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SAKUNA: OF RICE AND RUIN - Review | A Deadly Harvest

As the first trailer released, my interest peaked. The initial few made Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin seem like a peaceful slice-of-life affair. Because I’m obsessed with the genre, my intrigue grew exponentially. Then the combat was showcased, and I lost my mind. It‘s combining everything I adore with the tranquil musings of farming. Sakuna had me smitten. And the Japanese aesthetic itself is quite charming. I had to review it. So, I reached out to XSeed for the chance. Thankfully, they responded in kind and gave me this opportunity. So first and foremost, thank you so much. That’s enough chit chat though. How about we dive into it.

Our story begins as 5 humans are walking along a bridge. Fog surrounds them as their heads hang. They’re approaching the Lofty Realm, a place where Gods live. As they’re continuing, a voice attempts to deter them. Turn back it says, but the pleas fall on deaf ears. They push on until they’re blocked by a man. it’s Ishimaru, and he’s brandishing a blade. He’s just a simple bandit, and in no way divine. He unsheathes his sword and threatens the group. Tauemon - one of the humans - does the same. He tries to hold firm but his limbs quiver like leaves in the wind. Before a fight can commence, a short woman joins them. The disembodied voice cries for her to halt, revealing her as a princess. She doesn’t heed his words. As she reaches the group, Ishimaru notices she’s intoxicated. He says as much, surprised by a child reeking of sake. His comment agitates her. She shouts that she’s an adult before knocking him off the bridge. After returning to the Palace. The girl - who is named Sakuna - notices that all 5 humans followed her. She will immediately rush after them, confronting them inside the Rice reserves. Shenanigans follow, resulting in everything going up in flames.

What comes after is a tale where we learn of Sakuna’s parents. A love between a Warrior God and the Harvest Goddess. We uncover the secrets of the island she and the humans have been exiled to. And learn of the mysterious pasts of each one. As time elapses, we‘ll come face-to-face with a familiar.  I’d be remiss to categorize Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin as a Metroidvania. It’s a recipe consisting of 50% rice farming and 50% side-scrolling action. You’ll be tasked with traversing various small areas in order to advance the story. Before selecting a board, you’ll notice a list of items. These are what you can expect to find within. They’ll be used in two ways. 

  1. As ingredients for fertilizer

  2. As materials to craft weapons and garments. 

It’s worth noting that anything equipped will be visually displayed. A nice touch of polish.  An issue I tend to find with this genre is after a few hours, earlier areas are push-overs. This renders backtracking arduous and it feels like a chore. Edelweiss tries to sort of rectify this. While enemies don’t scale, a day and night cycle differentiates weak from strong. That level 1 area is only that by day. By night, it’s suddenly suitable for level 17. As for the quality of spoils found, they‘ll also improve. This sort of mitigates the tedium of replaying by incentivizing it with challenge and better rewards. 

Amidst the planting, you’ll also find RPG elements sprinkled in. Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin has a unique levelling system. I really enjoyed it. Typically, a player is asked to earn experience points through battling. Although here it’s tied to your crops. Sakuna’s power will be derived from farming. Depending on how successful her yield is, it’ll dictate her progression. In simpler terms, if you’ve finished an in-game years worth of harvest with a growth level of 5, then she’ll reflect that. It gives purpose to tending your fields. And while strengthening her is a huge component of this, it’s not all. You’ll eventually unlock the ability to purchase items. You won’t be using money to do so. It’ll instead require the fruits of your labour; the Rice. Unfortunately, it’s this very mechanic that reveals my first gripe. I found it confusing. And there’s really no tutorial to explain the intricacies of it. I was essentially tossed to the wolves. To their credit, Edelweiss tried clarifying things. During my session, I came across scrolls covering a plethora of topics. Problem is you’ll locate some in levels near endgame. Scrolls that would be useful at the beginning. This meant in my first few hours, I was a lost puppy. I had no other option but to guess my way through. Yes, an argument could be made that it’s being faithful to the story. After all, Sakuna’s punishment was being forced to the fields. So, she’s just as clueless as I am. My counter to that is the problem persists. After 4 years, you’d think she’d learn. Unless - of course - she isn’t the brightest Goddess in the Lofty Realm. It’s assuredly a nitpick, and you will ultimately come to understand the basics. Although, never entirely. Even after several hours, I feel I didn’t have a firm grasp on it. A+ for immersion, but execution wasn’t ideal. 

Conveyance is - albeit minuscule - another grievance. Before selecting a board, you’ll notice a list. Beside each task, there’s a star rating. Sakuna isn’t the only one that can level. Your exploration can as well, and those stats indicate by how much. Having a 1 beside it increases it by 1, and so on. What is required to do so varies. From defeating an area boss in 30 seconds, to finding a certain item. I found a few were outwardly vague. By proxy, I couldn’t complete them. For instance, there’s one that asks for the usage of skills to reach new heights. I took that at face value, assuming it meant to find the highest point. So I searched, and searched, and searched. 30+ hours later, I’m still searching. The reason I say this is thus; you need a certain exploration level to unlock new areas. If I’m unable to decipher what needs to be done, I can’t do that. This isn’t a problem that plagues the game thankfully. From what I saw, it’s rare.  Those aforementioned scrolls aren’t exactly forthright either. For instance, one divulges how to produce a better yield. To do so, the seedlings must be submerged within shallow water. Seems concise, but it really isn’t. It’s a mystery as to what qualifies as such. Water depth is measured in percentage. To me, I‘d argue 20% filled fits the description. At the same time, so does 10% or 15%. If I were to go with the lesser choice, it may damage the crops. 

There is a stat dump at the end of every harvest. It’ll detail the decisions made. Thing is, I wasn’t able to make neither heads nor tails of it. Bluntly put, it was grossly ineffective. Again, a subjective nitpick and I acknowledge that. I do think things could’ve been clarified all the same. It’s way too trial and error as it is right now.  Despite traditional experience not existing, there does remain some semblance of grinding. For every weapon and article of clothing, there will be abilities engrained in them. These’ll consist of upping your strength during a specified season. Or simply increasing a stat outright. You’ll also see a set number of stars beside each one. These are rankings that range between 2, 3, 4, or even 5. The conditions needed to upgrade differ, and include but aren’t limited to;  

  • A certain number of an item gathered.

  • A certain amount of amber collected.

The latter is what substitutes for EXP. Think of it as pseudo-points. Some abilities require quite a bit to upgrade. From 20,000, 30,000, and sometimes even 50,000. A lot of your time will be spent accumulating a mountain sized pile of amber. Thankfully, Edelweiss threw us a bone. Early into my adventure, I found what’s called a “Spirit Bough”. There are several scattered throughout, with each having their own abilities tied to it. The one in question grants you a percent bonus of earned amber. I highly suggest focusing on maxing it out. It helps immensely and you’ll go into the 5 digits quickly, especially once the sun sets. Hint, hunt, nudge, nudge; go hunting at night. 

Now, I understand most are wary of the word grinding. It can be tedious and boring to do. Well, great news. I really, really loved it. Edelweiss did a fantastic job in making the battling fun. While it consists of the norm of light and heavy attacks, there’s a mechanic I think nails it and that’s the Raiment; a scarf-like cloth that Sakuna wears. With it, you’ll be able to grab hold of monsters. Or you can stick to certain surfaces to help you access out-of-reach areas. You’ve essentially turned the little Goddess into Spider-woman, and I am so for it.  I’m just going to say it; I’m in-love with this feature. While Sakuna herself has her own set of abilities, so too will the Raiment. They’re pretty diverse too. For example, one allows you to latch onto an enemy. By pressing the correct button prompt, she’ll be  catapulted. Upon impacting with the foe, it’ll launch towards its allies, inflicting massive damage. The destruction of this is so, so satisfying. Then there’s another skill that’ll grab and lift an enemy. It’ll wind up before slamming it against the ground. See picture above for reference. As an added bonus, any enemy in its trajectory as it circles around is hit. Another example of polish is weight is a factor. Because the Raiment is just cloth, you can’t lift a large, hulking bear. It’s not sturdy enough to do so. With that in mind, there’s a smidgen of strategy involved.

With gameplay covered, let’s discuss the sound design. Upon first hearing the voice acting, I kept an open mind. I didn’t think it sounded horrible. Each strike being accompanied by yelling was what worried me. Fortunately, it proved inconsequential. I even began to tune it out. I got way too invested in the combat. As for the voices themselves, I’m okay with them. The biggest reaction to the trailer was Sakuna. Not many liked her voice with fear of it becoming grating. Well, I’ll be honest, it can be when she shouts. To that I say adjusting the individual volume sliders will be useful. Her speaking voice is great; it’s a phenomenal performance. The same can be said about them all. There’s Tauemon - a soft spoken samurai. Myrtle - a  lady from a foreign place. I specifically liked her. The accent and her imprecise English reminded me of my parents. There’s the 3 children; Yui, Kinta, and Kaimaru. Then the disembodied voice - whose actually your sipiritual servant - Tama.  Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is an engrossing, near-perfect experience. The casting I felt was spot on. The actors really dedicated themselves to giving each character life and personality. The banter between all 7 was a joy to listen to. I laughed a few times. I also liked the lame dad puns. The out of the box approach to the levelling system was a nice departure from the norm. Having Sakuna’s crops be tied to her levelling was a creative way of doing it. Because she’s the daughter of a Harvest Goddess, it makes perfect sense. And her father being a fighter explains her affinity for combat. A lot of polish and love went into making sure this was a fun romp from beginning to end. 

I’ve not even touched on everything. Like the cooking mechanic. Before you call it a night, everyone gathers and has supper. The ingredients needed to prepare food is found in the field. Pay attention to what you choose. Each dish has a certain effect that it’ll bestow on you. Poison resistance or health regeneration to name a few. The musical score is whimsical and cheery. It’s dominated by string instruments and also flutes of different kinds. It does a great job injecting Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin with Japanese influence. Visually it’s stunning, and I noticed no performance issues. I really liked the water too. Shout out to that. If not for my subjective gripes, I’d consider it a perfect game. 

As it stands, I highly recommend buying it. Edelweiss really put their hearts and soul into the development. XSeed did a great job localizing it for us in the west. I can’t gush enough; Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is easily a must own. Now excuse me while I look for the Divine edition.

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