Rice, Ruin and Good Times
I’ve been interested in Sakuna since I first demoed it, which is a little strange since I’m not usually interested in farm sims. Thankfully, Edelweiss’ latest creation is a mixture of 3D farming and 2D combat set amidst a world full of gods, demons, and pesky humans. The titular character starts out as a spoiled little goddess (though don’t tell her that; she’s sensitive about her height) whose celestial life is thrown for a loop when a band of humans causes mischief. They’ve managed to breach the godly Lofty Realm from their human Lowly Realm, and all they want to do is feed their aching bellies. Hijinks ensue, there’s a bit of a fire, and Sakuna gets blamed by the head goddess and scion of the Tree of Creation, Lady Kamuhitsuki herself. To punish the band of humans and the wee despondent goddess, Kamuhitsuki banishes them all to Hinoe Island, which happens to be brimming with demons. There Sakuna must deal with the demons and maybe even learn the error of her ways. Other significant events will also unfold that even I didn’t see coming. Thus begins Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin, a game that I ultimately feel was worth the long wait.
The events that introduce the story are raucous, delightful, and even laugh out loud. Sakuna, exquisitely brought to life by the voice talents of Laura Post, is the daughter of a war god and a harvest goddess. The primary result of that heritage is a haughty demeanor and lack of motivation to do any hard work, which is unfortunate for her since there’s a lot of work to do once the game begins in earnest. Though the introduction is vibrant and entertaining as hell, events quickly slow to a crawl on the island itself. At first, I was a little perturbed by this, until I realized the deliberate pacing was probably wholly intentional. After all, actually growing, cultivating, and farming rice is tedious work. So it stands to reason that even a simplified version would echo that reality. One of the main benefits of being a harvest goddess is that you’ll gradually become stronger and stronger as your crops grow. So even though the game is quite slow at times, you’ll always be doing something constructive.
Time for some Manual Labor
Admittedly, the element of the game I was most concerned about was farming. As I said earlier, I don’t normally play farm sims and generally find them boring. I mean, sure, I do a bit of tending tomatoes in real life, but growing a whole crop of rice is another thing entirely. Thankfully, I found the farming in Sakuna to be well-paced and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. You’ll till fields, plant seeds, fertilize fields, and more. Once your rice is ready to cultivate, you’ll thresh it with a scythe, lay it out to dry, mill, and hull it. Each activity plays out as a sort of minigame, and many of them are almost like rhythm games. As you get more skilled, not only will you learn more efficient techniques, but you’ll be entrusted with more in-depth procedures. This is good, since growing and cultivating one crop of rice takes several in-game days. Thankfully the game does a good job of explaining these elements, and trial and error also help. If you’re only in it for the combat, though, you can leave the work to one of your trusted humans. But I wouldn’t, since Tauemon is a bit of a bumbling fool.
Dinner time is the best time!
Speaking of humans, there’s a band of them with you on the Isle of Demons. Tauemon is a former samurai and one-time thief with a heart of gold and no manual skills to speak of. Yui is a soft-spoken young woman infatuated with a certain rascal, and is very skilled at weaving clothing. Kinta is a rough and tumble rugrat with talent as a blacksmith and a bad habit of stealing things. Kaimaru is nearly an infant, and despite his inability to speak, he has a charisma that brings wild animals into his care. Then there’s Myrthe, a missionary from a distant land. She can’t speak that well, but she’s your resident medic and cook, at least when she’s not musing about religious matters. Your only other constant companion is Tama, but he’s far from human. He’s a rotund little sword spirit who has watched over Sakuna for years, and you can tell they’ve been very long years. Overall it’s a very eclectic band of misfits, but they’re also pretty charming. It’s especially fun watching Sakuna interact with them, and slowly let down her emotional walls. While the stories you hear during dinnertime might not sound all the important, you’ll learn a lot about this cast of characters that way. You might even get an inkling about where the story is going next.
I found the farming element pretty fun overall, though I definitely preferred harvesting and mulling the rice to plant and maintain it. It’s a great cycle, since after you finish your crop, you can process it into foods for storage. The same goes for other ingredients you find in the wild, such as meat from defeated demons, herbs, grains, and much, much more. Every night you should process all your food so it doesn’t spoil, but you can use it as fertilizer even if it does. The best thing about all the food you’ll be eating is it grants you temporary bonuses to your stats and even abilities, such as, naturally, healing from damage during combat, or becoming more powerful against waterborne foes. But fret not, cause every time you harvest a new crop, Sakuna’s base stats increase. You won’t necessarily learn a new skill every time that happens, but you will constantly be learning new skills as events progress. Since you can only have 4 skills of any type equipped at one time, it didn’t take too long for me to have to select the ones that suited my playstyle best. And that’s not just for attacks, it’s also for Sakuna’s Divine Raiment.
Being a goddess is hard work.
The best way to describe the Divine Raiment is as a celestial scarf made out of pure light. Besides being fashionable, it’s also able to latch onto things, allowing you to reach otherwise unreachable ledges. It can also grab your foes and do all sorts of things to them. You can weaken them, hurl them about or even bum-rush them. The catch is that you might have to stagger them first, depending on how large a foe is. The easy way to do that is to parry an attack, but unfortunately, the game never really teaches you how to do so. You’ll eventually unlock an area with combat tutorials, but there’s no organic explanation of this vital technique. To parry, you basically have to wait just before an enemy is going to attack, and press a direction towards them. This stuns them, and lets your Raiment do nasty things. Just don’t make my mistake, and don’t forget Raiment skills cost SP, same as combat skills. So if your SP meter isn’t full enough, all you can do is use your Raiment to grab and rush behind a foe. Which admittedly is useful since it helps you avoid damage. It’s just not as sexy as the other abilities. You also have a dash move, but I quickly stopped using it altogether since it’s slow and somewhat clumsy.
Time to put down some Bambi bastards!
I really came to Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin for the combat. And for the most part, it delivers. Using farming tools like hoes and rakes (she is her mother’s daughter), Sakuna can mix strong two-handed and weak one-handed attacks. You’ll also acquire a whole heap of combat skills, and you can group them to any shortcuts available. It almost plays like Smash Bros., with forward, backward, downwards, and upward button presses triggering them. There are even some skills that only work in the air, such as the devastating Spinning Strike, which utterly decimates flying foes. I tried to have an assortment that could deal with multiple threats, but by far, my favorite skill is the Tidal Wave. It launches a slow-moving wave of energy forward, and it will flip any foes it hits into the air. That makes them vulnerable to your Raiment and lets you set up all sorts of mean aerial combos. All these skills cost a different amount of SP, and though I appreciate the meter filling up automatically over time, I wish it specified a number value. I often had no idea exactly how much SP I had at any given time, and often I didn’t have enough to use key skills during the heat of battle. I also wish there was a separate SP meter for combat and Raiment skills. The fact they use the same meter often meant I prioritized my combat abilities at the expense of my Raiment abilities.
By far, the element of combat that bothered me the most, however, is that Sakuna herself has no momentary invincibility after taking damage. That means you can get juggled like a ragdoll by the merciless AI of your foes, who are all quite aggressive. Worse yet, they themselves have temporary invincibility after being downed, and thus you’re forced to keep them airborne to really keep a combo going. None of the enemies are all that smart on the plus side, and you can often trick them into ramming into dangerous spike traps until they kill themselves just by standing in their line of sight. Just keep in mind you’ll often be locked in areas until you clear out all the foes, so you need to get good at avoiding damage. While you can heal gradually with food effects like Natural Healing, it doesn’t seem to want to activate when there are enemies nearby. And keep in mind, if your Fullness meter is empty, none of these beneficial effects will work. Can’t fight on an empty stomach, at least not safely.
Did I mention you get to pet the kitty?
One key feature that affects combat is the Day / Night feature. Time will gradually pass as you wander about, or you can change it to night time by heading home and having a meal. During the day, you’re stronger, but during the night, demons become much more powerful. So much so that their level of difficulty essentially doubles or triples. While you gradually level up and get powerful enough to defeat them, it will be some time before you can tackle the nighttime challenges. You’ll also need to acquire an Orb of Oil from a certain amphibian first. It provides just enough light to take on foes in the dark, but that isn’t the same as making them any easier. And goddess help you if you’re crazy enough to tackle a boss at night.
Catfish dinner is served. You’re the main course…
There are many boss fights in Sakuna, though at first, you’ll only encounter stronger mini-bosses. It was actually several hours before I encountered what I consider the first true boss. Regardless, nearly every boss fight in the game has one tricky element – many have a constant horde of minions that supports them. And don’t be swayed because most of the demons in the game look like darling forest creatures. They may look like Bambi, but they’re monstrous. Even the sweet-looking rabbits wield spears, bombs, and bow and arrow. The annoying thing is more than once, a minion killed me during a boss fight. The upside is you can use them to your advantage, at least if you’re careful. Earlier I talked about using the Raiment to rush behind a foe to avoid damage. That is an essential technique during boss fights. I even learned you could use the corpse of a freshly slain foe to utilize this technique, which is crazy. You can also use the minions as projectiles and slam them into bosses’ faces to deal some damage. Regardless, expect some very tough challenges from many of the boss fights. They’ll test your skills and endurance, and they even made me wish there was some form of consumable health item. Don’t get me wrong, the gradual healing is great, but it’s not so helpful in the heat of battle.
An Isle full of Secrets
When you’re not farming or fighting, you’ll spend a lot of time gathering materials. There’s a vast world map to explore. Each level has tons of exploration objectives, and it’s only by fulfilling enough of these that the game will progress. That said, the game never tells you exactly how much you have to explore to move the plot forwards. Objectives will range from clearing an area of all foes to finding hidden treasures to more esoteric stuff, such as parrying attacks or even flipping turtles on their backs. Some areas are actually just to forage in, spending time to gather helpful materials. And if that all wasn’t enough, you can even send your human friends to gather materials at areas only they can explore. Point being, there’s a ton to do in the game, and I was rarely bored. That said, I definitely preferred the big plot-heavy moments over the smaller quiet ones.
While I truly enjoyed my time with Sakuna, it was held back by many irritations. None so bad to make me truly hate the game, but enough to bring the score down. One constant annoyance is some things just aren’t made clear by the game. It will often give you a bare outline of what to do and leave you to discover the rest. Those exploration objectives I mentioned earlier are often very open-ended. You just are told to explore enough to unlock the next boss area, but that can take a few objectives or a dozen. And because progressing the plot always revolves around that sort of thing, it became frustrating. Regarding the food processing, while I appreciate the feature immensely, I often would only be able to process a portion of my food, and was unable to prevent some from spoiling. I think that’s because processed food requires specific amounts of ingredients to work, and thus I would often only have enough for a few batches of fried meat, for example. That said, I hate how ice is supposed to help keep food fresh longer, but every time I had ice on hand, it melted instead. That’s the sort of thing the game should explain much more clearly.
She still has some growing to do
There’s an item in the game called Spirit Boughs, and they are essentially gems that provide passive boosts. Unfortunately, the game didn’t tell me I had to equip them for them to work until 8 hours in. I assumed that just finding them activated them, but they work more like Materia. On the combat front, while I enjoy how it works, it can also be very touchy. The parry was inconsistent, and I often used it without intending to. I almost would have preferred a block button I could hold to keep foes at bay. It’s also very easy to accidentally push against dangerous things when fighting. Your weak attack combos draw you forward, and many times that put me right in harm’s way. I also wish some enemies had more distinct attack cues. There’s a deer foe that will constantly kick you in the face if you’re behind it or ram you with its horns if you’re in front of it. It was a hassle learning how to battle it, and the game throws lots of angry deer demons at you. I also really wish long levels had more checkpoints, since often losing in battle once puts you smack at the beginning of a level. And while I know Sakuna isn’t a Metroidvania, I wish it had some mini-maps. Many levels are gigantic, and it’s annoying getting lost and turned around in them. Lastly, though the game runs pretty darn well on Switch, there were a few irritating visual glitches. Flying birds would get stuck in level geometry often, and sometimes I would try and climb an incline and start stuttering. That said, none of these make the game horrible. They just prevented it from getting a perfect score.
Visually entrancing and easy on the ears
Visually, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is a treat. It looks like a watercolor cel-shaded adventure, with lots of soft notes and almost neon definition. The many Hinoe Island residents are all distinct, from Kinta’s almost porcupine locks to Myrthe’s nun-like ensemble. The various gods and demons that populate the game are also great. The deities all have a weight to their design, from Kokorowa’s metallic gear headdress to Lady Kamuhitsuki’s vast golden tree. Though the minor demons all look a lot like standard forest creatures, the bosses really have a lot of style. There are things like giant frogs with flowers cresting their back to a really angry catfish to a giant, fire-wreathed skeleton. It’s all really visually attractive, and even though some of the texture work in the game is inconsistent at times, it’s never ugly. My favorite visual element in the game, however, is how water is animated. There are a few levels that feature giant bubbles to ride. And since the weather constantly changes and affects the levels themselves, there’s some stunning water effects. Raindrops will dapple the bubbles, water will crest with cold blue, and much more. It’s a treat.
Musically, the game is also very well done. Perhaps even better than visually, and that is thanks to the tremendous voice acting. I said earlier how amazing the voice actor for Sakuna herself is, but there’s other standouts. I loved Frank Todaro’s portrayal as Tama, the long-suffering advisor to Sakuna; and Patrick Seitz’s turn as Tauemon really gives us a jolly, albeit incompetent, former samurai. Though the musical tracks are somewhat understated at times, with lots of classical Japanese elements, I still enjoyed them. Overall, the art and music lend Sakuna great definition and charm.
An Adventure worth the price of admission
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin isn’t perfect, but the good more than outweighs the bad here. It’s just frustrating for me personally, cause there were so many things about the game that could have translated to a perfect experience. There’s just too many missteps for that. Thankfully, what’s here is still very much worth the price of admission. If you want a game you can sink hours and hours into while enjoying a meandering and surprising story, you have to check this one out.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PS4, PC; Publisher: XSEED Games, Marvelous; Developer: Edelweiss; Players: 1; Released: November 10, 2020; MSRP: $39.99
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.