having good equipment, which can also be bought or forged. Equipment affects your actual appearance and high level equipment can definitely tip the scales in your favor.
The various dungeons all have multiple floors with a boss waiting at the bottom, and in order to compel the story forward and unlock a new dungeon he must be defeated. Each dungeon can take you an in game season or two to complete.
Rune Factory Frontier is a time sink if their ever was one. Despite the games mundane basis, you can easily spend more hours than you ever intended with it and lose track of what time it is. Despite it's annoyances, this games is addictive. If you're a fan of these types of games, you can do much worse, but this is a very niche game and will only appeal to certain people - you likely already know rather or not you are one of them.