You Might Have Missed: Rune Factory 2

A game’s qualifications for this loosely-defined series of mine usually begin and end with my belief that not enough people have played it. And while Rune Factory 2 is far from an indie game, I doubt the cross-section of audiences that enjoy both intensive dungeon crawling and Harvest Moon-style farming-and-relationship simulators is all that large.

Or, at least, I doubt it’s as large as this game deserves.

If I set up a competitive bracket for my all-time favorite games, Rune Factory 2 would be the true dark horse. Sure, I’ve played “better” games—games that I spent more time in, games that I just enjoyed more, games that developed my appreciation of the medium more than this underrated DS adventure with “A Fantasy Harvest Moon” stapled to the end of its title. But I’ve never played a game that gave me the kind of experience that Rune Factory 2 did—that kept as many secrets, that surprised me with its eventual depth and complexity, or that managed to marry such disparate mechanics as dungeon crawling and farming into something so strangely harmonious.

Rune Factory 2 begins as all Rune Factory games begin—you, an amnesiac dude with an anime haircut, wander into a small farming town and are then given a house and a plot of land to go get your grow on. As the days pass, you interact with the townspeople, building relationships and chatting up the local women until one of them likes you enough to say, “yeah I think I’ll ditch the guy I’ve known all my life and marry you, strange amnesiac dude.” And it’s fun, in a laid-back kind of way.

Of course, all that Harvest Moon is only half of the Rune Factory equation—there are also four dungeons that you can enter, each corresponding to one of the seasons. Because of course, while you can only grow summer crops during the summer, you can sail to Blessia Island all year round and grow as many pineapples as your heart desires.

But these dungeons are mostly closed off—most of their paths are blocked by these small yet impassable fences, and the remaining ones are guarded by these mysterious floating statues that never move or speak. All in all, you can only move through four sections of each fifteen-to-twenty section dungeon—a limitation that made me wonder, as the 7th grader I was when I first played it—what happened to the rest of the game.

As it turns out, the rest of the game is hiding behind one of my favorite twists, but that twist wouldn’t work if Rune Factory 2 didn’t force you to spend lots of time getting to know the people of Alvarna—farming yourself into a respectable community member, fulfilling various quests for the townspeople, and showering your chosen female NPC with so many gifts that she ditches her childhood sweetheart for you. In other words, it puts you through some slow, workmanlike worldbuilding, and sets you up for what’s about to follow.

Then, in the grand tradition of twists, we flash a ways into the future. Your player-character—who the game default-names to Kyle (though you have full freedom over his renaming)—says something mysterious to his family about having to stop some calamity. And then he leaves.

Forever.

Then we go to another player-select screen. There’s a new character to name—and this time, one whose gender you can actually choose. They’re the the original character’s child… and the game’s true protagonist.

And then suddenly everything changes. The farming takes a backseat—for seven year-old children aren’t quite as suited for days of fieldwork as adult amnesiac dudes—to a vastly expanded version of the series’ signature dungeon crawling (because of course, seven year-olds are totally cool with monster-slaying). Moreover, the town has moved with you—all the twenty-somethings of the game’s first half are now thirty-something adults, with jobs and lives and marriages (which is particularly funny if you married one of the NPCs that the game auto-pairs with another, since it just inserts the female merchant character into that relationship instead.) There’s a school now (that you—or well, your father—helped build), where you learn crafting and cooking and combat, all essential features of the first Rune Factory game that had seemingly been ignored here, and where you slowly build up your trove of magic and spells.

Of course, the farming doesn’t go away, and neither does the relationship-sim. Most of the now-married characters have children about your age, so you can embark on the same quests and dialogue-trees you’d undertaken as the original character—only this time, they end in these adorable little play-marriages that mean nothing to the overall game but lend some serious authenticity and humor to the game’s handling of child characters. And you can now expand your family’s monster-barn—where monsters you’ve befriended can provide you with milk and eggs (for there are cow and chicken monsters in this game) or come adventuring with you into any of the game’s now-accessible dungeons.

And yes—it turns out there was nothing magical about those fences. They were just too big for an adult to shimmy past. But a child—like your new protagonist—can slip past them with ease, accessing far more dangerous and complicated areas than their father was ever able to. Moreover, things have changed since Kyle’s time in Alvarna—monsters are stronger, and there are even some boss monsters that have appeared in previously empty sections of the dungeons.

So Rune Factory 2 transforms from a Harvest Moon game into a complex and multidimensional dungeon-crawling RPG, deepening its initial mechanics through a plot device that seriously raises the stakes and takes advantage of the hours you’d spent building up relationships with the town’s now-adult characters. And instead of the “amnesiac dude saves the world” plot of Rune Factory 1, you’re now a child adventuring out into the world to try and find their lost father. This is one of the only games I’ve ever played where a largely predetermined plot actually produced something memorable, and even approached the kind of ludonarrative harmony games like Undertale manage to evoke.

Of course that’s not the end of my affection for this game—Rune Factory 2 is filled with clever design choices that marry its Harvest Moon mechanics with its dungeon-crawling, the biggest of which I’m going to spoiler tag just in case this has made you want to play it.

Now, once you’ve defeated each of the four dungeons—beaten their bosses, found all their shards, exhausted everything they have to give—you find yourself tantalizingly close to finding your lost father. Yet there’s something missing—some secret you haven’t yet found—and all hints point to it being under the village itself.

So now, what you actually need to do is keep building up your barn. And by building up, I mean building down.

You see, Alvarna has some insanely strict zoning laws, so all the floors you add to your barn get build below preceding ones—down into the earth in batches of four, until the builder says he can’t make anymore. Except now, he thinks he has the resources for one more floor—one level deeper into the earth—and of course, you tell him to build.

But now, if you go down to floor B28 of your massive barn, you’re greeted with a giant hole in the ground—a gateway punched through the ceiling of Palermo Shrine, the game’s fifth and final dungeon. What follows is one final epic dungeon-crawling adventure, set to some of the best final dungeon music of any game I’ve ever played.

And while it’s been so long that I’ve forgotten most of the tricks and traps of Rune Factory 2’s fifth and final dungeon, I do remember its last puzzle. In the hall right before the final room, there’s an impassable door and four branching rooms. Each of those rooms is climate controlled—either by magic or by the earth or by the POWER OF DRAGONS or something—to resemble each of the seasons. And to unlock that last door—to uncover the game’s true mystery and find out why your father rushed out into the rain that night before you were born (hint: it had to do with the elemental dragons that each of these games ends with)—you have to fill those plots of land with their respective seasonal fruits and tubers and veggies and roots.

Like everything else in Rune Factory 2, it’s absolutely ridiculous. But somehow—through sheer power of investment, or by how truly epic the adventure felt—the game made it work.

Of course, there’s a postgame as well—some final shrines in each dungeon that hadn’t coughed up their secrets but hold the key to bringing your dad’s spirit back to earth (and now divulge that key through THE POWER OF BOSS RUSH)—but even if there weren’t, (spoilers over) Rune Factory 2 would still be one of my all-time favorite games. It’s mechanically deep without sacrificing plot or writing, and, moreover, I admire the way it holds back its main story until your investment is all-but-guaranteed.

Not only did that lead to some great moments for me—like farming so many pineapples during the marry-someone part that my kid character literally had a pineapple-based trust fund for the entire rest of the game—but it deepened the experience to a level I’ve rarely seen since and, with game designers catering to adults with little time on their hands and technology-shortened attention spans, I doubt I’ll ever see again. While I’ve played better games—games like Breath of the Wild or Undertale or Hyper Light Drifter that do fascinating things with established tropes  or minimalist narrative or the interactivity of the medium—I’ve never played something quite like Rune Factory 2. It not only subverted my expectations and deepened both its narrative and mechanics with one effortless device, but it continued doing so for the entirety of its lengthy, JRPG-esque play-time.

And that’s more than worth a recommendation.

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