After my time with Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin in XSEED’s booth, I walked away uncertain of what I just played. Don’t get me wrong: Edelweiss’s 2D platformer/farming hybrid wasn’t without its charms, most notably in its core concept I assume most Westerners aren’t familiar with. It’s just that one half of the game works so much better than the other, and it’s to the extent where I’m not exactly compelled to endure mind-numbing chores to get to the good stuff.
Before we dive into the pros and cons, though, let’s discuss exactly what Sakuna is: releasing this year for PS4 and PC, the game stars a rice goddess named Sakuna (and before you ask, yes, rice gods are a real thing), who’s banished to an island housing friendly outcasts and nasty demons. She spends the four seasons honing her fighting skills with farming tools and the Celestial Scarf, all the while utilizing her agricultural knowledge by growing rice and cooking her harvests. According to XSEED’s press release from last year, the game naturally pays ample tribute to Japanese mythology and culture, be it through its horde of exotic demons or the various methods of farming rice.
The E3 demo was split into two gameplay sections: a platforming level and a cultivating session. The former is where Sakuna truly shines: while the basic combat was satisfying, it’s the use of the character’s Celestial Scarf that captured me. It’s something of a traversal tool, sticking to walls and ceilings for Sakuna to move about like she’s Spider-Man. With the goddess instantly latching onto one ledge from the next, the maneuver is snappy and responsive enough to allow for satisfying feedback and control. Meanwhile, the combat takes the form of your standard beat-’em-up: I may not have discovered any advanced techniques (or, at the very least, none of the flashier stuff found in this trailer), but I found the incongruity of a proud, uptight goddess beating things with a hoe amusing enough to complement the thrill of bashing things. Perhaps the catfish boss took a little too long to defeat, but that’s nothing some last-minute development can’t solve.
As you may’ve already guessed, however, it’s the rice farming where Sakuna falters. It is, for one thing, not very clear: we’re told seeds can’t be too close to one another, for instance, but there’s no visual indicator for each seed’s space, and we’re left fumbling around the tilled land until the game allows us to find them a good home. Considering that subsequent assignments such as hauling crops do have relevant symbols to guide the player along, it’s a baffling oversight. Furthermore, the 3D environment feels unnecessarily stiff, and combined with weak input (tilling the land feels particularly cumbersome), the sheer amount of menial, monotonous tasks quickly wears out their welcome.
Let us make this clear: it makes sense for a game about a rice goddess to include farming, and it’s not as if other farming sims such as Harvest Moon and Rune Factory didn’t already prove you can turn repetitive work from real-life into an addictive virtual pastime. Isolated from the context of the full game, however, it’s difficult to get a bead on what the exact purpose is, and so it currently comes across as work for the sake of work. Other farming sims make agriculture fun through micromanaging our in-game schedules and balancing farming with making connections, dungeon spelunking, and participating in mini-games; here, Sakuna makes the mistake of honing in on every step of rice cultivation, but be it for the sake of education or a misguided sense of enjoyment, it simply goes on far too long.
It’s not that I doubt Sakuna will find an audience: it fits perfectly within XSEED’s family of niche games, and I imagine many fans will be charmed by its gorgeous graphics and lessons in Japanese agriculture. If anything, there’s certainly enough time to iron out some of the the farming kinks before release (whenever that may be — we still don’t have a solid launch date), but as much as I adored the platforming segments, Sakuna has many hurdles to jump through if it wants to maintain my attention.