I was originally considering doing this review and then also covering some more Facebook games, but honestly I'm running late enough typing all this up, that I think those can wait for next time. :p
Warning: Long post is long!
Rune Factory Frontier
Game type: RPG/Simulation blend
Time demand: You can save at your house at any time, but unless you can devote at least a half hour, hour at a time, things will get confusing and pointless. The game overall is pretty long, with a LOT of hours you can sink into it.
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Released: 11/27/08 JP, 03/17/09 US, 04/01/10 EU
What it is:
I'm pretty sure I haven't reviewed this before! If I have, sorry... it gets hard to remember sometimes.
The Rune Factory games are a sub-series that originally spun off of the Harvest Moon series, but have since separated a bit more, becoming their own thing. There were two games in the series on the DS before "Frontier" came to the Wii, and there is one further game for the DS that hasn't made it to these shores yet.
These games take the general bones of Harvest Moon - farming to earn a living, befriending villagers, and wooing and marrying the girl (or boy, in some games) of your dreams - and clothe them with RPG meatiness - Exploring progressively more difficult caves, fighting monsters, and buying and improving equipment, while gaining character and skill levels.
To stick to this particular game, you play as Raguna (although you can change his name if you like), the hero of the first DS game, who has moved to a new village following a kind (but totally scatterbrained) girl named Mist who helped him out before. There is (coincidentally enough, just like in many of the Harvest Moon games) an abandoned farm nearby that has fallen into extreme disrepair, so you are kindly given use of it as long as you're willing to whip it into shape, and thus contribute to the community.
You start out with a handful of villagers to get to know (and buy things like seeds and equipment from), and slowly grow your town over time, and as you accomplish different things. Other than that, you're pretty much starting from scratch - only a couple of the basic tools for growing things (most you have to get from villagers as you get to know them), a bunch of land that needs to be cleared before it can be planted, little money, no animals, no adventuring equipment, and no friendship with any of these strangers.
Over time though, you can build up... well, everything, and that's where this game shines - starting from nothing, and doing... well, *tons* of different things, to end up with everything. A nice farm, a spouse, tons of animals, lots of Stuff, and friendship... it's so sickeningly sweet, isn't it?
Seriously though, there is a ton to do in this game, and pretty much everyone probably has his or her own approach.
You can befriend villagers by talking to them and giving gifts, possibly wooing an eligible bachelorette in the process. Villagers can give you useful items as you get to know them, although I'm not absolutely sure what benefit getting to know them extremely well may have (sad to say, I've never gotten quite that far in the game, due to eventually getting distracted after I get a decent way in each time I've tried to play... not due to the game being at all not fun though!) This is also made a bit more complex by the fact that (I believe) to successfully win over a girl's heart, you must do something connected to her interests. (Like reading a ton of books for the book-seller, owning and caring for animals well for the one who loves nature, etc.)
One of the biggest parts of the game at least at first is tending your farm. This requires first clearing land, then hoeing it, buying and planting sees, watering them every day, harvesting them as needed... it sounds repetitious and boring, and it is repetitive to an extent, but not as boring as you'd expect, especially since it's only a part of what you're doing, and the money you get from it can go into other, more fun things...
There are also animals, or in this case monsters, once you meet the carpenter, have him build you a barn to house them, and get the magical glove that lets you tame them. While in normal Harvest Moon games you can buy normal animals such as chickens and cows for their eggs and milk, in this game you instead need to tame monsters in the dungeons. These monsters each have different roles - some are useful as partners fighting alongside you in the dungeons (or even carrying you swiftly around like a steed), others can perform various tasks each day in your field (such as clearing out wood, watering crops, etc.) which can eventually make farming almost effortless, and still others give items such as milk, eggs, and honey, when you use a harvesting tool on them.
There's the exploration and combat itself. You start out unlocking two dungeons pretty quickly after settling in (assuming you do any exploration/thinking, at least ;) ), and slowly unlock more as you get further in the game, and conquer earlier dungeons. Inside each dungeon you find monsters and treasure, destroying the "generators" that warp monsters into the area (sorta like the old Gauntlet game in a way), and the monsters themselves, and picking up any of the Cool Stuff you find along the way. And for defeating the monsters themselves you get skill experience, level experience, and possibly items to be used or sold.
I've mentioned levels and skills a few times now, so I should cover those too, eh? Levels are as they are in most RPGs - you gain experience from combat, and after enough, you go up in level. This buffs your character up a bit (although really a lot of your combat ability depends on your equipment and items, and to an extent your companion), and raising an experience level also refills your HP and RP (Rune Points... basically the MP combined with stamina of this game.)
Skills on the other hand aren't tied to your main level. You increase your skills solely by using them - no putting points into them, no automatically increasing them as you level. As you use farm equipment to farm, your farming skill goes up, and farming actions take less RP - which means you can get more done in a game day. Fishing increases your fishing skill, again decreasing required RP to fish. There are a whole handful of skills in the game beyond these smithing, crafting), cooking, alchemy, animal husbandry, lumberjacking, mining... for just about each aspect of the game, you have a skill that increases as you perform the related actions which in turn helps you perform those actions even better.
And as for all these different categories... well, there's a ton of stuff to do and create, if you hadn't got that hint yet. You can upgrade your house at the carpenter to put in separate workstations (an area for a forge, a kitchen area, etc.) using lumber you've collected and gold from crops and other things you've sold. Then you can buy the relevant equipment (the actual forge, crafting station, different kitchen tools) from the peddler that shows up every holiday (one day that is basically the two weekend days combined), and don't forget to buy books of recipes from the book seller, and THEN you can finally start to craft those particular items.
Smithing is in the forge area, and lets you create better weapons and armor, and also increase your tool levels so that you can charge them up to effect greater areas at one go. Crafting is also in the forge area, and lets you create accessories that improve your character in various ways while you wear them. Cooking is in the kitchen, and creates food dishes that heal your HP and/or RP, and may give a temporary status effect. Alchemy creates potions that can heal you or have other effects in dungeons, and also lets you create various farming items such as potions to speed up crop growth. Then as a separate thing, you can get a fishing pole from one of the characters eventually, and start to use it for different types of fish used in cooking or sold for a profit.
To create items with the various skills, not only do you need the right equipment in your house, but you also need the proper materials, usually grown as crops or caught with fishing for cooking (along with some staples such as flour and rice bought in town), and collected in dungeons (from monsters or mining) for most of the other items, while alchemy is a mix of gathered wild items and monster drops. Then for each time you create (or enhance) an item, there is a mini-game where you stop a moving marker in the right zone on a bar, and at the end you lose an amount of RP (or HP, if you're out of RP). As the levels of the recipes go up, I believe the RP they take increases, and the difficulty of the mini-game increases with a greater disparity between your skill level and the level of the recipe. So in other words you've really got to work at getting items made and enhanced, but in the end it's very worth it.
I could go on and on, going into leveling up crops using potions and seed makers, leveling up items by getting "perfect" in the mini-gaming and using slowly better components, the different types of monsters, elements, seasons, crop-growing in the dungeons... well, you get the idea. But this is already more than long enough, so I'll just discuss one more major thing that unfortunately is not as well-implemented as the rest: Runeys.
Runeys are a new introduction to the series in Rune Factory Frontier, and are basically accumulations of runes or spirits or...whatever. Basically, a plot device. Each region on the map (of which there are about ten or twelve) has a number of runeys taking up residence in four different types. These four types in turn have a chain of life, different runeys devouring other types to increase some and decrease others. You can manage the numbers of runeys (eventually, once you... yet again... meet the right person and talk to them a bit) by using a harvester nearby to capture them, re-releasing some in areas that need repopulating, but this is time-consuming and annoying.
And while you can get a reward from this (a large number of all four types in an area lets your crops grow faster, and you can also use runeys for various "rune miracles" to affect weather, friendship, etc.), the problem is that if you let the runeys go for too long and they all die out in an area, your crop growth seriously slows down, to unmanageable levels. Which means that you've got to spend a certain amount of time at least every few days wandering around each region with a glorified vacuum cleaner instead of doing things like tending your farm or exploring dungeons. Which is plainly aggravating.
That said, as annoying as the Runey system is, I don't think it detracts enough from the game to overpower the otherwise great depth, and amount of different things to do and master.
Recommendation: This is in my mind one of the better games on the Wii, so if you own the console and like quirky games like this at all, consider giving it a shot.