As comedian Mitch Hedberg once said: “Rice is great when you’re hungry and you want 2,000 of something.” You can buy it anywhere. Everywhere. But those grains don’t come from nowhere – they are grown in huge flooded paddy fields, filled with workers who painstakingly harvest the stalks, dry them on racks, hull them, and process them into white rice. It’s not a process many are familiar with, but every single grain of rice has been through it, and you just shovel 2,000 of them into your mouth like it doesn’t even matter. Rice just wants to feel appreciated, you know.
Enter Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin, possibly the only ever game to lovingly recreate, with great care and attention to detail, the arduous task of rice farming. What’s more, it does so with the punishing addition of not actually telling you how to farm rice. At least, not in a tutorial. Sakuna: Of Rice And Ruin doles out its information slowly, and secretly, in the form of NPC dialogue and hard-to-find scrolls that give more information. It also doesn’t tell you that, though.
This opaqueness is not by accident. The story is about a spoiled, exiled goddess who must learn the values of humility, teamwork, and discipline through manual labour and ridding the world of demons. Each day, Sakuna has a certain level of energy, provided by the meal she ate last night, to perform a few tasks. This can be tending to the rice paddy – sowing the seeds, fertilising the soil, pulling weeds, catching pests, or harvesting and milling the grains – or it can be spent out in the world, in various action-platforming levels filled with monsters.
In both cases, Sakuna starts ignorant, unskilled, and weak. Every enemy poses a real threat, and every stage of rice growth will leave you wondering if you did it right this time. Improving the rice will improve the meals you eat the day before, giving Sakuna extra boosts to her experience, health, and strength. Exploring areas as much as possible will level up the general map, opening new places with new forageable items that can be turned into new equipment or fertiliser.
The farming and life simulation part of the game is done in full 3D, where Sakuna can run between the blacksmith, tailor, rice paddy, and main building to complete the first few tasks of the day and furnish herself with new equipment. But the demon-slaying part takes place in an almost entirely different style: a 2.5D action-platformer, in which Sakuna must use her hoes, shovels, and sickles to fight monsters, along with her godly grappling-hook Divine Raiment, which looks a lot like a big, glowing scarf.
There’s not really any blending between the two modes, and it’s hard to know which one is more important. Should Sakuna’s foraged food be made into fertiliser for the rice, or should it be turned into meals to beef up her stats for the next foray into demon territory? There is no answer, and that’s the point: Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin wants you, and Sakuna, to figure out what to do by messing up and trying again.
Of course, that’s not always exactly fun, and there are times when Sakuna: Of Rice And Ruin feels punishingly obtuse, especially when coming up against a difficulty curve that looks more like a cliff. Many of the platforming levels are maze-like and confusing, the platforming can get quite fiddly, and the quests – often something like “find the treasure” or “clear the area” – give no real direction, leaving the player to bash their head again and again against a wall that gives no indication of cracking. Progress is locked behind these quests, so there will be long periods of stagnation until you can figure out how to complete them. Likewise, the rice farming takes an age to figure out – it’s only in the third or fourth year of farming that it even starts to become clear how to actually grow the damn things properly.
Unlike Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley, though, it’s a matter of hours to get through a few years in “Sakuna time”. There are four seasons, each one only three days long, so growing rice is less arduous than it might seem at first glance. The actual work of growing, harvesting, and preparing rice is incredibly tedious, because developers Edelweiss made sure to recreate the process as faithfully as possible, and it’s tedious in real life, too. Luckily, the more you do the various tasks – weeding, sowing, harvesting, drying, threshing, and hulling – the better and faster you’ll get at it, thanks to buffs that unlock gradually. It’s still very boring, but that’s sort of the point of the game: hard work is its own reward.
It’s not just about internal validation, though – the game will reward your efforts with story. Sakuna is set on a background of Japanese history, and every now and again, the NPCs will discuss some element of culture or religion over a meal. The NPCs themselves are quite passive and not particularly interesting, which is a shame, but every now and again there will be a short cutscene where the details of their lives are sketched out just a little more. You might think that spending several years in exile with a bunch of humans might mean that you would know them quite well, but apparently not.
Sakuna: Of Rice And Ruin doesn’t quite pull it off in every way. The combat can be fiddly, repetitive, and slow, especially with long boss battles. The hunger gauge seems to deplete very quickly, and it’s hard to get much done in one day because of it. It’s tricky to figure out if you’re wasting time, or using your time wrongly, with the scarcity of information the game gives you. It’s also easy to get stuck on a quest for ages because it’s just too hard. But it all still seems intentional – Sakuna is one of those games where all its flaws can be explained by its main conceit: this is a game about learning patience.
Lovers of Stardew Valley and Harvest Moon may not find this game to be exactly the kind of farming they enjoy – it’s more like, you know, actual farming, with all the tiny changes in fertiliser recipes and water temperature that farming requires. But for anyone who needs to practise mindfulness, patience, and appreciation for the small things (all 2,000 of them), Sakuna: Of Rice And Ruin may just be the therapy you need.