Sakuna: Of Rice And Ruin Review – From Little Things, Big Things Grow
PS4, Switch, Steam
You’d be forgiven for looking back at me blankly if I asked you about the Japanese developer Edelweiss, honestly, I’d have looked at you the same way had roles been reversed even 12 months ago. Edelweiss is a small, decade-old developer out of Japan who hasn’t exactly cracked the bigtime with Western Markets. A combination of niche, very Japan-centric brawlers and shmups (such as their most recent title Astebreed) have ensured that the team remained out of sight, and out of mind to everyone outside of their homeland. Their latest concoction, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is something else however; this action RPG X Rogue-lite X Farming Sim title pulls together three different gameplay loops, boasts gorgeous audio/visual properties, and is not only one of the best titles of the year, across any platform, but is sure to be the breakout title for the once minuscule developer.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is set in a fantastical take on Medieval Japan. Sakuna, the goddess of crops has been living it up for quite some time, a life of opulence paving way for carelessness, and one-day Sakuna is careless enough to allow some wandering humans to stumble into their godly realm, specifically the Capital, and in her desperate attempts to clean up the mess she proceeds to accidentally destroy an enormous supply of rice. As punishment, Sakuna, along with the intruding humans are sent to a demon-infested island, charged with clearing up the demonic threat. The relationship between Sakuna, her handy advisor Tama and then the humans is a bit testy at first as the parties bash heads over who is to blame for the unfurling situation, but as time progresses players will bear witness to a galvanising bond between the group as they find a homestead, build and maintain crops, gather resources, and slowly force back the threats to the island. Not everything goes smoothly and of course, a greater mystery begins to emerge but every bit of the narrative, even those that are fairly tropey, is superbly told and wonderfully realised through excellent writing, localisation, and acting (though not all dialogue is voice acted). While big narrative threads emerge throughout your several dozen hour-long playthrough, some of the more heartwarming moments emerge when the team gathers around the fire and eats dinner to close out each day. Some of these can be excessively loaded with exposition, but more often than not, these moments serve as a nice opportunity to learn more about your team, to bond over the day-to-day goings-on, and discuss what’s next. Speaking of which…
The gameplay and loop is the major pillar of Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin. The game is looking to blend three quite tried and true mechanics together in an inventive way. While there’s fantastic Ori and Hollow Knight inspired combat on show, those systems are underpinned by fairly deep RPG systems, but Sakuna’s growth is linked to her capabilities as a Harvest Goddess, and so maintaining (and improving) her encampments rice patties are the key to leveling Sakuna up. To improve the products you’re exporting you need to go out and farm amber, as well as dozens of other resources to improve the fertilizer which you’ll then maintain the soil with, you’ll need to sow seeds at a reasonable distance apart, maintain water levels to ensure the seeds are well fed, and a whole lot more to deliver the best produce. The better the rice, the more Sakuna levels up, and the more food there is to keep everyone fed, another core component because the meals that you and your human companions feast upon at the end of each day provide additional buffs when you re-enter the world and re-engage in combat. On top of that, there are some minor rogue-lite elements sewn throughout to encourage players to develop proficiency in the various pillars of the game.
In a game such as Sakuna where each gameplay system leans heavily upon other systems in order to operate at its best, Sakuna is one of the few titles that have one rickety wheel that bogs the experience down. Every element of the game has been expertly connected to the others to ensure that the gameplay loop constantly feels fresh, that you’re always working towards something, and you’re constantly improving your homestead, Sakuna, or even just your skills in combat. Combat itself isn’t going to suffer players who intend to spam their way through encounters either. Though a 2D action game at its core, Edelweiss has clearly taken a degree of inspiration from some of their past brawler works, and even the likes of Devil May Cry to bring small combo maneuvers into play as well. These small flourishes, combined with Sakuna’s Divine Raiment enable some truly wonderful acrobatic moves as you skirt from side to side and leave your opponents befuddled by your speed and efficiency. It becomes obvious quite quickly how far you’ve come as a player the further you progress through the game and more moves are unlocked.
For as brilliantly as Sakuna plays there are a very small handful of visual quirks that emerge, such as getting temporarily stuck in the environment, or the raiment not behaving as it ought to but overall the experience is buttery smooth, as is the game’s visual style. Sakuna is a beautiful hybrid of anime stylings with a hand-painterly style, that pop when you’re in the world exploring one of the many nodes on the overworld map, but also when the perspective shifts to 3D when you’re at the homestead tending to your crops – it’s truly a delight to behold. Not to be outshone is the games’ soundtrack which harnesses a lot of traditional Japanese tunes, while injecting a hint of modern energy to them at points. Sakuna is an audio/visual marvel that engages the senses at all times, a powerful concoction that is likely to leave players infatuated by the games’ aura.
You’re only as strong as your weakest link, and with so many links in the Sakuna chain, you expect something to give way at some stage – but it never happens. Every part of the gameplay experience holds up, and meshes together so well that it takes several disparate elements, that for all intents and purposes, simply shouldn’t go together, and brings them together in a wonderful symphony that must be played before it can be truly appreciated. Edelweiss has created something to be celebrated, a dark horse game of the year contender, and a truly fresh take on genres that we’d thought we’d seen all we could from.
Review code for Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin was kindly supplied by Marvelous via Turn Left Distribution
Born and bred on the Super Nintendo era, Paul relishes any opportunity to sink his teeth into an RPG, action or platformer. Despite being an owner of all major platforms, Paul does have a particular love of the Playstation family of consoles – take only a few minutes to skim through his Twitter and you’ll see him ranting about the next big thing on PS4. We swear he’s sane.