Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin charmingly goes against the grain
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin combines growing rice with side-scrolling combat to create a refreshingly subversive experience.
Farming games are nothing new, with the likes of Harvest Moon, Story of Seasons, and Stardew Valley cultivating loyal followings for their slower paced, idyllic stylings.
Where Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin differs from its harvesting counterparts is in how much meticulous detail goes into growing a singular crop — the god-tier food staple of rice.
To label Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin just a farming sim would be grossly reductive, because there are a lot of gameplay elements at play here. Beyond growing rice, you fight demons and explore dungeons in side-scrolling action sections — a regular jaunt for rice growers, I'm sure.
You assume the role of Sakuna, a sassy mini-deity who is banished to the island of Hinoe by her parents for being a spoiled brat, essentially. Here Sakuna is tasked with clearing Hinoe's demon infestation, while assisting her crew of misfit humans and fellow banishees grow food to survive each winter.
It just so happens that Sakuna is the daughter of harvest goddess Toyohana and war god Takeribi, so she is well-equipped to fight and farm — her bratty attitude notwithstanding. What follows is a cycle of exploring the island, fighting and foraging for supplies, and managing every stage of the rice-growing process.
I'll get to the rice soon, but Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin's side-scrolling components are stronger than any farming-combat hybrid has any right to be. A significant part of this is due to Sakuna's divine raiment, a fancy garb that doubles as a grapple, which is used to latch onto enemies and zip around dungeons.
This raiment adds a fantastic level of mobility, swinging past enemies' attacks to follow up with devastating light and heavy attack combos. There's a decent amount of enemy variety as well, which keeps you engaged in trying different tactics to take them down.
Everything you do in Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin feeds back into the central focus of rice, which then influences all other gameplay elements. By defeating enemies and uncovering secret resources while exploring, you collect all manner of goods to enrich your farm.
At a base level, this includes meat and veg to eat each night, yielding a combat bonus the next day. Like real life, these perishable goods will spoil if not used in good time, placing emphasis on additional exploration to gather preservatives like salt. Plenty of other things you find while adventuring are used for weapon and armour upgrades, and mulching fertiliser for your plantation.
As satisfying as Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin's combat aspects are, they ultimately play a supporting role to the surprisingly satisfying pursuit of growing rice from scratch.
While plenty of other farming games require you to plant seeds and water them daily to bear fruit, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is a much more involved process. Which, you'd probably expect considering rice is the game's sole crop variant.
To grow rice, you need to manage all steps from the land tilling, seedling growing, planting, watering, weeding, drying, and husking of the harvested crop — there's a lot to it. Thankfully, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin competently eases you into the process with a few things at a time as to not overwhelm.
For example, your first attempt at growing the delicious grain focuses on the basics of planting and keeping the plants hydrated, followed by some of the manual labour required once the rice is ready. This first crop is pretty poor quality, but it gives you plenty of room to improve with each yearly cycle — each season comprises just three days each, so it's a pretty swift process.
Once you begin to master the basics, Sakuna gains abilities to streamline the overall process, such as visualising a grid for optimal seedling placement, or performing manual tasks faster. It's a great system because it offers satisfying feedback for your effort, as blazing through something that originally took ages to complete feels wonderful.
While it's possible to delegate many of these responsibilities to Tauemon, an oafish himbo who tries hard but struggles with everything, the results and subsequent feelings of fulfilment are far stronger if you take it upon Sakuna's tiny shoulders to put in the work.
With each rice-growing cycle, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin begins layering on new variables, such as the depth and temperature of water you use, plant diseases to manage, and different types of fertiliser — all of which contribute to the quality of the end product.
Upon each successive harvest, Sakuna grows in strength according to the rice crop's quality, enabling you to explore further and more dangerous parts of Hinoe Island, where more valuable resources can be found to put back into your plantation.
Far from just being an endless cycle of farming and fighting, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin's story plays out as you reach major milestones along the way. While the characters are initially grating due to their constant beef with one another, they become warm and amusing people to be around as their relationships deepen.
There's also plenty of interesting dialogue and dinnertime conversations about many different topics, which often revolve around Japanese mythology and the characters' differing beliefs and perspectives on spirituality. Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin's many character interactions include the endearing and sweet alongside the utterly absurd in a delightful combination.
Extremely fitting for the reverence it holds for its various subject matters, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is lovely to look at. Each location is visually interesting thanks to their different landscapes, and the soft shading effects look gorgeous, especially during golden hour on the rice plantation.
A game predominantly about growing rice wasn't one I expected to get so much joy and satisfaction out, but here we are. Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is a refreshingly subversive genre mash-up; its love and care for small details make for a deeply rewarding experience, which is apt considering it's about one of the greatest foods on the planet.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin was reviewed on a PS4 Pro with a digital copy of the game kindly provided by Turn Left Distribution.