Exploring Rune Factory's rural village of Kardia is like shaking a snow globe; the town is small but nuanced, perfectly preserved yet dynamic. Like the last 10 years' worth of Harvest Moon games, Rune Factory challenges you to lead a simple country life, farming a plot of land, fishing the local waters, and trading your way up in the local economy. While the endless routine of planting, watering, and harvesting has its appeal, the hook lies in becoming a part of the community: Your neighbors chat and gossip, drink and flirt, and the better they know you, the more they'll trust you with their secrets and lives.

Rune Factory puts a spin on this anime Our Town by letting you play hunter as well as gatherer. A series of monster-spawning dungeons lie outside Kardia, and you'll conquer each one for quest items and farm resources. The combat is surprisingly active, the storyline is epic, and spelunking makes a great rainy-day activity. But RPG fans shouldn't make that the reason to leap into Harvest Moon, especially if they aren't incredibly patient. The rhythm of working your farm and saying hi to your neighbors is the real reason to commit hours to Kardia life.

Beyond the game: With an Internet connection, players can write letters to each other, or trade bamboo shoots and love snappers.

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Worth playing for: Like to flirt with girls in games? Almost a dozen eligible young ladies will consider a marriage proposal—after a long, long wooing period.

Frustration sets in when: Newcomers to the Harvest Moon games won't get much help. The game walks you through the basics, but it's easy to miss the subtler opportunities. For example, there's no bigger bummer than showing up at the town-wide cookie festival empty-handed because you haven't figured out how to bake.

Final judgment: Father Wesley, the town priest, urges you to lead a "meaningful life"; this small-town sim shows the way.

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