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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (473)

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Tiny Tina's Wonderlands 3.5/5
Ratchet & Clank: Rift A... 4.5/5
Super Mario Bros. Wonder 4.5/5
The Alliance Alive 2/5
Catmaze 4.5/5
Turnip Boy Commits Tax ... 4.5/5
Seasons After Fall 3/5
Rayon Riddles - Rise of... 0.5/5
World to the West 4/5
MechWarrior 5: Mercenar... 4/5
Streets of Kamurocho 2.5/5
Aeon of Sands - The Tra... 2.5/5
Greak: Memories of Azur 3.5/5
Yaga 2.5/5
Riverbond 3/5
Bug Fables: The Everlas... 4.5/5
Front Mission 1st Remake 1.5/5
Middle-earth: Shadow of... 3.5/5
Bladed Fury 3.5/5
Ruzar - The Life Stone 3.5/5
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin 3.5/5
Mighty Switch Force! Co... 2.5/5
Aegis of Earth: Protono... 3/5
Torchlight III 2.5/5
Cyberpunk 2077 3.5/5

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Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin   PC (Steam) 

Yo Dawg, I Heard You Like Rice…    3.5/5 stars

“Sakuna: Of Rice & Ruin” (“Sakuna”) is the most recent project out of Japanese Indie (i.e., doujin) developer, Edelweiss, whose previous works include the ‘Fairy Bloom’ series, “Ether Vapor” and “Astebreed,” as well as a ‘Touhou’ fangame. These titles and this particular developer are not among the things I follow or care about in gaming, but the no-fanfare release of “Sakuna” in November, 2020 caught my attention. As a genre mash-up game steeped in Japanese folklore and mythology, “Sakuna” immediately gave me similar vibes to two of my other favorite no-fanfare games from years past: “ActRaiser” and “Okami.”

Because I was generally more excited about and intrigued by “Sakuna” than I have been with more predictable fare for years, I was willing to give the game a chance at a far-less-impressive discount on Steam, snagging it for a mere 50% off the regular retail price of $30. Unfortunately, while most of the game’s aspects are incredibly well-done, its overall enjoyability is severely hampered by tedious gameplay systems.

Presentation
“Sakuna” doesn’t advertise itself as being built in any particular canned engine, and based on Edelweiss’ previous games, it’s almost definitely a proprietary in-house engine built from the ground up. As such, “Sakuna” is a breathtakingly-gorgeous game with great animations, beautiful world design that handily evokes the Japanese feudal era, and a wide array of distinctive-looking characters and monsters that all ooze with quirky charm.

Audio is likewise beautifully authentic to the ancient Japanese culture that inspires and informs the entire experience, through its excellent Far East soundtrack. The game isn’t quite fully voiced, but the vast majority of conversations and cutscenes are, with options for Japanese or English voices, with the English localization handled admirably by a stable of recognizable anime dubbers and career voice actors, who all turn in solid performances.

Technically, “Sakuna” is rock solid, with native Xinput support, foundationally-stable frame rates, and nary a crash, glitch, bug, or hiccup to be found. This is a polished labor-of-love from top to bottom, and the effort put into making it really shows.

Story
“Sakuna” is a pseudo-Japanese fairy tale based loosely on the Real World of the Japanese feudal era, only with all of the proper names of nations and religions changed to protect the innocent. Instead of taking place in “Japan,” the game takes place in “Yanato,” with neighboring nations and their religions likewise name-swapped to avoid causing offense.

The story begins with a group of mortal human refugees crossing a bridge as they flee from the warfare and conflict in Yanato, only to discover that the bridge they are on is no ordinary bridge, but the mystical connecting space between the LowlyRealm of Earth and the Lofty Realm of Heaven. Through a series of silly coincidences, these mortals come to make the acquaintance of the titular Sakuna, a spoiled goddess – taking the form of a chibi loli – who lives a life of privilege in the Lofty Realm as the daughter of the world’s preeminent War God and Harvest Goddess. Tasked with removing the mortals from the Lofty Realm, Sakuna quickly finds herself in deep doo-doo as her family’s massive warehouse of rice – which she relied upon as her source of wealth and tribute to the ruling goddess – burns to the ground.

As punishment for not only allowing mortals into the Lofty Realm, but destroying such a large stockpile of tribute, Sakuna and the mortals are exiled to the Isle of Demons, where the bratty goddess must work for the first time in her long life to rebuild the rice stores she lost.

Throughout the narrative, we get to know Sakuna’s mortal companions, and they are quite the menagerie of characters. First, there’s Tauemon, a bumbling, talentless samurai who runs away from any and all forms of conflict due to his inability to swing a sword, or really do anything of use. There’s Myrthe, a Western missionary of the ‘Formos’ (read: Christian) religion who was enslaved after the priest she was traveling with was killed. Then there are Kinta and Yue, a young boy and girl from a rural village who joined with Tauemon in running away during bandit activity. Lastly, there’s Kaimaru, a retarded, oversized baby who can communicate with animals, even though the trauma of seeing his father killed robbed him of his ability to speak.

“Sakuna” takes several strong plot threads and weaves them all together into a rather compelling narrative. Learning about Sakuna’s backstory as well as the experiences of her mortal companions is interesting, and ultimately ties all of their fates to the Isle of Demons. However, the game’s narrative arc isn’t the extent of its storytelling chops.

Like “ActRaiser,” “SoulBlazer,” and a handful of old Enix games before it, “Sakuna” doesn’t shy away from talking about theology, and it does so very smartly. Not only will the player experience a satisfying story with a beginning, middle, and end, but they will probably learn quite a bit about Eastern philosophy, and even the ways it differs from Western religious ideology.

Completing the main story in “Sakuna” takes roughly 40 hours, which is right around the sweet-spot for games with complex mechanics and in-depth narrative. However, there is a lot of superfluous stuff the player can engage with that can take the runtime waaaaay beyond that, actually reaching the point of tedium.

Gameplay
“Sakuna” is one of those rare hybrid games that tries to mash two disparate concepts together into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Usually hybrid games like this do one of their two genres far better than the other, ultimately providing an experience where the player must ‘suffer through’ the one genre in order to get to the enjoyable meat-and-potatoes of the other genre. Case in point: The miserable platforming in “ActRaiser” that we suffered through in order to get to the City Sim.

“Sakuna” is a hybrid of vaguely Metroidvania-style platforming and melee combat with an in-depth Farming Sim that revolves entirely around growing rice, rice, and nothing but rice. Unfortunately, “Sakuna” doesn’t do either of its genres well.

The Farming Sim part of “Sakuna” is incredibly, insanely detailed, to the point where, after playing it, I feel like I could actually go out and make a rice paddy of my own. The player is responsible for planting the rice on an analog plot of land – yes, there is a grid, but you can’t even see it until you’ve leveled-up Sakuna’s farming skills a bit, and there’s no way to lock onto it, ever. Rice must be spaced ‘just-right’ in order to get the most desirable outcome. Of course, before planting, the player must first till the field – again, via an analog system where Sakuna needs to learn some specific skills before tilling progress is actually visible and not just guess-work – removing rocks, and probably adding fertilizer in the process. Likewise, the paddy itself has an irrigation channel around it and water gates that allow the player to control the exact level of water inside the paddy, from 0% to 99% full. Water level needs to be adjusted at various points in the game-year – in which each ‘season’ is 3 in-game ‘days’ – and to compensate for the randomly-generated weather. The game even keeps track of water temperature.

Keeping weeds and pests out of the rice is important, and the player can have Sakuna collect snails, frogs, and spiders that appear randomly around the property to control bugs, while weeding is manual. Pests and weeds can be controlled somewhat by adding materials with pesticidal or herbicidal qualities to the fertilizer. This fertilizer, of course, comes straight from the property’s outhouse, allowing the player to throw in all sorts of junk they find in order to boost the field’s stats, which directly boost the rice’s stats, which directly boost Sakuna’s stats when she finally stops farming and engages in combat.

Once a crop of rice has been grown, the Farm Sim still doesn’t end, as there are numerous simple QTE-style mini-games involved in processing the rice and preparing seed for the next year. Over the course of the game’s events, Sakuna’s mortal friends provide her with additional ways to sort, shuck, and hull rice that are more efficient and less tedious… but never NOT tedious.

With farming out of the way, Sakuna is free to explore various and sundry locations scattered across the Isle of Demons. While she starts out with access to only a few limited areas, she can broaden her stomping grounds by completing little arbitrary questlike activities in those areas to increase the Island’s exploration level, unlocking new regions in the process.

Exploration is very Action-heavy and is done entirely from a 2D sidescrolling perspective. Sakuna’s controls are somewhat reminiscent of the ‘Super Smash Bros.’ series, with 4 directional attacks, and the ability to map a number of special attack skills (which are acquired by collecting hidden scrolls during exploration) to the four directions as well. Special attacks require stamina, which regenerates quickly, even when performing normal attacks and jumping round. In addition to her stable of attack options, Sakuna possesses a special item called the Divine Raiment, which allows her to grapple onto pieces of the world geometry and even enemies. While primarily used as her sole mobility skill – I was sorely disappointed that Sakuna never gained a double-jump skill – the Divine Raiment is also absolutely essential in combat, as latching onto an enemy and swinging to their opposite side is the only way Sakuna can do anything resembling a ‘dodge,’ with the Raiment giving her full invincibility while using it in this way.

In general, I found the combat and exploration in “Sakuna” to be incredibly tedious and unbalanced, with massive difficulty spikes at each and every boss encounter. I think this is because the game’s exploration system allows the player to unlock new locations on the Island map far more quickly than the Farming Sim systems increase Sakuna’s stats.

Yes, “Sakuna” employs stats for everything, and while Sakuna can have her mortal friends build her better weapons and armor by providing them with materials acquired during exploration, most of her stats only increase by completing more and more rice harvests, with the ability to gain a level roughly twice per game year (once at planting, if you use fertilizer with a lot of stat-buffing items thrown in, and once at harvest). Thus attempting to ‘grind’ in order to level up enough to make boss encounters feel more reasonable is a serious time commitment.

Likewise, each and every day, Sakuna and her mortal friends must eat at meal. Practically, the cooking system allows the player to craft non-perishable foods that won’t end up in the fertilizer pile and to stack a number of buffs on Sakuna that will last for most of an in-game day. These buffs range from the expected temporary stat boosts to the absolutely essential Natural Healing buff, which allows Sakuna to regenerate all of her health so long as she’s out of combat. As each in-game day wears on, Sakuna’s fullness meter drains, and the buffs disappear completely once it’s dinner time. Unfortunately for exploration fans, monsters all across the Island of Demons become far stronger during the night, so the timing of Sakuna losing all of her temporary buffs at the same time that all the monsters get buffs makes the game’s in-built ability to return to the map screen from anywhere absolutely essential.

The game does feature the ability to turn the difficulty down from ‘default’ to ‘low,’ for either of the game’s hybrid systems. After I spent two hours trying to defeat the first real boss and getting destroyed in 3 hits, I seriously considered turning down the combat difficulty, but ultimately figured out that I was under-leveled, so I stuck it out on default until the end, getting destroyed at least 4-5 times by each and every boss… at which point the final boss introduced a variety of one-shot BS attacks and the game introduced a new blocking mechanic to avoid them, with no ability to practice said blocking, so I just yeeted the difficulty down to low so I could finish without ragequitting at the last damned minute.

In general, “Sakuna” looks simple on its surface, but is actually a mechanically complex game that does a TERRIBLE job of tutorializing how to play. None of the gameplay mechanics are actually ‘fun’ or enjoyable in any way, with the Farm Sim being too in-depth, fiddly, and vague, and the combat/exploration aspects feeling like a repetitive, unbalanced slog.


Overall
Between the immaculate presentation and its excellent narrative qualities, I really, really wanted to like “Sakuna: Of Rice & Ruin” more than I did. Instead, I was left feeling confused, frustrated, and annoyed by the game’s hybrid genres, neither of which offers a compelling, enjoyable, balanced experience.

Presentation: 5/5
Story: 5/5
Gameplay: 2/5
Overall (not an average): 3.5/5

 

 


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