If you’re someone who’s spent an unreasonable amount of time on games like Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley, you know the joy of it isn’t all farm life. Games like that are good at giving a purpose to every action, whether it’s fishing for a day or getting your crops to bloom. It’s a tough balance, and it’s easy to make it boring if you’re not careful. So a game like Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is fascinating. Combining 2D action games, 3D farming games, RPG’s and Japanese myth in one title is a unique prospect. But does it work, or is it just poorly managed? Let’s find out.
In Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin, you play with namesake Sakuna. A spoiled princess of two gods, she is banished from the capital when she (along with some of the people who have entered the Lofty Realm) accidentally destroyed the sacrifices for the main god. To repent, she is banished to The Isle of Demons to cleanse the island. The only way to get back to her luxurious lifestyle is to do some manual labor and defeat some demons. The first is that Sakuna is bad as a character. She is quirky, lazy and obnoxious. This is intentional, and a big part of the game is her development as a god. Even if that’s the point, it’s not why this game works. The character often comes across as being childish, which is just annoying to the player and still is a game breaker.
Most of the people you meet in the game are not nice with a few exceptions. You spend most of your time with the people who played a part in your banishment. While not as obnoxious as Sakuna, they are not as charming in and of themselves. Luckily, a lot of hard work is done by the game’s aesthetic. It is styled enough to match the game, but not too styled to be distracting. This includes the character design, which is varied and fun. It is certainly a beautiful game, one where it is chill to play. We don’t know everything about Japanese mythology, but the light-hearted design makes for a fun world despite its characterization.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is a game split into two different genres. On the one hand you have a hack and slash side scroller where you use your skills as the daughter of a warrior god to face demons on the island. There are places on the island that are filled with demons, and you unlock more places by completing small tasks, such as killing a certain number of monsters or finding certain resources. This is helped because the combat is quite fun. You’ve made your Light Attacks, Heavy Attacks, and Special Moves all better by leveling up and finding better weapons. You unlock more skills the longer you play, and you get many tools to face battles. One of the best details is Sakuna’s attire, which allows her to cling to surfaces and grab enemies, making combat acrobatic. Add that with stronger enemies at night, and it forces you to pay attention. Your equipment can also level up with certain tasks, such as picking up certain beasts and finding certain items. In these sidescroller sections are places where you collect resources, such as hemp or ore. Demons you fight can also drop food or hide.
The other half is agriculture itself. Since Sakuna’s mother was a harvest goddess, much of your strength comes from the yield of rice and how you level up in the game. This way you get a rice field that must be cared for. This includes making fertilizer, raising and lowering the water level, removing rocks and weeds, and deciding how to plant them. While you can let people do parts of this work, you make the best rice if you do it all yourself. This is usually done by repetitive mechanics. Agriculture is by nature repetitive. It is thematically fitting that farming proper is a bit boring.
Lifting, planting, threshing, it’s all about repetitive mechanics. These skills then increase, allowing you to develop skills faster or learn more about your current rice. This sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it works. Repetition isn’t always a bad thing, and Sakuna shows that. It kind of helps you get into Sakuna’s mindset, where there is something rewarding in a good harvest, even if it’s hard labor. It’s almost meditative and it’s easy to get into the zone. There is an addictive quality to the game’s cycle where you control your rice and then explore the island. Since they both feel different enough while connected, this prevents the game from getting old. This is not for everyone, but it is for those who like games with that “one more day” type of gameplay you see in Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is definitely an interesting title, combining the humdrum of rice planting with 2D hacking and slashing. While it is a peculiar taste, those who like more unique styles of games will definitely find themselves at home here.