It’s safe to say that fast paced, beat-em-up action isn’t something that’s associated with the stereotypically relaxed, laid-back farming sim genre. However, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin (Switch, PS4 and Windows) bridges the gap between these two polar opposites so seamlessly – and the resulting love-child created is something so perfect and redefining of both genres that it’s hard to believe that they were ever apart.
Calling the game a love-child of the action and farming genres is an incredibly appropriate analogy, as you play as Sakuna, the spoiled daughter of a warrior god and harvest goddess. After being banished from the capital of the Godly Realm to the forbidding Hinoe Island, along with a ragtag group of outcast humans and your guardian Tama, your quest is to rid the land of demons and grow and forage enough food to survive.
The gameplay is directly split across these two elements of action and farming, and neither feels ‘more important’ than the other. There are a multitude of side-scrolling platforming levels, full of enemies and tough bosses to conquer using Sakuna’s one and two-handed weapons and special fighting skills. The most important tool in your arsenal though is your ‘divine raiment’, which essentially works as a grappling hook to fling you across difficult obstacles, discover hidden paths, and skilfully dodge enemy attacks. This fast, combo-heavy combat is addictive, challenging, and most importantly, really fun.
While traversing the levels, you’ll be able to forage for food and mine for materials and ore to later turn into new, more powerful weapons and equipment. The demons you slay will also drop meat, which is incredibly important to keep you and the others fed. Each kind of food has a different effect, from stat boosts to poison resistance, so planning out your meals based on the level or boss you’re trying to beat is very important.
Meanwhile, you also have your rice fields to carefully tend to in order to produce the highest quality yield you can over the course of each in-game year. Sakuna’s power as a fighter ties in directly to the quality of the rice she produces, with stats like her attack and health corresponding with qualities such as the yield and stickiness of the rice. Producing high quality rice also helps you unlock new special fighting and raiment skills to use out in the field, so it’s definitely in your best interest not to neglect your farming duties.
Delving further into the farming element, the game does an incredible job at illustrating Sakuna’s growth both in her skills and as a character as you progress. When you first start out, the prospect of tending to the fields is genuinely daunting. How far apart do I need to space these seeds? How much water do I need to use? Have I tilled the soil well enough? All of these factors are impossible to measure in your first attempt, and each stage takes so long to complete, to the point that it really does feel exhausting and arduous, matching lazy Sakuna’s feelings towards the task.
However, as the in-game years pass, and Sakuna develops experience and continues to work the fields, you’ll unlock passive skills which gradually make things a little easier, like planting multiple seeds at once, being able to see a grid indicating where they should be planted, and simply being able to move faster while going about your tasks. These skills make the farming portion of the game much more enjoyable, and are subtly introduced at a pace that matches Sakuna’s attitude towards her work changing as the story advances. Her development feels very genuine, her improved skills constantly reflecting her ever-shifting mindset, and it’s incredibly satisfying to experience.
One difficulty I experienced though was with certain skills coming into effect as I was already completing a task. In the case of planting the seeds, the aim is to keep them all spread out evenly, with each seed placed alone in a grid space. However, as you’re planting, if you unlock the next skill-level up, giving you more seeds at once to plant and in a different configuration, it can completely disrupt your planting pattern. For example, once when I was almost done with planting seeds which had been placed down as sets of three in a vertical line, I unlocked the next stage up which plants them in a four-by-four grid instead. Because of this, I could no longer place my remaining seeds without overlapping them over previously planted ones, which was incredibly annoying as they’d all been perfectly spaced until then. Overall it wasn’t to much detriment, but it’s a bit frustrating that something meant to reward the player for their efforts can inconvenience them instead.
Another thing that the game does incredibly well though is the development of the other characters and their relationships together. When you first arrive on the island, you don’t know a thing about the group of humans, and have no reason to like them either, given they played a large part in your eviction from the capital. However, you’ll get to know more about them and their backgrounds through chats over dinner, and random events triggered when you explore around the fields and house. Slowly learning about each character and what makes them tick just by living and working together feels so authentic, much more so than most other simulation games where it’s just a case of giving a character a gift every day until they like you.
It would be remiss not to give credit to how utterly gorgeous this game is. From the warm, earthy colour palettes to the lively character models and beautiful art style, the whole world feels so in touch with nature, and the Japanese mythology inspired setting is simply breathtaking. The music, too, is brilliantly composed – from the gentle twang of traditional string instruments accompanying your leisurely daily strolls around the rice field, to the exciting fast-paced numbers that play as you fell hordes of demons out in the wilderness, it all ties together to create one of the most immersive environments I’ve personally ever experienced in a game.
It’s honestly difficult to find anything to criticise about this game as it’s just done so well throughout. I personally found some of the English voice acting grating at times, but there is the option to switch to Japanese voices at any time, a fantastic universal fix in gaming.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is simply a genre redefining game – it’s unique, experimental, and it’s executed brilliantly. Anyone who enjoys platformers or simulation games will find something to love here, but particularly for anyone who’s felt burnt out by farming sims in the past, I implore you to give this a shot – it’ll be everything you didn’t know you needed.
Images: Marvelous Europe