To say Stardew Valley is akin to the likes of Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon would be both accurate and do the game a massive disservice. Not because it was developed by one person or sold over 400,000 copies in its first two weeks, but because Stardew Valley is so finely tuned and detailed that it puts both AAA franchises to shame.
Unlike Undertale, last year’s standout indie hit that was also created by a single dev, Stardew Valley doesn’t try to do anything new or groundbreaking. Instead of building on top of established systems, the game simplifies them, making it easy to pick up and play without the need for hand-holding tutorials. Dig a plot, plant a seed, water it and wait. Keep the fish in the green bar until you reel it in. Hit enemies with your sword until they die.
There aren’t any skills, special functions or conditions to think about. Leveling your base skills is as easy as doing the corresponding actions they pertain to. Want to level farming? Then farm. Want to level mining? Then mine.
On the surface the game seems rather elementary and dull, but there’s a reason it’s been affectionately nicknamed StarCrack Valley. The level of depth and surprises the game has lying in wait are innumerable. Even 40 hours in players find themselves discovering nuances they had no idea existed, and that’s on top of the game’s ingeniously addictive progression system.
The problem a lot of gamers have with games like Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon is their grindy nature, constantly completing repetitive tasks with no perceptive end goal in sight – or at least not one you care about. Stardew Valley gives players a steady sense of progression. Almost every major goal in the game can be reached quite quickly if you dedicate your time to it. In fact, the majority of the game can be completed in your first year despite new additions and events taking place in the second and third year.
The game uses this quick progression system to keep the player engaged while also covering all the bases in order to reach a wide audience. Do you like collectibles? Enjoy filling out your farming, fishing and mining collection sheets – not to mention restocking the museum. Do you prefer set tasks? Have fun revitalizing the community center and completing a steady stream of quests from the bulletin board and your mailbox. Maybe you’re more interested in stories and building relationships with the 28 inhabitants of Stardew Valley, all of which have multiple unique cut scenes and backstories for you to discover and enjoy. The choice is entirely up to you.
The game is so intricately woven together you can complete everything, even your farming item collection sheet, without ever planting a single crop. You’re never pigeon holed into doing something you don’t want to do just to progress in the game. You can make good money and get all your items through farming, fishing, foraging, mining and/or combat. The choice is yours.
Of course, evenly splitting your time amongst all pursuits is the most optimal way to go about things, but you won’t be frustratingly punished if you decide not to do so. The game can be a farming simulator if you choose to play it like one, but it doesn’t have to be. Even people who do go into farming tend to have fields of sprinkler systems set up by the end of their first year, making the farm practically run itself anyway.
Eric Barone, the developer of Stardew Valley who goes by the name Concerned Ape, has said he was inspired by games like Harvest Moon and set out to create something better. While he certainly achieved his main goal, the game feels riddled with nostalgic-inducing aspects that goes beyond the farming simulators it’s inspired by. From Vincent, the kid who looks like he was pulled straight out of Chrono Trigger, to the Digletts found in the mine, Stardew Valley is full of items and artwork that’ll stroke your nostalgia boner until the cows come in and then some.
After four years of development it’s clear Mr. Barone became quite skilled at pixel art, creating a vibrant world that’s pleasant to look at, which could be why Stardew Valley still regularly places among the top 12 most watched games on Twitch. The beautiful graphical style is coupled with a soothing soundtrack that matches the environment perfectly. It can get a little repetitive after a while due to a lack of variety, but the background music and sound design never gets irritating even during extended play sessions.
For most people, Stardew Valley will be a game they binge on and never play again. The replay value is astronomically low. The magic is gone once you’ve experienced and discovered everything you wanted to see, which tends to happen soon after the first year is over. Even with a co-op function coming soon, a lot of gamers have already had their fill and burned themselves out.
While definitely a negative, you have to wonder if being a quick burn is really that bad. By most measurements the average amount of time is takes to get through your first year – 30 – 40 hours of gameplay – more than justifies the $14.99 price tag. The game offers quality and quantity that may last you only a few weeks but will leave you with a pleasant, memorable experience when you’re done with it.
Some of you may find this review to be fairly vague, but exploration and discovery is what makes Stardew Valley the smash hit that it is. It came out of nowhere and surprised PC gamers with an early treat to what could easily be in the discussion for 2016’s Game of the Year.
Stardew Valley offers something for everyone. You’ll find yourself losing hours of your life to it even if you don’t like Harvest Moon or farming simulators in general – it’s that good.