Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin (Switch) Review
As far as remedies to 2020 go, a mechanically dense agriculture simulator that doubles as a sidescrolling beat ’em’ up might not be the first thing that springs to mind. And yet, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is inexplicably one of the calmest and most rewarding games I’ve experienced in this nightmare of a year. At every turn, it surprises and delights with a pastiche of ideas and mechanics that shouldn’t work but somehow do.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is a game about a lot of things. Not only that, it’s about the relationships between those things, deftly weaving a whole bunch of discordant elements with magical cohesion. You’ll play as the titular role Sakuna, a God cast out from the afterlife when she Mr. Magoo’s her way into some trouble involving a gang of wayward human souls. As penance for their mistakes, the gang is banished to a mystical island that has been long overrun by demons. It’s the ultimate “you can come out of your room when you understand what you’ve done” lesson, a passive-aggressive and amusing means of establishing the main thrust of the adventure.
While the set up may initially feel a touch too loose, it does ultimately provide stellar moments of pathos and delivers a couple of intriguing beats along the way. Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is never exactly subtle about the emotional lessons it wants to teach you but it is disarmingly earnest in the way it goes about it.
The island essentially operates as a frontier to be conquered by Sakuna, a birthright for her as the daughter of the gods of combat and harvest. This is accomplished through the game’s two distinct play styles – sidescrolling action combat and fully 3D third-person farming simulation. I know, as I said earlier, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is a lot. When I first heard of the premise for the game I assumed the farming sections would be fairly stripped back as perfectly balancing both playstyles would be a huge task. I was thankfully so very wrong; Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin treats both with equal care and attention making for a uniquely fantastic experience.
Better yet, they balance each other out and directly feed into one another. Sakuna’s combat heritage equips her with the gusto required to scavenge for supplies in the demon-infested ruins and caves littering the island. These sections are primarily linear side-scrolling stages with the usual assortment of combat trials, secret areas, environmental puzzles and hazards and the like. Strewn throughout are shrubs, ore veins and countless enemies for Sakuna to plunder, gathering dozens of different resources used back at the farmstead.
The combat and exploration loop reads as a pretty standard affair on paper but tight mechanics and smooth animations elevate the experience. You have your light and heavy attacks that can be intuitively transformed by tilting the stick in different directions, as well as a large suite of specialised abilities and upgradeable weapons. Difficulty does ramp up over time but Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is also generous with its various stat buffs and accommodates both button mashing and more considerate playstyles. A day/night cycle also offers an organic difficulty barrier as hunting once the sun goes down drastically increases the demon’s powers.
Sakuna is also equipped with the fanciest Hookshot I have ever seen in the form of her Divine Raiment. A luxuriously long scarf that instantly turns into a grapple (among other things), the Raiment can whip Sakuna across gaps and somersault her over enemies with ease. Its uses in exploration are pretty obvious but it is also seamlessly folded into combat encounters too, enabling quick-paced mobility and adding another layer to the combo system.
While it is a blast to play most of the time, there are a couple of minor hiccups that hold it back from being its best self. Occasionally after Sakuna’s attacks collide with an enemy there are small stutters which hamper the flow of combos and just generally feel off. There are also some frustratingly extended I-frames after an enemy is knocked down to the ground which also interrupts an otherwise well-oiled machine. Granted, these issues (along with the occasional physics glitch) do very little to detract from the overall package and future updates have already been promised by Edelweiss at least.
Once you return to the farm with your hard-earned supplies the game shifts perspectives both mechanically and thematically. Drawing on her mother’s legacy, Sakuna and the gang need to cultivate the rice fields in order to grow enough food to sustain them in purgatory. The farm is a fully 3D explorable environment with upgradable facilities and even a cute little training cave. Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is never a bad looking game but the farm is easily its crowning achievement. Storybook colour saturation and an art style that evokes Ghibli’s fantastical works are beautifully realised here. Combined with some very fancy lighting and water effects, I never got tired of just vibing at my little home.
But let’s get back to what we’re all here for — rice. The farming sim mechanics are wonderfully complex and involved, offering up a good balance of stat-based progression and minigame engagement. Every step of the process is accounted for and part of the mechanics, which means you’ll receive ratings for everything from your seed placement to the end product’s nutritional value. Over time you’ll improve your skills and unlock tools to make the process easier and even expand into more fields for better yields at the end of the year. There is a cycle of seasons at play too meaning you need to ensure you’ve harvested the crops before the winter chill sets in.
Investing in your rice-growing skills produces more food for your little family of course but it also directly impacts your combat effectiveness. Sakuna’s need to balance both her parents’ legacies is beautifully woven into the mechanics here, as a better grasp on the agriculture means better stats when out exploring. It forces you to slow down and invest in your crops, yielding tangible buffs to your attacks and abilities for your hard work in the game’s quieter moments. You’re able to enhance your rice by using special ingredients in the manure, keeping a keen eye on the water level, and being patient during the post-growth processing.
In between exploration and farming, you’re also encouraged to bond with the rest of the gang. I said before that Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin isn’t subtle with its storytelling and that remains true for much of the game, but the script in its moment-to-moment dialogue can be surprisingly moving and funny. Every night the whole squad gathers around for dinner, often prompting lengthy exchanges about a whole host of topics. My favourite was a family-wide discourse about how faith and vegetarianism intersect of all things. Pro-tip though: turn on the Japanese audio track — the English dub is a little too saccharine uwu.
Sakuna herself being a literal God should tell you right away that the game isn’t shy about its exploration of faith. It liberally draws on traditional Japanese mythology, both aesthetically and thematically, to great effect. The core concept of a God who needs to learn the value of hard work and family isn’t too far removed from an animated classic but imbues the game, and it’s mechanics, with genuine warmth. There is comfort in repetition, in the cycles of work and reward, and losing yourself in it for a dozen or so hours is a mighty fine way to combat 2020.
On the technical side, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin also performs admirably on the Switch. In both handheld mode and docked the game runs smoothly and feels uncompromised in its presentation. Again, a couple of minor visual bugs can occur during combat but even at its most graphically intense the game remains stable. The sound design is also worthy of special mention too, blending a subtle score with well mixed ambient sounds. One evening at the farm saw a storm roll in and I just hung out under the decking, listening to the rain and the crickets watching my little field of rice.
Ultimately those little moments at the farm, bonding with the gang or appreciating the ambience, are how I think back on Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin. It’s action portions are also exceptionally well-executed, seamlessly tying together the hard work you put into your crops with the badass moves you get to execute out in the field. Its blend of action, farming sim and wholesome writing is one of 2020’s many surprises but finally a welcome one.
+ Fully realised balance of combat and farming mechanics
+ Wholesome and rewarding narrative
+ Gorgeous art direction and vibe
+ Runs well in both handheld and docked
- Occasional hiccups during combat animations
- Overarching script can be clunky