Striking an interesting balance between side-scrolling action and farming simulation, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is initially an unassuming package, an illusion that’s wholly shattered the moment players realise how deep this rice-farming simulator goes. Does it turn out to be a bumper crop, or does it fail to separate the wheat from the chaff?
Sakuna’s story hits the ground running with such speed that it feels as though you’re being dropped partway into something, like you can’t be certain you’re not playing an adaptation of a hit anime or manga series. A group of wayward humans find themselves in the grand and godly Lofty Realm, home to gods and goddesses aplenty, including the titular Sakuna herself. Sakuna is… well, she’s a piece of work at the beginning of the game, the privileges and comforts of godhood burrowed so deep into her head that she spends her days drinking herself blind without much care for anything else. The ensuing fracas caused by humans running amok on the gods’ turf falls straight in the lap of Sakuna, and she – along with her new human wards – are banished to the demon-infested Hinoe Island to free it from demonic corruption.
That’s the long and short of the setup. Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin walks a well-trod line with the ‘coming of age/seeing the error of one’s ways’ journey that Sakuna is set upon, with the various humans she lives and works alongside providing a view to struggles and dangers that the godly Sakuna never dealt with in her Lofty Realm. As a goddess, Sakuna would be expected to provide for and defend the humans underneath her, a responsibility she long shirked in favour of sake, so it’s only appropriate that her punishment, and the two main loops of Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin, boils down to killing demons and growing a heck of a lot of rice.
This is where both the game’s most and least interesting ideas come into the picture. As a side-scrolling action game, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is perfectly serviceable, if a tad dry. With a light, heavy and grapple attack, Sakuna clears out areas of Hinoe Island (accessed through a world map) of demons that come in the form of creatures like anthropomorphic rabbits and pigs. Getting to grips with the controls means you’ll be able to pull off some fairly satisfying enemy juggling; racking up combo stats and annihilating waves of foes at once, a la such classics as Castle Crashers. However, it’s not the most elegant or fluid side-scrolling combat system we’ve ever played, with misjudged distances being pretty unforgiving, and delays on attacks sometimes messing up the flow of combat.
The true joy of Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin lies twofold at the game’s homestead, a mountaintop area which serves as the hub for all your farming and upgrade activities. Firstly, it’s a gorgeous setting, as you run around this modest area in third-person with the vibrant cel-shaded character designs set against the almost watercolour backdrops. All lit by the game’s day-night cycle, it’s a sight to behold. There’s a real sense of natural splendour to the place, so much so that you’d forget that there were demons running rampant in the forests and hillsides all over. It’s also here that you’ll get to grips with the game’s myriad systems around farming and rice production.
The moment you set eyes on the masses of stats and graphs that communicate all the variables of your first crop of rice, you’ll learn that Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin wasn’t messing around when it gave the grain second billing alongside its protagonist. From water saturation to pest control, Sakuna really makes you get in the weeds (literally, you’ll need to weed your rice paddy daily) in order to produce rice that’s fit for a goddess. You’ll plant, water, cultivate, harvest, dry, thresh and mill your crop, with opportunities to improve or compromise your output every step of the way.
“…there’s a nice cyclical nature to the systems of farming and fighting.”
In a gameplay sense, the better your crop the greater the benefits you receive to Sakuna’s stats during combat encounters, so there’s a nice cyclical nature to the systems of farming and fighting. When in the various combat areas of Hinoe Island, you’ll also be doing some minor resource collection – whether it be food or minerals – which can be put towards both the food cooked at the homestead and upgrades for Sakuna’s weapons, again returning into the solid feedback loop that the game establishes between its two primary modes.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is ultimately most clever in its ability to always give you something to do. Get bored of walloping red-eyed bunny rabbits in the great outdoors? Head back to your homestead to collect frogs in the grass and check in on your seedlings. Spending too much time at home? Up your adrenaline and improve your combos while you further explore the island. It’s a shame that the farming got more love than the fighting from the development end of things, but Sakuna stands well as a first pass at a farming sim with a little more bite to it.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin releases November 20 on PS4 and Switch.