Gaming has a history of merging two seemingly dissonant ideas and finding, as if by accident, that in reality, they combine as well as fries and milkshakes (which is, to say, really well). However, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin’s concept of marrying together rice farming and hack ‘n’ slash action might just be in the grand finale of “bizarre gameplay pairings”. Despite this, for the most part, I was completely hooked.
Developed by Edelweiss and localised by XSEED Games, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin creates an addicting gameplay loop of exploring the foreboding Isle of Demons while managing your cozy little rice farm occupied by an endearing cast of characters. Both gameplay styles cleverly feed into each other, but it took some hard hours of labour to feel like the farming simulation was a worthwhile investment of my time. Thankfully, I was always pulled along by the charming story of putting aside differences and working together to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation.
STORY – OF MYTHS AND MONSTERS
The divine yet temperamental Princess Sakuna resides in the Lofty Realm where she happily drinks all day and spares little thought for the humans toiling away below her in the Lowly Realm. This all changes when she has a chance encounter with a group of humans attempting to cross the bridge connecting the two worlds in search of a wholesome meal after coming to the brink of starvation. Those humans end up causing her a big headache when they wreak havoc in her heavenly city, resulting in the group being banished to the Isle of Demons. Now, it’s her duty to protect and provide for the humans, while clearing the island of its demonic presence – even if “work” is an unfamiliar concept to her.
Sakuna is an alcoholic, narcissistic, whiney, self-righteous little brat, and I couldn’t help but love her. I’m sure some people will find her to be too loud and obnoxious, but I was personally entertained by her snappy quips and feisty retorts in large part due to the stellar localisation by XSEED Games and the strong performances by both her Japanese and English voice actor. Her character’s evolution as she comes to terms with her responsibilities as a god was touching to witness, but never came at the expense of her electric personality.
The writing also builds heartfelt familial chemistry between the rest of the cast. While each of the humans do fall within established character tropes – the clumsy yet gentle samurai, the temperamental boy, the cute toddler – I was still engaged with their arcs and endeared towards their traits. Each character’s backstory went deeper than I expected, and I grew to cherish mealtimes at day’s end as everyone sat around sharing stories over some dumplings and tea.
The mythological aspects of the game’s setting really drew me into its world and foes. I can’t say with any authority how much of the lore is rooted in actual Buddhist teachings, but the Isle of Demons acted as an intriguing location brimming with natural wonders and formidable dangers. I was driven to uncover its secrets and fulfill the ultimate goal of vanquishing the demons from its shores, but a lot of the game’s story is based on day-to-day scenarios. This blankets everything in a very homely vibe and means the stakes never feel too overbearing. Often, my main concern was to grow enough rice to feed our small community throughout the seasons, and this “living off the land” narrative tone worked in tandem with the gameplay systems.
GAMEPLAY – HARVEST BOOM
As previously mentioned, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is split into two main gameplay styles. On the one hand, there’s the rice-growing simulator which sees you cultivate a field in your home and prepare a harvest over the course of the seasons. On the other hand, there are the action levels that take you out into the island’s wilderness to slay demons and gather resources. Like a harmonious duet, these two styles complement each other well, even if individually they are hindered by some frustrating flaws.
The farming aspect of the game is rewarding if you’re willing to put the time and effort in. There is a lot to consider when it comes to harvesting a successful crop, and early on, I was left feeling in the dark with the lack of any substantial tutorials or tips. This meant my first couple of rice cycles were relatively disappointing – but I do believe this is intentional (and I’m not just saying that to make myself feel better). I gained more knowledge about how to effectively nurture my crops – such as knowing the right time to use the right fertiliser, and how much water is appropriate during which parts of the growing process – and I began to revel in mastering my farming ability.
However, this doesn’t excuse the cumbersome farming mechanics. Tilling the soil and planting the seeds as Sakuna is equivalent to steering a cruise ship through pudding as I struggled to wrap my head around her awkward physics. And again, these activities were at their most infuriating the first couple of times I undertook them, as I hadn’t unlocked any of the skills that make the process far more pleasant. This is still a problem, however, as it means most gamer’s first experience with farming in this game will likely leave them with a headache. Skills such as being able to plant multiple seeds at once, accurately check the water level, or speed up weed picking were lifesavers, but I worry about how many players would’ve already sunk by the time they arrive.
This isn’t to say I thought the rice farming was an unnecessary addition, more that I wish the developers had guided me through those early stages more and refined some of the unpolished mechanics. Because once I started to get into a rhythm with the farming, I benefitted greatly from the rewards it reaped. The protagonist’s stats are partially influenced by the type of rice she grows, and special abilities like being able to heal naturally are acquired through eating quality produce. These were fantastic incentives to grow the best harvest possible and persevere through the more tedious elements of the process.
HACK, SLASH, AND MASH
The hack ‘n’ slash action segments make for a nice counterpoint to the accumulative farming. The Isle of Demons is split into several different levels, each with its own exploration objectives to meet before unlocking more points of interest. These sections take place in 2.5D and for the most part are the beneficiaries of tight controls and interesting combat. I did find the action to be a bit too slow and mushy for my liking, as the princess heaves her weapons around like they’re full of water. I was also frustrated by how few invincibility frames there seemed to be, as it was too easy to be ping-ponged between different enemy attacks without any relief.
With that said, customising Sakuna’s attacks was satisfying in both preparation and practise. There is a sizeable amount of special attacks that can be equipped with different direction button commands, and most of them were not only unique but also useful in getting out of a variety of hairy situations. I just wish that the basic attacks actually changed more drastically depending on the weapon I was using. Every time I upgraded my arsenal it only felt like a stat boost rather than a change in moveset, which felt like laziness on behalf of the developers.
Thankfully the most interesting mechanic in these sections belongs to the Holy Raiment. Essentially operating as a grappling hook, this piece of cloth can be used in clever ways for both combat and platforming. I found it especially useful during the game’s challenging boss fights, as swinging around your foes not only repositions Sakuna but also makes her invulnerable for a valuable second or so. The Holy Raiment can also be outfitted with special moves, although I didn’t find them to be as applicable as the weapon’s special attacks. I also want to comment on the confusing telegraphing that’s used to determine what surfaces can be grappled onto, and which can’t. This is to say that certain textures look identical to each other despite having opposite functionality with the Holy Raiment. It’s just bizarre and could’ve been easily fixed.
GRAPHICS AND AUDIO – AN ISLAND OF BEAUTY
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin benefits from a vibrant visual style that draws from eastern art, with a stylised colour palette that gives the characters and setting plenty of personality. The warm, maximal lighting reminded me of a Samurai Champloo episode and the expressive character designs will remain in my memory for some time. The levels do draw from fairly tired gaming settings like caves and forests, but the art style manages to inject them with enough originality to keep them aesthetically appealing – even they do blur together after playing for a while.
The game’s soundtrack is filled with earworms, from the bubbly tunes accompanying the home area to the adventurous tracks scoring the action levels. Thankfully, their endearing composition meant I never grew fatigued of them, even as the hours piled up. I found the English voice cast did an admiral job conveying the characters’ personalities, but of course, there is the option to switch over to Japanese if you’re a purist. I did notice some of the spoken dialogue in cutscenes sounded a bit quiet and muffled like they were being recorded from under a blanket, but it was never too detrimental to my enjoyment of the scenes.
I do want to note that I experience some unstable textures and slowdown on the Switch version of the game, especially when walking through a stacked field of crops. Fortunately, the combat was largely immune to any performance issues. I do wish that some of the shadows were less jagged and that more anti-aliasing was implemented. Again, this may only be an issue on the Switch version.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin was reviewed on Nintendo Switch. A key was provided by Decibel-PR.