Friends, Farming, and Fun
When I was in eighth grade—around the age of 13 or 14—I had a fairly well-established routine. I would begrudgingly go to school, come home, do my homework, and then play Harvest Moon 64 until I had to go to bed. After I received a PlayStation as a graduation present, I kept the same routine and moved on to Harvest Moon: Back To Nature. I've had a soft spot for farming games ever since, and Stardew Valley (developed by ConcernedApe and published by Chucklefish) is just about the finest game of this style that I have ever played.
After creating a character, the player begins their journey working an office job at JoJa Corporation. JoJa Corporation is a company so bereft of empathy that one of the employees has been reduced to a literal skeleton. The player character receives a letter from their Grandpa imploring that they come to Stardew Valley and get a fresh perspective on their life. Anxious for a change in pace, the player takes a bus to Stardew Valley with little more than pocket change and their Grandpa's letter.
Once you arrive, you're treated to a tour of your farm and the general area. Everything is an absolute mess. Your home is a one-room cabin, and the farm itself is horribly overgrown with weeds, grass, trees, and various other bits of nature. You are then given a quest to introduce yourself to at least twenty-eight people in the village and are generally free to do whatever you would like.
Stardew Valley is a very open-ended game that puts a lot of emphasis on player freedom. You could, in theory, earn or spend absolutely no money whatsoever and elect to simply talk to all of the villagers on a daily basis to increase your friendship with them. You could ignore everyone in the village and become an entrepreneur who ships crops by the hundreds every season. You could ignore farming entirely and simply choose to raise animals. You could even leave your farm exactly as it is and spend your time digging for minerals in the mines and fishing in the lakes, rivers, and ocean of Stardew Valley.
Most players will probably do some mix of the above. They'll form friendships with a handful of villagers. They'll do a bit of farming. They'll have Robin the carpenter build a barn or a chicken coop and raise some animals. Some absolute madmen such as myself will try to do a lot of everything. By the end of the game, I had a wife, one kid, five hundred and twenty farm plots, four barns, two coops, and a small fleet of crab pots floating in a lake and the ocean.
Stardew Valley is a game that gives you a lot of different systems that all interact with one another. Farming is one of the most straightforward. Till a few squares of land with your hoe, plant some seeds appropriate for the season in the tilled soil, and then water the seeds. Do this every day until the crops are grown, harvest them, and throw them in the shipping box that's next to your house. At the end of the day, your earnings will be calculated based on what you tossed in the bin.
I've filled my entire field with crops in Harvest Moon: Back to Nature, and it is an incredibly taxing endeavor. There just isn't enough time to handle everything by yourself, full stop. Even when you use upgraded tools you have to hit the ground running to be able to water everything on a daily basis. Stardew Valley had the sense to implement craftable sprinklers, which automatically water adjacent plots at the beginning of the day. They're not the cheapest things to put together for a new player, but the time you save is worth more than gold.
Raising animals requires a significantly greater startup cost compared to farming. Farming requires that you purchase seeds, till a bit of land, plant seeds, and keep them watered. Raising animals require that you construct barns or coops to house them. Robin the Carpenter handles construction of the actual buildings, and Marnie supplies the animals. The animals, buildings, and feed are a significant investment, but it eventually pays off as most animals will produce something for you every day once they've reached adulthood.
The produce that you get from animals and crops can be transformed into more valuable products. A Preserves Jar, a Keg, or any number of other pieces of Equipment lets you produce Artisan Goods. These machines have to be built, and they take a bit of extra time to process. There's a definite opportunity cost to doing it, but it allows for more strategy in choosing how you will run your farm as a business.
If there's one thing that's valuable in Stardew Valley, it's time. It's the one thing that you will never have enough of most days. If you happen to stay up past 2:00 a.m., you will pass out from exhaustion and start your next day. The Joja Corporation will stealthily bring you home in the night for the low price of only 1,000G. If you're fortunate enough to pass out in your home, however, this fee is thankfully waived.
Exhaustion is not your only peril in Stardew Valley. Combat exists in the game and primarily takes place in the mines which also doubles as a dungeon. Delving into the mines can get you ore, treasure, and valuable gems. Losing your health will result in a loss of money and some of your items, so it's best to play cautiously and manage risks so you can make it out of the mines alive.
Though time is limited on a daily basis, Stardew Valley is essentially an open-ended game. You will have a special event on the first day of the third year, and this event would probably qualify as the "end" of the game, as it were. That aside, you can keep playing for however long you like and at whatever pace you like. Should you not meet the requirements of this special event, you're able to re-attempt it at the cost of a single diamond. While somewhat rare, they're not all that difficult to find, and it's more than a fair cost to pay for what you can potentially get as a reward.
Since you have essentially infinite time, what are you to do with it? Well, Stardew Valley does have achievements and quests to complete. (Be forewarned, the quests page contains many story spoilers.) Mainly, Stardew Valley is what you make it. You could invest your money into improving your business, make a bunch of friends, and then tear everything down and rebuild it because you didn't quite get things set up the way you would have liked to. That's what I'm doing!
There's more to the game than just increasing your gold, of course. Making friends with the villagers can be a fun and interesting experience through which you can learn more about Pelican Town and Stardew Valley itself. Much like the spiritual predecessor, you can also have a wife or husband and eventually have children with them.
NPCs will have special events tied to how strong your relationship is with them. They'll send you gifts & recipes in the mail and you can partake in cutscenes with them. Some of these cutscenes give you choices that may or may not affect your relationship, and some of the choices are just for fun. I capped off my engagement with my wife Leah by falcon punching her jerk of an ex-boyfriend right in his mug.
Your spouse will generally be helpful in your day-to-day life on the farm. There's some criticism to be had here—there's no checks against whether or not you actually need these things done. For instance, all of my crops are covered by sprinklers, and yet my wife Leah will still occasionally water them all first thing in the morning. She'll also feed all of my animals who are all covered by an automatic feeder system. These are nice gameplay benefits, but they're rendered redundant by in-game automated solutions, and they really shouldn't happen if they're not necessary.
I've talked an awful lot about what you can do in Stardew Valley, and I've by no means covered everything. There's farming, foraging for wild edibles, mining, tapping trees (for pine tar, maple syrup, etc.), growing fruit trees, raising animals, fishing, beekeeping, and making friends. You can customize the outdoors of your farm by placing craftable floor tiles, fences, lamps, and other things. You can transform goods into other, better goods through artisan equipment. You can grow diamonds in a box.You can hunt for artifacts and donate them to the local museum, find missing books from the museum's library (which serve as a sort of "hints" system about the game world), play mini games at festivals, and play arcade games at the Saloon. I am almost certainly forgetting some of the things you can do in Stardew Valley. That alone should give you an idea of just how much this game has to offer.
Perhaps the most insane thing of all about Stardew Valley is that it was created by one person over four years. ConcernedApe did all of the programming, art, and music himself. And there's not really anything bad to say about the lot of it on the technical side.
The music and sound in Stardew Valley is absolutely lovely. The Harvest Moon games (which were stated to be an inspiration for the game by its creator) usually had fantastic sound. The music in particular was great and felt appropriate for the various seasons and situations you would find yourself in. Stardew Valley handily accomplishes the same. The title music is catchy. The "Load Game" music is catchy. All the music is catchy and a genuine pleasure to listen to regardless of the time of day, season, or situation that may change it.
As you can see from the pictures, Stardew Valley is done in a pixel art style. While the first Harvest Moon game was done in this way, most of the successors were done as 3-D models. I'm not necessarily against pixel art, but an awful lot of games use it and many of them use it poorly. Everything is very detailed relative to its resolution, and you can tell that a great amount of care went into every single sprite, whether it's the high-detail character portraits or a lowly rock on the ground.
Stardew Valley's programming is based on a lot of heavy customization by ConcernedApe, and it has very few problems. I sat down with a friend who is also quite experienced with the game and asked them if they could think of any particularly glaring issues, as I couldn't think of any myself. They too failed to find anything majorly wrong with the game's coding. I've had a few tiny problems, mind—for instance, animals tend to walk away when you're milking or shearing them, and it doesn't always hit correctly. But there's barely a handful of serious (or even minor) issues in the game, especially when you consider the sheer scale of it.
The writing is also fantastic. Villagers interact with one another in certain events. They'll say hello as they pass by each other. Villagers have somewhat realistic lives with all the problems that entails. One of the bachelorettes lives with her alcoholic mother in a trailer. Robin the carpenter is married to her second husband Demetrius and has one child from each marriage. Clint the blacksmith pines for the waitress of the local saloon and asks you to help him figure out how to talk to her. A veteran comes home from a war and doesn't quite know how to re-integrate into civilian life.
Don't let the cute pixel graphics fool you, Stardew Valley showcases complex and realistic issues that you would expect to see in a modern small town. It doesn't do it in a ham-fisted way. There's no tokenism or pandering. It treats people as people with all their virtues, but it absolutely doesn't forget that people have vices, problems, and other flaws as well. It even manages to include marriage equality (and subsequently, adoption). This particular feature is lacking in many games that allow marriage, including the Harvest Moon games, which are a spiritual predecessor to Stardew Valley.
What is not explicitly said in dialogue is implicitly handled through the world building and subtle insinuation. Robin's second husband Demetrius doesn't seem to have the greatest relationship with his stepson Sebastian, and that is compounded by some of their dialogue as well as their lack of interaction and a book about raising stepchildren in their home. One of the few breaks from believable reality is, strangely, toilets. There's nary a toilet or bathtub in sight as far as I can tell aside from the spa.
That aside, the world of Stardew Valley feels full of life. Villagers have jobs, schedules, and friends. They like some things and dislike some things. They'll help you in various different ways. They have homes ranging from practically a small mansion to a literal tent in the woods, and each home is decorated to the tastes and means of that character. When you look at Leah's cottage, for instance, you can get a good idea of what kind of person she is and what her interests are. Bachelors and bachelorettes will get their own little side room attached to the bedroom once you've married them, and each one suits their interests and personalities. All of the various pieces of Stardew Valley come together to create a world that feels very much alive.
Stardew Valley is clearly a labor of love. I cannot possibly fathom the insane dedication it took to make it, much less the talent and patience. I have hundreds of hours played across multiple Harvest Moon games, and I love them dearly. I had always wondered why no one had taken the time to take an experience similar to Harvest Moon and bring it to the PC. That day has come, and I was fortunate enough to play a game that not only does its spiritual predecessors justice, but improves on them in nearly every conceivable way. I feel like it was made just for people like me who shut out the bad things in the world by tending their own little virtual garden.
This game does so much right. It can be picked up by nearly anyone, and yet the mechanics are complex and intermingled with one another to the point that you will find a surprising amount of depth in it. The story seems at its face to be about a cutesy farm town in trouble, and yet you will find that the characters all have realistic and heartwarming characterization. They deal with realistic problems, such as alcoholism and PTSD that you wouldn't expect if you were to judge this particular book by its cover. Stardew Valley is likely to be emulated for its mechanics, theme, and storytelling in the years to come, but all of the component pieces are so finely crafted that I think the task would be insurmountable to anyone who didn't craft it as carefully as this title has been.
If you've ever in your life enjoyed Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing, then you would almost certainly love Stardew Valley. If you liked Farmville, you will probably like Stardew Valley. If you like games that give you an insane amount of stuff to do in their finely crafted worlds, then you'll probably like Stardew Valley. If you have a pulse, you will probably like Stardew Valley. If I should ever in my life encounter someone who says that games are not art, I will simply sit them in front of my PC, boot up Stardew Valley, and show them the best evidence I have ever seen in my life that games can not only be art but great works of art.
It took me 128 hours on the 1.7 version of the game to get to what's generally considered the "end" at Year 3, Spring 1. I will likely have 128 more hours in the game, because I've just enjoyed it that much. I'm reluctant to say when I'll be bored with Stardew Valley, and I don't expect that I'll be hitting that wall anytime soon. The only serious problem I have with Stardew Valley is that I want more (including the planned multiplayer). That's a lovely problem to have.
TechRaptor reviewed Stardew Valley on PC via Steam with a copy purchased by the reviewer.