Another entrant in the (surprisingly populated) virtual farming genre this year is Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin, a combat-heavy take from Japanese indie duo Edelweiss. Banished from the celestial capital for a regrettable pyrotechnical transgression, the arrogant harvest-warrior goddess Sakuna must purify a demon-infested island while reluctantly sheltering a band of helpful but annoying humans. It’s a grand premise for a game that’s really about the mundane things in life.
You explore said island (and kill said demons) with a shawl that is also a grappling hook (stay with me). It performs great in frantic combat, though not so well in annoying run-and-jump segments. Battles feel bracingly kinetic as you whip around the screen like a tiny divine Spider-Man, sending hapless demon rabbits crashing into their porcine comrades. Fighting is never quite as responsive as you’d like, though, and can prove monotonous in long stretches.
Despatching demons is all well and good, but it’s only through farm work that your spoiled harvest goddess can grow powerful enough to complete her heavenly task. Sakuna goes deeper than the usual simplified plant-water-harvest cycle of most farming games, but is more restrictive on your creativity. Rather than allowing players to create sprawling virtual farms, the game meticulously represents (and romanticises) the intricate process of cultivating rice.
In mini-games that flirt with tedium, you till the soil, plant seedlings, water, weed, apply fertiliser, harvest, thresh, and finally hull the rice over the course of an in-game year. There’s a ridiculously detailed system which calculates the quality of your harvest based on various factors like the ambient temperature, the amount of water you leave in the field, or your choice of fertiliser. The rice’s quality determines how much your stats improve – generally speaking, simply completing a harvest is enough to overcome whatever lies before you, at least for the moment.
The result is a compelling loop, almost like the Persona games in nature, where daily chores precede an exciting expedition before you return home to sit back, plan, and do it all again. Time rolls forward as you farm, forage and fight, with nightfall heralding tougher enemies and lowered visibility; each season only lasts three days, so efficient exploration is imperative before the planting or harvesting seasons demand your attention.
It’s in the aesthetics and writing that this all comes together. The chunky, cartoonish art style is enhanced by gorgeous lightning that reflects the weather and time of day with real-time shadows and spectacular sunsets, as well as some dazzling water effects, particularly on the rice fields. Allied to a delightful soundtrack filled with traditional Japanese instrumentation, the overall effect can vary from serene rustic coziness to the high-spirited atmosphere of a street festival.
The story doesn’t offer any spectacular twists and turns. This is a cosy tale. Aside from your haughty protagonist, there’s an inept samurai, a street-punk kid, a foreign missionary … it’s not a simulated social life in the vein of Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley, but it’s still a joy to hang out with this bunch of misfits. The comfy vibe is best exemplified by the nightly ritual of communal dinner, which provides minor stat bonuses and abilities for the next day’s explorations while also serving as a backdrop for the crew to banter and bicker over some delicious-sounding meals like fluffy rice and tonkatsu pork (or, if supplies are low, boiled weeds and fried grasshopper).
Sakuna is more than the sum of its parts. Individually each element is just a bit lacking: the exploration is limited, the pacing a little tedious, the combat doesn’t quite have the depth of a true action-brawler and even the farming proves repetitive. But just as sunlight, fertiliser, water and toil together produce a bountiful harvest, all of this game’s elements come together to make something hearty and unexpected.