A game of two harvests: Does “Sakuna” make for a rice surprise?
By Tom Middler
Back in the day rice was the currency in Japan; it was how you traded, proved your wealth and status, and the finest white rice was used as an offering to the harvest goddess. The cultural roots of rice run deep in the island nation to this very day, so although it’s an unusual topic for a video game, it does make sense that the tiny Japanese game studio Edelweiss (how about that!) would have a connection to this humble cereal grain.
There are a few different ways that the two-man team have tried to make rice growing an interesting endeavour in “Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin”, and they’re tied in nicely to both the gameplay and the storyline. Sakuna, a noble and very spoiled young goddess, is a bit too high and mighty (and drunk) to do her duties, so she’s banished to a distant island with a few lowly humans, and they are never to return until they’ve fought back the nasty creatures who inhabit the place.
With the humans proving pretty useless, Sakuna has to take her own tools out around the island and use them to beat back the monsters, which allows you to gradually explore the place in a series of side-scrolling 2D levels. The combat is action-packed, and full of hit combos and a helping of godly extra abilities, but each whack is pretty satisfying, and these beasts can be tough!
Whilst Sakuna is out exploring, she’ll pick up some resources on the way; meat, minerals and all sorts of things she can take home and either cook or craft. This is where the rice comes in, and it’s a huge shift from the hunting and gathering gameplay. When Sakuna’s at home, she’s also got to tend to the rice paddy, and it’s tough work. No, like really tough!
„Sakuna“ doesn’t just tell the player how to grow rice properly, but you know you’re going to need a good crop to survive as the game’s short seasons turn to winter. Every real life aspect of rice growing is represented in the game, and the virtual farming is an incredibly detailed experience, miles away from the “click ‘n’ plant” simplicity of the ultra popular “Stardew Valley”. The only way to grow better rice is to soak up all the advice you can get, and learn with every failure - and there WILL be failures.
Planting is fiddly and manual, tilling the field is laborious, maintaining the water levels and temperatures requires concentration and skill, you better not let weeds grow, remember to scoop out the toilet and mix the compost with thousands of ingredients to make a fertiliser, and don’t forget to release some bugs in the area to combat pests. All that, and we haven’t even dried and painstakingly processed the grains yet, and of course you will have to do that if you want to improve! What the game asks you to do is frankly insane, and every little decision you make will have an outcome on your harvesting results. In fact, the farming details are so on point that if you actually know about rice farming in real life, you will apparently be able to grow good grains in the game!
For the first few “years” (each one is only a few in-game hours) my rice was rubbish, but honestly sitting down to eat it with my band of banished humans felt so satisfying anyway, because I’d properly worked hard for it. As you gradually make farming progress, tasks get easier as both the player and the character learn together, and with better rice comes a stronger Sakuna when she’s out on the hunt, so you’ll need that rice to get tasty!
The whole game is steeped in Japanese folklore, but it’s done with a very careful touch, tying the rice to the spiritual side of the culture in a quite beautiful and respectful way. The game’s tasks might be very demanding, but it all seems calculated, as it really places you the modern gamer into the role of the young spoiled goddess who suddenly has to adapt to the uncertainty of the tough new job.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is developed by Edelweiss and XSEED Games, and is out now for Nintendo Switch, PS4 and Steam
The refusal of “Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin” to hold your hand or tell you what to do makes it almost unique these days, and it means the game is a massive change in pace from what most gamers are used to. For that reason, many won’t like it, but this has “cult classic” written all over it.
Publiziert am 01.12.2020