For the third time in less than two years, I have COVID-19. Whenever an illness has forced me to stay in bed, my comfort food has been gaming. In 2009 I played through all of Assassin’s Creed II in a feverish, swine flu-induced haze. When I was sick with COVID for the first time, I jumped into Red Dead Redemption 2 blind, and found a story about sickness and human mortality. Now, during one of the most stacked years in recent gaming history, I find myself under the covers not with Starfield, Spider-Man 2 or any of the other big fall releases. Instead, my bedside companion is a small Apple Arcade exclusive called Japanese Rural Life Adventure.
I discovered this gem through an X account that tweets about upcoming indie games. I took one look at Japanese Rural Life Adventure and knew I had to play it. The game features a beautiful pixel art style, and a pastoral setting evocative of anime classics like Only Yesterday and Wolf Children. What I didn’t expect to find was a heartwarming experience about the importance of community.
In its opening hours, Japanese Rural Life Adventure plays out much like Stardew Valley or, for that matter, any other farming sim made in the past two decades. When the game’s protagonist first arrives in the countryside, they find their new home in disrepair, nearly every inch of the surrounding fields overgrown with weeds. But following a predictable start, the game shows its true character.
Almost uniquely among other games in the genre, Japanese Rural Life Adventure doesn’t include any romantic partners for the player’s character to pursue. Nearly everyone you meet is elderly. They complain of aching bones, bad backs and a dim future where there aren’t any young people to carry on their community’s traditions.
“I was born and raised in the city, in a big town. I have no memories of playing in rivers, climbing mountains, or anything like that,” Takeo Fujita, the founder of Japanese Rural Life Adventure developer GAME START, told me over email. “I have no older relatives living in the countryside. In other words, you could say that the ‘gentle and simple countryside’ found in Japanese Rural Life Adventure comes from a sense of longing that I felt watching and reading Japanese TV dramas and manga.”
Longing for a simpler life is something that pervades Japanese Rural Life Adventure – not just its setting, but also its mechanics and the scale of its gameplay. For all the time I’ve put into the game, I have not become a farming mogul. At most, it’s possible to plant and maintain four fields for growing rice and produce, alongside a few fruit trees. In fact, there’s only so much “work” for your character to do in a single day. And the days, compared to those in Stardew Valley or recent Harvest Moon entries, are long, adding to the sense of a slower pace of life.
Japanese Rural Life Adventure consistently pushed me to slow down and appreciate everything it had to offer beyond farming: fishing, bug catching, cooking and photographing wildlife, all of which have their own fun minigames associated with them. Sometimes, I would just let my character rest on the front porch to watch a cherry blossom tree shed its pedals or to bask in the sparkle of fireflies at night.
At first, Japanese Rural Life Adventure limits players to the small area around their farm. More often than not, advancing the plot or opening a new section of the game involves helping others. Before I could buy seeds to grow my first batch of cucumbers and daikon radishes, I first had to build a bench for an old peddler lady to sit and rest. After completing a few of the game’s early objectives, including the partial restoration of a local Shinto shrine, the nearby town unlocks.
The town is in a sorry state when you first visit. The roads are weed-ridden and potholed. Nearly every building is falling apart. The young people are long gone. It’s one step removed from becoming a ghost town.
As it turns out, this town is the heart of Japanese Rural Life Adventure. After exploring it for a bit, I meet the village head, who tasks my character with restoring the decaying roads and buildings, including a Buddist temple and schoolhouse, all in hopes of bringing tourists who will help revitalize the local economy.
I didn’t expect this from Japanese Rural Life Adventure. In Japan, declining birth rates and one of the world’s oldest populations threaten to erase rural life as the country knows it. A 2019 Bloomberg article, citing data from the Japan Policy Council, frames the stakes succinctly: “If current trends continue, by 2040, 869 municipalities – nearly half of Japan’s total – will be at risk of vanishing.”
Fujita says GAME START didn’t set out to create a game about the plight of his country’s towns and villages. “When developing games, we do not consider difficult themes such as vanishing rural communities or population aging. We believe that games should be something you can enjoy and forget about everyday life,” he said. “‘Growth’ and ‘development’ are elements that can make a game attractive to prospective players. So we adopted ‘village regeneration’ as one of the themes of the game.”
To some extent, all games like Japanese Rural Life Adventure share an interest in community. After all, it’s safe to say part of the reason why so many people love Stardew Valley is because of Pelican Town and all the weird and wonderful characters that inhabit it. However, in orienting almost all of the player’s actions towards the betterment of its unnamed town, Japanese Rural Life Adventure puts community front and center in a way I hadn’t seen in the genre before. It’s also that focus that makes the game feel fresh and compelling.
Take the restoration project I mentioned earlier. The village head compensates the player for completing the tasks he assigns to them, but I found the money I earned was often only enough to cover the costs of the next repair I needed to complete. More rewarding was seeing the results of my efforts. The project culminates in a summer festival that requires a significant investment from the player, both in terms of time and money spent. Before I could even start preparing for the event, I first had to repair and repaint the torii gates of the temple where the town planned to hold the festival. It was also up to me to produce the 21 chochin lanterns needed to light everything. This task consumed a few hours of my time, but the reward was a beautiful night time celebration that felt like a culmination of everything I had done up to that point. The fact I won a young koi fish to release in the pond in front of my house was a bonus.
Often, Japanese Rural Life Adventure doesn’t feature a lot of mechanical sophistication. Watering plants is as straightforward as a single tap, and most other tasks involve either foraging or buying the right items, but what it has a lot of is heart. That was something I needed.
Japanese Rural Life Adventure is currently available on iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple TV.
This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/apple-arcade-exclusive-japanese-rural-life-adventure-review-170006419.html?src=rss