Japan is often perceived as being one of the most resourceful countries, going great lengths to reuse and recycle. Set in ancient Japan, Of Rice and Ruin draws upon this ethos, featuring a gameplay loop of demon-slaying, rice farming and home cooking. Everything serves a purpose, and nothing is wasted, with the spoils of battle providing nourishment for tomorrow’s toil and challenges.
You play as Sakuna, a disgraced Goddess sent to earth to vanquish demons – a punishment for a crime far from heinous. She merely let a family of mortals, headed by a jolly overweight samurai, enter a sacred realm and devour an equally sacred food supply. A disused hilltop farm provides lodging while on earth, and the bumbling family come along for the journey, each serving a purpose as events unfold.
Together they restore the rice fields and live off the land, while the spritely (and occasionally stroppy) Sakuna uses her strength and magic to defeat surrounding evil.
A day and night cycle is in place, allowing for picturesque views as the sun rises and sets. Together with a stamina bar – replenished by hearty meals – this cycle partly governs what is possible within a single day.
Although there’s always a main quest, generally you’re free to go about things as you please. This typically involves watering, fertilizing, and de-weeding rice fields before exploring a nearby cave or forest, and then bringing resources home to cook and craft with. Either the family’s doting mother will take care of cooking or you can adjust the menu to suit, with some meals giving Sakuna a temporary stat boost.
As Sakuna discovers a traditional way of life, new skills unlock to help her become more adept at farming. Your first paddy field is unlikely to amount to much, but after discovering optimum water levels and proficient seed spacing via experimentation, subsequent seasons will yield more. For those aspiring to produce the perfect crop, numerous statistics and guides are available. Only changes in season bringing more laborious toil. Soil must be tilled, seeds sown, pests removed, and water levels adjusted accordingly depending on the season.
The end of a season entails a handful of simple harvesting mini-games, each of which rate your performance. With a typical season lasting 1-2 hours, they aren’t too intrusive, and over time you’ll learn from mistakes to become more proficient at each. We did fear that rice farming may err on the laborious side, but most tasks are far from arduous and the option is there to let the family take over, freeing up time for other pursuits.
The surrounding areas are equally ripe with resources, including meat from defeated enemies (demonic sparrows, rabbits and boars, mostly), wild vegetables, and ore to forge new weapons. Everything Sakuna collects can be reused in some way, making the game world feel wonderfully connected.
Whereas farming is viewed in third-person, areas outside the farm utilise 2.5D side-scrolling. Stages are short are exploration-based with some even looping back around, and all are intended to be revisited. Each location has a list of objectives – something easy to initially overlook– and once a certain exploration level is reached, more locations appear on the world map. While the level design isn’t exactly exemplary, locations do differ by scrolling horizontally and vertically or by featuring a boss battle.
The human helpers can later be sent to gather resources too, while Sakuna herself has the chance to visit resource-rich gathering sites which also forwards the day/night cycle.
Combat falls within the realms of chaotic – Sakuna attacks using her wide-ranging farm tools, able to strike numerous enemies at once. A pleasing ‘knockback’ mechanic is present, with every wallop sending enemies cascading. Some levels are even designed around this mechanic, including a bouncy mushroom field and a cave with smashable stones.
Sakuna is also blessed with an extendable magic scarf, not just used to reach high ledges but also to avoid damage from bosses. The first, for instance, is a giant deer with a deadly kick – it’s vital to use the scarf to swing from their neck to reach a vantage point. Bosses can be later revisited, with a chance to earn extra rewards for beating them at night – when enemies are stronger – or within a time limit.
If a stage or boss battle is proving tough, you may have to gather resources and forge a new weapon before eating an HP-boosting hearty meal and trying again. Bosses aside, enemy AI is rather predictable – at times they feel like mere obstacles stood in your path. Sakuna’s chipper tone grows wearisome too, with cries of “Rice revenge!” and “You’re outta here!” being vastly overused.
Minor gripes, all told, and they aren’t enough to distract from the fact publisher Marvellous clearly knows their audience. Of Rice and Ruin draws upon the strengths of Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons too, leading to some pleasing similarities.
Obviously, there’s the whole farming aspect. That was a given. After a few hours, some subtler influences emerge. These include being able to forage from the farm’s trees and water trenches on a daily basis, and the relaxing stroll back to the homestead, which has different sights and sounds depending on the time of day. It’s all rather relaxing, especially the sight of the summer sun glistening on the water’s surface.
More significantly, the landscape changes depending on the season, with snow and ice covering the realm during winter and orange leaves coating the ground during autumn.
There’s a lot to admire here, from the way everything serves a purpose (even poop from the outhouse can be used to fertilise the land), to the way new things are steadily introduced. The running theme of nature, rice cultivation and family mealtimes feels genuinely wholesome, and while combat isn’t the deepest – despite weapon crafting and upgradable attacks – it’s satisfying to smack enemies around. Comparisons with Muramasa and Dust: An Elysian Tail aren’t off the mark.
This isn’t an experience where you only ‘reap what you sow’ but one you can jump in and instantly enjoy, whether it’s spending half an hour exploring a location fully or taking on the challenges of all four seasons over an hour or two. If you’re looking for something daring to be different, it’s safe to say you’re going to ‘dig’ Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin.
Games with a multitude of ideas this skilfully intertwined don’t crop up often.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is out 10th Nov (US) and 20th Nov (Europe) on PS4 and Switch.