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Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin (Switch) artwork

Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin (Switch) review

"Given the choice between the two, I'll choose the rice"

Why are there so many so-called farming games out there? Personally, I don't understand the appeal. Farming is hard, dirty, messy, and boring; these games are nothing like it. Press a button near a field to plant, press a button to harvest, yippee. What's the point? I think Edelweiss agrees, and they gave us Sakuna. A game that, supposedly, caused players to scour the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture's databases looking for hints and tips.

Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin (Switch) image

Your season starts with sifting through your seeds to choose the ones with the best growth potential. Then till your field. Not by a mere button press; you have to keep pounding it over and over and over. Then plant your hundreds of seeds, one by one. No easy grid for you, you need to eyeball how far apart they should be, and if you get it wrong your yield will suffer. Manage the water level in your field while also keeping an eye on the temperature. How much water to add? The game gives you a general idea, but you still make the final decision while taking into account likely evaporation or precipitation. Pull up any weeds you see. Find helpful carnivores to eat pests. Scoop up your fecal matter (yes, seriously) to make fertilizer, combining it with other materials. Make sure to spread the fertilizer at the right time. Harvest, again, not with a simple button press, but one stalk at a time. Allow the rice to dry, and estimate when the best time to bring it inside is. Then do the threshing (that's separating the grain from the chaff for all you city slickers), again, one by one. Pound the rice to remove the hulls, and perhaps the bran. Only then, finally, after all of this, are you rewarded with your harvest.

Only to hear little Sakuna say "It... did not turn out too well this year." Hey, I tried my best, lady!

Make no mistake, the farming in this game is tedious, and purposely so. Farming is hard work after all, and the game wants you to know it. No, it is not a pure simulation with detailed agronomic models (sorry, the Ministry of Agriculture will be of no help), but it is accurate in the sense that it requires patience and accepting repetitive tasks for a long-delayed reward. A reward that is not 100% in your control, as weather, pests, or other concerns can only partially be controlled. Games are supposed to be fun. Why should you put up with this???

Well, let's back up a bit. Because the main character, Sakuna (a pint-sized bratty, lazy goddess) has the same question. But she is exiled to a faraway island (along with five humans who were in the wrong place at the wrong time) and tasked to rid it of demons. While eating grilled demon meat (yes, seriously) is one way to stave off hunger, growing your own food would make this punishment slightly more tolerable. And since Sakuna's mother was a goddess of rice, growing rice actually makes her more powerful (you don't gain experience or levels from killing baddies but rather gain levels after each rice season). And she will need that strength to fight the more powerful demons. Unfortunately, none of the humans are skilled enough at farming to be of much help, even if they can all help in other ways. So it's up to Sakuna to learn the value of hard work, both on the farm and the battlefield.

Although this sounds like the typical "arrogant elitist learns humility" tale, the story itself is rather heartfelt and not as cliched as you might think. Sakuna may be lazy and arrogant, but she isn't stupid and thus understands and accepts what needs to be done. And while she may be somewhat dismissive of her co-prisoners on the island, she recognizes their value and the need to work together as well. Speaking of which, her companions aren't flat characters either; and we get into some serious themes for the setting (Myrthe is a Christian missionary who is conversing with a goddess and doesn't back down, for example, and there's a serious, tragic backstory of how all these people got together). It's not a complicated tale, but the characters are interesting enough to want to continue.

And it provides some understanding to the farming. It's part of Sakuna's lesson to be patient and accept hard work for its rewards, and thus you must also accept it. But it also allows for some progression with the farming as well, since Sakuna is learning it along with you. So you will eventually be able to plant 2 or 3 seeds at a time, or get some tools to help gauge water levels or how far along you are in some tasks. Likewise, your companions will learn more too, eventually allowing you to pass off some of the work to them (albeit performed at a lower quality) or resulting in them inventing new tools to speed the process along. Thus, gameplay and story intertwine in a clever way, increasing the joy as you and the character progress together.

Does that make it fun? You still have to remember to prepare the fertilizer every night, and still have to remember to spread it every morning. It's so easy to forget. Even if you get better tools for threshing or hulling the rice, it's still busy work with no "game"-ness (it's just press buttons until you are done). Is that acceptable?

Well, fortunately, it's not the only thing going on. Remember, Sakuna is on this island to rid it of demons, which she does in a fairly traditional side-scrolling beat-em up or action-RPG style. You pick where you want to go on the overworld, and then make your way through the cavern or forest or cliffs or whatever fighting baddies, gaining materials (for crafting, or fertilizer, or food) in the process. You are equipped with two different weapons (a hoe and a sickle; you're still a farmer after all), both of which can be partially customized with materia-like slots, and have all sorts of combos at your perusal. Each area only takes a few minutes to complete, as the day-night cycle continues on (and monsters get way harder at night, and you can't leave your rice patty unattended for too long). You have a list of various goals for each area, which reward you with "exploration points", which are needed to unlock new areas. So go in, beat up some demons, grab your items, and move on.

Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin (Switch) image

This all runs pretty smoothly and is quite fun, even if its not the most innovative way of doing things. Still, there are two nice elements I want to point out. Sakuna has a magical scarf that she can shoot out like a hookshot to reach new areas. But she can also aim it at enemies, and then slingshot herself around them. This allows for some impressive acrobatic moves, especially during bossfights when you can attack for a combo, swing around to its back, and just keep wailing on it. The second is that everything damages everything, and you can slam one enemy (or even an enemy corpse) against another for massive damage. This is downright encouraged, as all bosses have an endless supply of mooks that harass you just so you can smash them into the boss. When it works, it is very satisfying, and between these two elements the combat remains pretty fun throughout the entire game. Yes, these sidescrolling segments are fairly brief, but they're always a joy to go back to.

But what about the farming?!?

I keep bringing it up because I know this game is not for everyone. The decision to make an in-depth farming game rather than the same old fake management Harvest Moon style is a tough one, and it results in a lot of parts that are, on their own, boring. Yes, the combat breaks that up a bit. But then why not make a pure combat game? But personally, I found the farming worthwhile, and I enjoyed my time with it. The commitment to patience, the heartfelt story, the desire to get it right and to see a great harvest was enough to keep me going. Knowing my harvest was near and I would soon reap the rewards made the drudgery seem not so bad. It's such a unique and wonderful concept. Sure, I was skipping some of the drudgery by the end, but that was in part because I already felt I mastered it. My journey was complete, and in the end the rice did not cause this game to be ruined. But I'd understand if you chose differently.

Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin (Switch) image
Oh, what a lovely sight!


mariner's avatar
Featured community review by mariner (March 09, 2021)

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honestgamer posted March 12, 2021:

This was an excellent review! I had been interested in the game, but I wasn't sure how the simulation and more traditional elements might mix. This makes it sound like an experience I might well enjoy, and my wife might also like it, so this is probably going to have to wind up in my collection soon. Thanks!

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