Rice is undoubtedly one of the most important crops in the world. Humanity has been eating rice for centuries, and it remains one of the world’s most grown and consumed foods. It’s no surprise, then, that it has been included in video game titles that featured farming elements in the past. However, those looking for an in-depth experience in regards to its cultivation have thus far been out of luck. That is until the recent release of Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin, which blends sidescrolling combat with farming simulation gameplay. Can such a unique pairing of genres work well, or is the result less than the sum of its parts?
The game follows the eponymous heroine Sakuna, who begins the game having been exiled from the Lofty Realm, the home of the gods. She is tasked with uncovering the source of a monster infestation on the aptly named Isle of Demons. She is accompanied by several humans, who had played a role in her banishment. Luckily, Sakuna’s harvest goddess mother used to live on the island, and her house and rice paddy are still intact when Sakuna arrives, giving her a place to stay. With a base of operations and allies to keep her company, Sakuna begins her quest of not only solving the mystery of the sudden increase in the monster population, but also one of self-improvement and finding her life’s purpose.
The plot of Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is told over the course of the in-game years spent harvesting crops and fighting through the island’s areas. You’ll often be required to complete certain combat stages to trigger story scenes. This helps to make sure gameplay is balanced evenly between growing crops every year and going out to explore the island. In this way, the story is told in an effective manner. The plot itself is entertaining, with the game’s human cast helping to inject some humanity into this story about gods.
Sakuna dedicates equal parts of its gameplay to growing and harvesting rice crops at your home base and battling enemies in 2D sidescrolling stages out in the island’s wilderness. Both elements complement each other, not being able to be carried out effectively without spending time doing the other activity as well. Farming is the only way to permanently boost Sakuna’s combat stats, while defeating enemies and opening chests in the combat stages yields items that help to make your harvests more potent. This combat/farming gameplay loop is technically not completely new, but the sheer depth of the farming and fighting seen here will likely surpass that of similar games you may have played before.
The combat levels encountered in Sakuna are traversed with left and right movement, and feature platforms and traps. You attack with both quick light attacks executed with your one-handed weapon, and more damaging heavy attacks with your two-handed weapon. Combining these attacks leads to effective combos. Special attacks can also be performed by pressing the special attack button and different directions on the analog stick, enabling you to map multiple special attacks in a similar manner to games from the Tales of series. Health lost in combat is regenerated after a delay, provided you have ‘charge’ in your Fullness gauge, which is increased after you eat meals at your home base every night. Said meals also give combat buffs such as an increased attack, which are also tied to having ‘charge’ left in the Fullness gauge.
You will spend many hours engaged in combat in this game, but thankfully combat is quite enjoyable. Combos can be executed effortlessly, and working in some flashy special moves adds even more satisfaction to the experience. The scenery and enemy types differ a fair amount too, so the combat stages don’t grow stale. The limited auto-healing aspect and day/night cycle mean it will often take multiple game days to complete each stage, but the game’s lack of a time limit means this is a minor annoyance of no particular consequence.
Growing and harvesting rice is a large part of the game. This is done within the home area of the game map. The process involves planting seedlings, allowing/draining water into the rice paddy, pulling weeds, and several other practices related to the rice farming process. There are several stages of growth as well, each with its own ideal amount of water level to produce the best results once the rice is ready for harvest. Many aspects affect how much rice is produced, as well as how much Sakuna’s stats will increase. Stat increases are tied to the different aspects of the rice you grow, such as Taste (Strength) and Hardness (Vitality). Fertilizer can be made every day, which adds small individual stat increases to your crop depending on how many materials you add to it. This is also the main way pests and weeds can be deterred, with some materials imparting insecticide and pesticide properties to the fertilizer.
Every harvest lasts a year in the game, though this time span flies by since each season lasts only three days. In addition, it isn’t possible to grow any rice during Winter. Much of your time farming is spent maintaining the water level (which depletes or rises over time depending on the weather), though every major stage of rice farming features a different type of mini-game. For example, one of the last steps of the harvesting process is to polish the rice, which sees you following button prompts to slowly process the rice. The good news is that the gradual speed at which you’re able to do these activities is sped up once you acquire skills that you unlock as you perform these farming tasks more and more.
The problem with farming in Sakuna is the way in which the game teaches you the many nuances of the process. That is to say, it really doesn’t, at least at first. Over the course of several harvests and in-game years, certain aspects are touched on, though even then it’s up to you to figure out how the many farming aspects work for quite some time. Many of the other small details can only be discovered by finding informative scrolls in chests within combat areas. For those that are in no rush to maximize their harvests for stat gains, this won’t be too much of an issue. However, if you’re the type that stresses over min-maxing for the best possible stat growth, the lack of guidance will cause some stress.
Sakuna features a colorful cast of characters, consisting of gods and mortals alike. Alongside Sakuna is Tama, a blade familiar who used to belong to her war god father. He attempts to steer Sakuna down the path of becoming a respectable harvest goddess, which is not an easy task considering her insolent nature. Accompanying Sakuna on the Isle of Demons is a group of humans, led by a war deserter named Tauemon who rescued the others from being sold off by bandits. Myrthe is a foreign missionary who acts as the cook for the group’s nightly meals. Kinta, Yui, and Kaimaru are orphans created by the war that rages in the mortal Lowly Realm. Interactions with these characters during dinners and also random events that occur while in the home area flesh out the world to a decent degree, displaying the struggles humanity goes through as the gods fight wars of their own, as well as highlighting the parallels between the two realms.
Quests are acquired either through natural advancement through the game (rice harvests/years passing) or by talking to the humans in the home area at certain points in time. These can be anything from gathering a certain amount of materials to journeying to a certain combat area to find a lost NPC. Completing quests can unlock new buildings, methods of farming, or new areas of the island to explore. In addition, each combat area on the island has exploration objectives, which are goals to complete in that stage. Clearing enough of these goals helps to open more areas to explore on the map. Like the random scenes that occasionally occur in the home area, quests add much to Sakuna‘s story, especially those involving her mortal companions.
In addition to the main house and farming shed in the home area, there are a few huts dedicated to crafting new equipment for Sakuna. Kinta and Yui can make weapons and clothing respectively. It takes a decent amount of some of the trickier materials that can be found out on the island to make these items, especially when it comes to the stronger pieces of equipment. There are also a few quests tied to upgrading their crafting abilities. Getting a feel for what kind of skills you like to use and how you prefer to fight helps a lot when prioritizing what items to craft, as the strength of equipment consists of not just straight stat increases, but also attached combat skills.
Each weapon and piece of clothing in Sakuna has different beneficial skills attached to them, known as their Hidden Power. Some are already unlocked and active upon receipt of the equipment, while others have unlockable conditions such as defeating a certain amount of a type of enemy with it. In addition, some equipment has empty slots to equip special items called spirit boughs, which impart equipment with, especially unique and powerful traits. These can be found hidden in chests within combat areas or earned from various sources. Once equipped, they operate the same as the skills already found on the equipment, except for the fact that they don’t need to be unlocked.
In Sakuna, every in-game year is broken down into the four seasons we’re all familiar with: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. Every season has weather that fits that time of year, so adjusting how you care for your crops throughout the year is fundamental. Seeds are usually planted in Spring and rice is able to be harvested in Fall. Depending on your skill in caring for your crops, this time frame can differ. Each season lasts for three days, and each day has a period of daytime and nighttime. Enemies are of standard strength during the day, but receive a considerable difficulty bump during night hours (though with increased and rarer material drops). In addition, food ingredients you find may spoil during the night, so it’s important to cook before that time if you wish to have combat buffs for the next day’s adventures or include those items in your fertilizer.
A key component of playing this game effectively is balancing when you engage in combat or farming, and for how long. Do you spend the day micro-managing your water levels and pulling weeds or fighting monsters out on the island? Do you fight at night to collect rare materials and risk getting wiped out by the tough enemies or do you cut your losses and spend the last hours of the day tending to crops? These are decisions you must make while playing. However, it’s important to note that even though time passes in the game, there is no actual time limit like you might see in similar farming games. In fact, the maximum amount of years you can spend in the game is 9,999 which is exponentially more time than you’ll need to do everything the game has to offer, even if you’re an absolute completionist.
You’re able to cook meals in your home base every night. Five dishes can be prepared, divided into types of courses like drinks, side dishes, and the main dish. However, it’s up to you what you cook, so if you want to cook five bowls of rice or five cups of water as your meal, you have the freedom to do so. That said, it helps to cook a variety of dishes, as each one bestows different combat buffs like increased damage. Ingredients needed for these dishes can be found in combat stages. It’s imperative that you cook with ingredients as soon as possible, since many of them spoil within a day or two. Eating these dinners also has the added benefit of frequent conversations the characters have during dinner, which is often pretty funny or provides backstories for the humans and even Sakuna herself.
Sakuna has an art style and color palette that set it apart from most games in recent memory. The game is permeated by an ancient Japanese aesthetic. The architecture of the huts in the home area, the ornate buildings as seen in the Lofty Realm, and even parts of the combat stages all display a more rural and mythological version of Japan than what is seen today. All of the 3D models for characters and buildings are highly detailed and are full of vibrant colors. The 2D sidescrolling combat stages even utilize 3D models in the environment and backgrounds, so there’s never a moment when the game’s visuals are dull. Not only that, but the characters themselves have a distinct anime style that will be appealing to many players. If you’re a fan of unique hairstyles, you will also appreciate Sakuna’s elaborate hair bow.
MUSIC & VOICE ACTING
The game includes great music and voice acting. The musical tracks all feature traditional Japanese instruments. Each song does a masterful job of setting the mood for the game’s ancient Japan setting. The voice acting is likewise strong, with every character being fully voiced by talented voice actors during conversations. Each voice fits the character well and does a good job in conveying their personality. For example, Myrthe is a foreigner in the game and has a voice unlike every other character, and her vocal delivery is more stilted and careful than the other characters, just as a person learning a language would speak normally. This attention to detail is appreciated while playing.
Once you’ve seen all there is to see of Sakuna‘s story, you’re free to spend as many days as you want in the game improving your harvests and stats. You can also go back and complete the exploration objectives in each area of the island. There are many weapons and clothing items to craft in the game as well, so you’re free to collect all the materials necessary to make them. A major post-game thing to do in the game is completing a multi-floor dungeon area that only fully opens after you beat the main story. Every floor gets progressively harder, but there are many spirit boughs to be had should you brave all the floors. In addition, there is a certain mini-game available as well that involves defeating waves of enemies. Both of these areas require substantial combat prowess and stats to have a chance at beating them.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin has many elements that make it unique among both farming simulators and sidescrolling action games. The farming that is seen here is far more intricate than other games, and should really be applauded for just how accurately it portrays the practice of rice cultivation. It really is a refreshingly novel concept. The combat elements are as deep and fun as any dedicated action game as well. The art style is great to look at and the music keeps you firmly immersed within the game’s ancient Japan setting. The presence of a day/night cycle and a calendar without an actual time limit is also a great feature, allowing you to enjoy all that the game has to offer at your own pace, a luxury not seen in many farming games. However, it would have been greatly appreciated if more effort was put into imparting the full knowledge of how to farm in the beginning stages of the game rather than scattering that knowledge into hidden items throughout the island. In addition, tying stat grinding to harvests instead of combat is a concept that some might find hard to get used to. Overall, Sakuna is an exceptional game in the farming and sidescrolling genres. If you’ve grown bored or jaded with either type of game, it’s highly recommended you give this unique title a try. You will no doubt put countless hours into making Sakuna a formidable harvest goddess.
Final Rating: 9/10.