Stardew Valley PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Vita Developed by ConcernedApe Released in 2016
The very first theme we used for an indie month saw us going back to popular indie darlings of old and, given a few years, I feel we might have seen Stardew Valley pop up if we did that theme again. This little game about farming took the community by storm and had people putting aside their guns and swords to take up a hoe and grow tomatoes. Truly a wonderful thing, though I must admit my relationship with the game is troubled.
Abandoning the city
After creating your avatar, the game presents players with a brief intro. You are one of countless desk job employees at a large firm in the big city, until one day you decide you are tired of your current life and open up an envelope left to you by your grandfather. The letter inside names you the heir to a farm in the small village of Stardew Valley, so you pack up your stuff and move there, only to find the property overgrown and largely in shambles. Seem like you’ll have to put in some real work to get it back to its glory days!
Stardew Valley is a nice enough village, surrounded by nature and bordering on the ocean to boot, but what I like is that it isn’t utterly idyllic. Like your own farm, the village and its people have seen better days, you can spot all sorts of trash in abandoned places, the community center hasn’t been used in years, a sewer dumps its load straight into the sea, and a big chain supermarket is driving local retailers out of business. It’s not rotten and without its beauty, but in a similar twist the people are divided too. Many are certainly the kind of people you’d expect in a village, the excitable mayor looking to bring people together, village kids, an endearing old couple looking after their grandson, but everybody has a story to discover, and while not everybody has some dark twist to them, you certainly feel like every character has depth to it that you are invited to discover through continued interaction with them.
Learning more about the village and its people is a fun activity, both in how you achieve it through gameplay and the reward for doing so. Characters like the washed up alcoholic Shane are initially hostile to you, but share a few pints with him in the pub after work and you’ll find him opening up to you, sharing his troubles and passions. It’s a great setting and one I feel developers looking to improve their world building and design could stand to learn a lot from.
Story score: 10/10
Always on the clock
I have been calling Stardew Valley a farming game up until now, but it’d be more honest to say it’s a time management game. You have a few years to play through, with four seasons each that have an amount of playable days roughly equivalent to a single month. Each day you wake up and decide what to do. Farming is certainly the direction the game steers you into, having you plow the field with a hoe, plant seeds, and water them every day until the crops are grown a few in-game days later, but there are alternatives. Players can fish in the various different waters around Stardew, delve into its mine to battle monsters and obtain valuable ores, or go around socializing with people. There are a ton of activities to do and that list I just named there only covers the most developed of them.
At the end of the day you put everything you want to sell off in the box next to your house and during the night the game converts it all into money, which you can spend on all sorts of items in the various stores. Each activity you can do also has its own level that improves as you do it, yielding increased proficiency and bonuses, and there are quests to pick up that often see you using these skills to procure something specific that an NPC wants.
There is a lot to do in Stardew Valley and also enough to work towards to make it worthwhile. You may start with cutting some trees, mining some rocks, and clearing the grass to set up a few patches of parsnips, but as your finances grow you’ll be able to clear out large swathes of land to grow increasingly more valuable crops. You’ll use fertilizers and chemicals to improve your wares, craft devices with which to turn them into even better products (like tasty jam!) and, once you have come far enough, you can have Robin the carpenter make you some buildings to house animals in. Even after hours of play you’ll still find yourself barely scraping the surface of what the game has to offer, there is a really good balance at play where you feel like you are always making progress without the game spilling all its toys on you too soon. It feels great to unlock something new or finally get all the resources together to upgrade a building.
Still, after just a little more than an in-game year I found the game wearing on me and the knowledge that I was only at 1/4th of the ride didn’t sit well with me either. This game certainly has the “one more turn” appeal as a new days starts and you immediately want to water your crops and check on your favorite characters, or a well-timed rainy day allows you to delve into the mines instead of minding the farm, but in that year of playing I had pretty much reached my personal goals with the game and didn’t feel like working towards much else. I had the farm at a size I was comfortable with, I had some animals, part of the work was automated, and I had married one of my favorite characters. At that point I honestly just didn’t feel like playing more of it, and some of the game’s more obnoxious design elements began to annoy me.
You see, the game puts a lot of pressure on you to maximize the use of your time while simultaneously throwing as many roadblocks before you as possible. You should probably get your daily chores done before meeting friends, but those friends take particularly harshly to it if you don’t meet them once a day. Friendship points you accumulate through conversations, favors, and gifts begin to tick down when you miss them a day or give them presents they don’t like. While there are dialogue hints for what presents are appropriate, the AI runs on a very detailed schedule that can make it pretty darn hard to find them. Characters might give you a quest to complete within a time limit only to spend hours at a time sitting in a room you are not permitted to enter.
Likewise stores have the most bizarre business hours, often leaving me carrying a load of items around for days at a time because every time I am finally done with chores, everywhere I go the stores are already closed or its owners are doing something else. Another bug bear of mine are the controls, which are awfully specific when it comes to targeting. When you have to go through the same patches of potatoes every day to water the darn things it begins to get more than a little annoying how liberally the game interprets what piece of dirt you are aiming for. It gets even more risky when axes or mining equipment begin to get involved. Also frustrating is the gifting, as the game will automatically assume anything you got selected (except for tools) is an item you intend to give away to the first person you interact with. This often caused me to annoy villagers by giving them trash or giving away extremely valuable goods. At other times you are trying to give someone a gift and the game suddenly assumes you want to use it, so you are left standing a few centimeters away from your crush, devouring a handful of beautiful flowers.
It’s certainly an addicting game with a large scope and lots of content, but not one I can see myself ever completing to the actual ending. It’s entertaining to watch your farm advance as you level up skills and gain new equipment, but after some fifty hours it really did begin to feel like I was getting up every day to do chores. That is still a good fifty hours of fun I had, but afterward I really couldn’t get into the game anymore.
Gameplay score: 6/10
Super Nintendo certified
Like many indie games before it, Stardew Valley utilizes a pixelart style to create a look deliberately invoking memories of 16-bit games. The difference here is that Stardew Valley does this while still looking really darn good, a pretty important difference I’d say.
Each area looks fantastic, each structure, person, and object detailed, and all of it comes alive through the use of small animations. The picture this all paints is colorful and lively, which matches the serene music pieces that were composed for the game. The flexibility of the sprites amazed me the most, as there are a lot of special animations that play out as characters follow their schedules or during special scenes you unlock through befriending them. Even your own character has some. While the town is a bit static as a whole, there are some random elements such as critters running around, and during a few days the town may look different due to celebrations or because of the seasons.
Presentation score: 8/10
Get me a little bit of everything
The most important side-quest in the game involves the collections at the abandoned town center. Small, magical creatures have made their home here, and in return for offerings they will help you improve the town and tidy up the building at the same time. This unlocks special features like the mine-carts or restores old structures like the bridge, which are cool targets to work towards. However, to keep this quest interesting way into the late game, completing the bundles of offerings is made kind of frustrating. Some are quite easy, such as the ones that just want items you find on the ground throughout the seasons or grow from your farm, but others are much harder to acquire.
The most frustrating are the fishing bundles, as fish are picky about when they show up. Some only show up during the few, rare days when it rains, others only at night when you are already tired out, and even then it is all down to chance whether you get your rare fish or just end up catching a load of the most common ones. Other collections demand you get a variety of items, some of which may require you to run your farm in ways you don’t like. If you already have a full coop of chickens it’s a major hassle to be asked to acquire a duck feather all of a sudden. The special store which offers a somewhat-randomized assortment of items each day it opens can help somewhat, but it’s pure chance whether it’ll allow you to bypass bundles you can’t otherwise complete.
I am not entirely fond of this whole system, though I will say its rewards are certainly worth a lot of effort. A much better reward for your time, I find, are the heart events of the villagers. As you level up your relationship with them through daily interactions, there are cutscenes that can be triggered after reaching a certain level of hearts and being in the same area as them when certain conditions are met. It takes a bit of effort to figure out how to find them, but it was these scenes that really made me appreciate the characters, and which often shattered some of my assumptions on them. One of the early ones that cast a character in a whole new light for me was the first heart event for Sam, which simply showed an interaction between him and his brother. I am not going to spoil it, of course, I am just going to say it suddenly had me popping in to say “hi” to the dude every day, eager to see what his next heart event might bring.
Extras score: 7.5/10
There is a lot of charm to Stardew Valley and I feel it’s genuinely one of the best indie games of recent years. It takes the gameplay of Harvest Moon and expands on it tremendously while offering a gripping story where you decide what villagers you want to get to know. You should probably get it and just allow yourself to be taken along, don’t try to max out the potential of your farm all the time or restart the game because you feel you could have done things better. That’s when the few flaws in the game’s design begin to get really obnoxious. Just relax, take your time, and grow some tasty potatoes.