Bree somehow managed to weasel her way into a game design degree, is perpetually writing, and hasn't stopped playing Skyrim since it first came out.
PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch
November 20, 2020
There are plenty of farming simulators out there, but finding a way to stand out among the likes of Stardew Valley can be a challenge. One way to do it is to find a niche. Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin differentiates itself by being half farming sim and half side-scrolling beat ‘em up. The part that really separates it from the crowd is that it isn’t just a farming sim, it is specifically a rice farming sim, and it runs with that premise at full pelt. The mechanics of the game aren’t as simple as planting your crops and then pulling them out in a few days. Instead, the game offers detailed mechanics in the cultivation and harvesting of the rice. By the end of the game, you’ll feel like you could farm rice for real.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin opens with the titular Sakuna living it up in the lofty realm where she serves as a goddess. She is shown to be lazy, selfish, and disrespectful. She encounters a group of mortals halfway across the bridge that connects the realm of mortals to the realm of gods, and while she takes the time to save them from an attacker, she does not take the time to make sure they head back across the bridge. So when she gets back home and is enjoying herself a feast, the mortals are on their way into the storage hall which is currently full of offerings for the goddess of goddesses, who is not happy when everything goes wrong and her offerings are destroyed.
The story doesn’t offer any spectacular twists and turns. At its core, it’s a game about returning to your roots and learning how to care for the people around you. After letting the offerings get destroyed, Sakuna is forced to go to a long-abandoned island with the mortals that are now stuck in the lofty realm, to reclaim the island from the monsters that are now thriving there. The group of mortals Sakuna was banished with all have lived very hard lives, and it takes a while for Sakuna to understand that she will need to be the one to take charge for the first time in her life. The cast is rounded out by an inept samurai, a street-punk kid, a foreign missionary, a quiet girl, and a toddler who can still barely speak full sentences. Sakuna needs to protect them all and it takes her a long time to overcome her selfish nature and start being their protector, or at least for her to do so without complaining about it.
Just by taking a look at my screenshots, I’m sure you’ve noticed that the game is gorgeous. It mixes both chunky cartoony character designs with beautifully detailed environments and especially stunning lighting. While each season in the game is vibrant and wonderful, I can’t stop looking around during autumn; the evening light passing through the orange leaves on the trees is absolutely breathtaking. All the character designs are cute and full of personality, and the animations of Sakuna are bouncy and adorable. I love watching her hair bob up and down while I run around.
The combat in Sakuna does a great job of remaining simple while also being a lot of fun. Your basic attack changes based on your directional input and you also have special abilities that you can map to a button and a direction as well. So even though you are only using three buttons, you have nine different attacks. Another cool addition is ‘throw’ moves. Some of your attacks will punt enemies off to the side, and you can use this to hit other enemies and knock them to the ground. Chaining five small enemies and thwacking them directly into the face of a boss feels great.
Sakuna also has a tether that she can use both for platforming and in combat. It is mostly used as a way to swing around behind an enemy to avoid attacks or to exploit a weak point. I had a lot of trouble getting it to actually tether when I was exploring the environment though, and it made some of the platforming frustrating. Sometimes it would only connect onto a very specific point, and with no way to stand still and aim it before throwing it out, it can feel like a crapshoot just to get up to the next platform.
Overall though, the combat is so close to getting it right that it almost hurts. When it works, the game feels fun and fluid, but there are a number of issues that really bring it down. One of the main problems is how easily Sakuna gets knocked down. Any damage taken by an enemy has her crying out and tumbling like a sack of bricks. It breaks up the fast-paced combat and makes it feel like it’s constantly stopping and starting, ruining the flow. Even just a small change where only very heavy attacks knock her over would have been enough to fix this problem.
Growing your rice takes real effort, and growing good rice takes even more. It takes around nine in-game days to get one full harvest with the game breaking each season down to only three days. At first, this seems absolutely jarring, considering the farming sim standard of 25 – 30 days per season, but it makes sense. Rice takes multiple seasons to grow, so they cut down how long each season is to both have the rice grow accurately while also not making the player wait ~60 days for their crops to grow. The next day you plant all your seedlings. This also takes about a full day depending on how hard you try to space them perfectly. From there, the next few days are about managing water levels, pulling out weeds, and taking a few hours to do some exploration in the dungeons.
The next day you plant all your seedlings. This also takes about a full day depending on how hard you try to space them perfectly. From there, the next few days are about managing water levels, pulling out weeds, and taking a few hours to do some exploration in the dungeons.
The system which calculates the quality of your harvest is based on various factors like the ambient temperature, the amount of water you leave in the field, and your choice of fertiliser, among other things. Keeping an eye on all of these factors is essential in producing a successful harvest, and you want this, because not only will you be eating this rice to stay alive, but the rice also provides different combat buffs based on its quality. While at the rice farm, you can also chat with the mortals that are stuck with you. They will help to upgrade your weapons and armour, provide advice on the cultivation of your rice, and also cook the dishes that you eat each night. Having dinner is an important part of the game because based on what you eat, you get different attribute improvements such as dealing or withstanding more damage.
What you can eat is entirely based on what foodstuff you find out in the dungeons and the rice that you have harvested that season. You also get to have a chat about the day’s events with the others living around your farm as you eat your meal. It’s very cosy. Mostly though, I’m impressed that they found a way to make putting good work into cultivating your rice something that affects your gameplay, knowing that the harder you work on the farm makes you tougher out in the dungeons is a great way to encourage players to put their all into farming.
I would highly recommend Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin if you find yourself a fan of the farming sim genre. The focus on just rice farming gives the game a chance to really make the mechanics in-depth and engaging. The visuals are gorgeous; planting rice while watching the sunset over the horizon is so relaxing. Combat is fun too, it’s punchy and multifaceted. While there were a few problems that I detailed earlier, they do very little to affect the overall experience. As a whole, it’s a robust game with a fresh atmosphere and it’s found its own little niche where it undoubtedly has full reign.
It’s safe to say I’m going to be knee-deep in water and checking on my rice for seasons to come.