Stardew Valley is one of those things where everyone talks about it but you don’t really know the big deal, you just kind of give it a passing shrug and move on with your life, like the Wire or Breaking Bad, Overwatch or Minecraft. Then you start to play it, and your reaction is a slow “Oh. Oh My. I get it now.”
Stardew Valley is one of those have to see it to believe it. But I’ll do my best to define it in this review. Brought to us by lone developer CorneredApe, Stardew Valley is a marriage of Harvest Moon, Minecraft and some of the most quietly depressing bits of Small Town USA. You start out as a cog in the corporate machine, half-dead already as you slowly clack away at a computer in a cubicle. Just one of who knows how many. Your only recourse from this souless place being a rickety farm in some nowhere town far and away from normal civilization left to you by your deceased grandfather. You decide to go for it, because what do you have to lose?
Well it turns out, kind of everything. The farm is a junkyard of overgrown wildlife unfit to grow anything, the town is going through it’s own small depressing struggles, but hey, at least it’s a fresh start. This won’t be too unfamiliar to anyone that’s ever touched a Harvest Moon game or its sister series, Rune Factory. You get yourself a major fixer upper, and convert it into a productive produce factory. Made slightly better and more engaging by Stardew Valley, as some of those Minecraftian-in-nature elements come into play allowing you to build your own furniture, home improvements and farm gear, or outsource the building of vital structures to other tradesman in town. Or in the forest, as the case is with the wizard, did I mention the wizard?
Yes. This game is a nice little marriage of farm simulator, real life dramedy and pure RPG fantasy. There are wizards, witches, forest spirits, magic artifacts and monsters to fight, if that’s your thing. If not then you can always make yourself a bit of a fishing magnate. Or maybe you just want to be a miner, plumbing deep caves and dried mines for few bits of precious ore to smelt. This game gives you options on top of options. Some of the more goal oriented or money hungry among us may find there’s an ‘optimized’ way to play, but with the option to go an adventurer, forager, craftsman, farmer, social butterfly, miner, fisher or even a gambler, you’ll find there’s more to do than just clearing weeds and sowing seeds, and chances are you’ll want to do it all.
In fact the game quietly encourages one of two different gameplay patterns. Through either enrolling the town in a membership program for the aforementioned souless corporation, which is a more financially minded route, to cleaning up and supporting the local community center, which is for those who want to see and do a little bit of everything. Several ‘quests’ will also be sure you steal away from your parsnips and kale for a little bit to see other parts of the map. There’s an entire magic forest to explore and a spooky monster infested mine after all.
The townsfolk are simultaneously charming and fun, yet depressing and stuck in a rut. This is very much Anytown USA, a place despite my big city rearing I’m well familiar with. It’s got a small population, everyone knows everyone else, and the new farmer coming to town is the most exciting thing in… well… ever. The younger people play video games, recall high school glory and (allegedly) throw rocks at the resident homeless man. The older folks have resigned themselves to routine or self medicating with alcohol and television. Everyone is trying to do their best to just exist, and for the most part they’re pleasant about it, but they could use a bit of a leg up. That’s where you come in. You get to brighten things up with events, supporting local economy and giving gifts. You see George, the crotchety old man in a wheel chair over there? Pick him a leek from the mountains, he loves those. To complete the entire illusion is Joja Corp, owner of megamarts and fracking operations. You get the feeling they’re not really ‘healthy’ for the town… Or anyone really, but you do have the ability to run them out of town, or help them control the town.
Therein lies what’s so great about the game. Similar to the titles it clearly takes great inspiration from, there’s no right or wrong, your goals are your own. Sure in my game my farmer Jim with his big afro and scraggly beard has his eye on local too intelligent-for-her-trailer school teacher Penny, he’s growing a major kale operation as his lazy cat watches him toil all day, by noon he’s doing favors for forest spirits and on weekends clearing out monsters to climb Adventurer’s Guild ranks, always making it to the bar by 7PM to for a round. Versus my buddy who enjoys cave diving for rare gems and crystals and feeding them to his goth wife while crafting bigger and bigger explosives (which I assure you are just to clear more rocks), or dear sis who only sells or eats what the sea gives her and rolls some mean sushi. Still having a hard time? Rummage through people’s trash! Heck you even pick the type of farm you want to work, from the tiny islands of the Riverland Farm to the monster infested Wilderness farm. Stardew’s what you make it, and the added cutscenes for triggering special events are just a bonus, the bigger accomplishment for me was finishing that gigantic fencing project I had started, and affording to raise bunnies. Hey, raising meat rabbits is something I’ve always dreamed.
It’s all tied together with a simple but colorful and engaging look. Seriously, when you load up Stardew Valley and it just happens to be a day where the Cherry Blossom petals are falling you’ll be in love. The game does have a bit of weirdness with resolution differences, especially with the UI, but that’s not a huge problem and considering this was all made by one person, it is overall forgivable. Similarly the music is simple and constantly looping, but it’s not grating, so it never ‘feels’ repetitive. Every tool, weapon and barn animal sounds exactly how they’re supposed to. Not to mention some of the character animations are downright fun. The shocked look or balloon sweat drops characters would often give blasted me right back to the good old days of Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana Final Fantasy VI when it was called Final Fantasy 3.
Stardew Valley is the simple life, with just enough depth so you don’t get bored anytime soon. With self set goals, lots of fun Easter eggs, and gameplay that easily supports a ‘do as you like, not as we tell you’ approach, I would highly recommend this to anyone that’s a fan of farming RPGs, sandbox builders or just wants a break from the loud guns and spectacle based gameplay of most other offerings. This is the kind of game you kick back to with a stalk of wheat in your mouth,