Even only five months in, 2016 has been a great year so far. Several games have already released that will certainly be mentioned in Game of the Year discussions. Triple A games such as Far Cry Primal, Tom Clancy's The Division, and Hitman are notable highlights for the beginning of the year, indie games such as FIrewatch and The Witness have also received praise from critics and fans alike. While some of these titles have been surprising hits, we at least saw these games coming for months or even years. However the biggest surprise of 2016, and perhaps of the last few years, is a game that most have not heard of until a few month ago. That game would be Stardew Valley. It is one thing for a game with little press or hype to come around and gain some attention. It is another to dominate the top of the Steam charts after coming out of nowhere, which is exactly what Stardew Valley has done. It is easy to look at Stardew Valley and pass it off as a Harvest Moon Clone, but that is doing the game an injustice. Beneath its 16-bit roots and inspiration is a game way deeper than it shows; with a staggering amount of heart and gameplay Stardew Valley has you addicted before you even realize it.
Just how addicting can Stardew Valley be? I'm over 80 hours into my game, and I'm not close to being done with it.
Something really incredible happens with Stardew Valley, you become encapsulated in its world without any overbearing tutorials or objectives that hold your hand. The game is simply about you escaping the grind of a 9-5 job and the pressures of modern times. It brings you to a place that is simply about relaxing and enjoying the simpler things in life. Sure, you've inherited a farm, but what you decide to do with your life is entirely up to you. Feel like tending crops all day? Great. Want to explore the mines? That's ok too. Maybe you hang out with the townspeople at the local bar for a drink or two. There are plenty of things to do in Stardew Valley, and just about every one of them is fun and engaging.
Starting at the farm, there is a bit to tend to. Your fields are littered with rocks, trees, and weeds that need clearing. You do not have much money, so planting a few crops will get you some much-needed funds for better seeds to plant if you so choose. It is not apparent at first, but keeping a lot of the things that you collect when clearing a field will be essential later on. Wood is pretty self-explanatory, as it is used for crafting most items along with farming buildings. Stone has a few uses regarding items but it is also essential for the construction and upgrading of farm buildings as well. Fiber is not used as often but there are a few items later in the game that requires their use. Acorns, pine cones, and maple seeds can be planted to grow trees when you have depleted the tree count on your farm. Tending to your land does not feel quite as tedious as it sounds, mainly because a lot of the resources that you collect go towards things you will be constructing. In reality, doing chores does not feel like a chore.
Pierre's shop within Pelican Town is going to be a primary destination for a while. Pierre sells seeds, tree saplings, and many other items that will be of good use. While in Pierre's shop you are introduced to Morris, who seems to be the antagonist of the game. With a Joja Mart nearby his intentions are clear, which is to steal Pierre's business for the "evil" Joja Corporation. Depending on your actions, this conflict comes to a head in a really satisfying way that feels truly rewarding.
A quick look around brings you to a glowing block with several bundles that are waiting to be filled. This is where the different aspects of Stardew Valley really come together. While the first bundle you will likely complete involves collecting forage items, later bundles require crops that must be grown, items acquired from mining, and products from animals just to name a few. This is really about as far as it gets for a mainline quest. I found it truly rewarding to collect the different items for the bundles, as their benefits always seemed to be helpful. Before selling or throwing away items, it might be beneficial to look and see if it belongs in a bundle. Completing different sets of bundles also unlocks alternate areas in the game that bring their own special benefit.
One of the focal points is saving the community center. Of course, you can sell your soul to the Joja Corporation in the form of a membership card which will destroy the community center. Going this route involves using money to unlock the various bundles mentioned above. Even though the Joja Corporation is the reason you ended up in Stardew Valley, you can side with them if you so choose. Again, whichever choice you make is entirely up to you.
There are many types of personalities within Pelican Town that make the cast of characters an interesting one. George is a crabby old man confined to a wheelchair, Haley is a beautiful but stuck-up girl, and Pam (oh Pam) is a bus driver who seems to have a bit of a drinking problem. These are just some of the many people you will run into and help along the way. Quests can either come in through your mailbox or on the Pelican Town board that must be done within two days. Completing quests and gifting items to the townsfolk will increase your friendship rating with them which in turn can lead to more character development. Events periodically happen within certain conditions and locations (time, place, weather) where you see more of the characters personalities. Events are well done with great writing and animation that gives some weight to the overall "story". Stumbling into these can be by pure accident, but I always felt excited every time I encountered one. Even though there is no overall storyline, these events and cutscenes give the impression that the world is indeed living around you.
Some instances can lead to an unexpected turn of events, which feel rewarding in their own way. It was really fun to hear a confession from two people doing their own thing, and you ultimately deciding if anyone else found out. You can also get recipes or other gifts in the mail if you build your relationship with certain people enough. Even crabby George will open up to you if you get your friendship with him to a certain level.
Other than making friends with the townsfolk and tending your crops, fishing and mining will be two other valuable activities that will consume your time. Mining is unlocked after a few days, allowing you to explore the mines at will. Here is where a lot of the valuable resources are found, from copper, silver, gold, and coal. Going into the mines every day is not completely necessary, but if you want to build certain items or improve your tools, you will have to go deep. With 120 levels within the mines, it can be quite daunting to contend with the bats, bugs, and other monsters. Fortunately, an elevator is present every five levels allowing players to go back to previous levels or right back to where they left off. While the layouts are not procedurally generated, the contents of each level are different each time you enter. Sometimes you might run into a level filled with resources, or stumbling upon a floor that is chock full of monsters that require their deaths to continue on. Thanks to the many different levels and variety within, mining is a fun diversion that I constantly want to explore for more resources.
The first few levels of the mines house enemies that are fairly simple to defeat. Although once you venture further in, enemies can become a nuisance if you are not prepared. Slimes begin to lunge further than before, bats become more frequent, and before you know it you are going to need a better weapon. A sword is the first weapon you are given, but others can be found or bought. A big club will do more damage but will be slower to swing. There is a slingshot that can be acquired by reaching a certain level within the caves, but I never got to using it. For one, it takes stones to produce ammo and those become a valuable asset early on. Second, the mines can be a little claustrophobic with little room to fight, meaning a ranged weapon would not be quite practical.
Combat feels pretty simple with a button press doing most of the action. Using X on the Xbox controller will execute a special for your weapon. Executing this action with a sword, for example, allows the player to block. The combat mechanics are not terribly deep or original, but they fit well within Stardew Valley.
When it comes to fishing, the audience appears to be quite split regarding the mechanic. Once you get a fish on the line, a mini-game now begins. Players must line up a meter with a fish icon which is constantly moving up and down. Moving the bar requires either holding or releasing a button, which is easier said than done. Honestly, fishing is really not that hard or terrible, it just takes a little practice to get used to. It is simple and yet far from complex, the mechanic feels alright and I did not have a problem with fishing after a dozen tries. Later fish in the game are a pain to catch, but better fishing poles can help alleviate the problem. If you get frustrated with fishing, keep giving it a few more tries. You will not exactly be rolling in a ton of money at the beginning, but fishing can bring a little cash every day that will greatly help as you begin to grow your farm.
Controller support is within Stardew Valley but it has a few issues. It works pretty well for most of the tasks, but there are instances where you can see Stardew Valley was designed with mouse and keyboard in mind. Navigating the menus is fine if using a mouse but a controller moves the cursor on screen rather than selecting boxes. Certainly not an ideal situation, but it is far from clunky. Caused by using the cursor in the menu, its position will still remain on screen when returning to gameplay. The problem is not that the cursor appears on screen, as it disappears after a while. The issue is the positioning remains wherever the cursor was previously. This can lead to times where performing an action like using the watering can will lead to the positioning becoming a little off. These are minor complaints that I encountered using a controller. If you use a mouse and keyboard, the above issues should not be a problem. In interviews, developer Eric Barone has stated that controller support was added very late within the development. Hopefully, these minor issues will be addressed in the future. As of now, they are just a slight annoyance that does not interfere too much with gameplay.
Explaining how well all the different gameplay elements interweave with each other is something that is hard to put into words. The benefits of interacting with villagers can directly tie into other elements. Got that new recipe from Gus? You might want to put that to good use before entering the mines, where replenishing health and energy is vital to avoid being knocked out. After a trip to the mines, you can take the things you gathered and turn them into useful items that can generate more money. Sure, selling all the crops you harvest can net you a pretty good profit. However, keeping some of them to turn into artisan goods, such as jelly or wine, can net you even more money. Think twice before you throw away slimes or bat wings you get from defeating enemies as they might be pretty useful later on. When your every action can have an effect on other aspects of the game doing tasks does not become busy work, it becomes a hell of a lot of fun.
The way that all the gameplay elements feel important and the constant relationship building is key, Stardew Valley does a nice job of wrapping everything together. Going with a 16-bit era look, the graphics look very much like something you would find on a SNES. Colorful sprites, great animation, and a fantastic soundtrack help bring the world of Stardew Valley together. It is not only the graphical style or the music that make the world special, the little things really stand out. Rabbits running into bushes when you approach, squirrels running up trees, or clouds actually appearing on cloudy days. None of these things really matter when it comes to gameplay elements but they help bring the world of Stardew Valley to life.
Buried (literally) within the game are many secrets and tips that can be uncovered with your trusty hoe. These come in the form of books, which can be read at the town's library. Here you can learn about some of the legendary fish and a special sword that can be obtained. Other various things in the world can be discovered by the player, and you will likely do a lot of these by accident. That is part of the real beauty of Stardew Valley, just going around and taking in the world is a joy. The world in which you explore may not be as big as a traditional JRPG but it certainly has a lot of personality.
While I've listed quite a few positives, there a couple of things that might hinder the experience. The first is a lack of a save anytime feature. The game is saved automatically right after going to sleep for the night, with no way to save either mid-day or any other time. The save feature does not bother me personally but for those who like to save frequently, I can see the potential for frustration. Saving after each day is almost helpful because of the potential marathon sessions you might have with Stardew Valley.
The second, and most notable negative I find here is endgame content. After the end of the second year, an event will occur that kind of brings the main story to a close. While this could be considered the end of the game, you are free to go on for however long you want. Obtaining the Skull key at the last level of the mines gives you another mine to explore, but it is not the type of area that will keep you occupied well past the "end" of the game. The lack of any events or new crops to grow after year two can be where the experience might start to wear thin on players. This is the point where it is really at your discretion to continue with your journey. By this point, you have likely found most of the artifacts and stardrops scattered throughout the world. In a way, I almost compare this aspect to Minecraft. There are people who will be done when there is no longer a "clear" objective, and there are those who just want to keep going. That being said, a mod community has sprung up around Stardew Valley which could provide several more hours to those looking to find something new. It is hard to tell when and where you might get burnt out as it really depends on how much you are enjoying the game. Keep this in mind, if you are hitting a wall after 40 to 50 hours in a single-player game, that would be a good value proposition for $15.
With all this said, I cannot recommend Stardew Valley enough. Considering the fact that the entire game was done by one person is baffling, especially with the level of polish that is here. The simple but effective gameplay mechanics feel great for those new to this type of game or for veterans of Harvest Moon. The characters have quite a bit of charm and will often surprise you with a comment. Jodi said something to me in year three that dropped my jaw. Not important to my character's story, but it was quite interesting. Stardew Valley is great for those who want to spend hours straight playing or more casual players who might play for 30 minutes. I certainly enjoyed playing, no matter if that was only for a short period of time or well into the early parts of the morning. Something happens when you play Stardew Valley, you almost forget the hardships in your life and suddenly all the stress disappears while you are pulling up pumpkins and milking cows. Maybe the ultimate goal of Stardew Valley is to transport the player to a different world where things are simple and away from the stressful corporate life a lot of us live in.
+ Gameplay easy to pick-up
+ Music is fantastic
+ Great variety of personalities from townsfolk
+ The sense of discovery is quite rewarding
+ Offers hours of enjoyment
- Lack of copying saves, only one way to save might be a hindrance to some
- Endgame is slightly lacking
Hours played: 100 +
Available on Windows PC