I must begin with a confession. When I thought of boring and tedious video games, farming games came to the top of my list. Every time I heard someone tout the greatness of Animal Crossing, I rolled my eyes. When Harvest Moon landed on lists of best SNES games, I snickered at the thought. I had never played one of these games, but just could not imagine them being the least bit interesting.
This was the biased lens with which I viewed the reports, reviews, and accolades for Stardew Valley. When the game was packaged in a ginormous humble bundle, Stardew Valley snuck its way into my collection. Then, as fate would have it, I got sick over thanksgiving and was looking for something calm to play with my kid. We started up Stardew Valley. I had given in and now played a farming game!
The story is simple. Your Grandfather gives you a note to open if you ever become disenchanted with life. You grow up and work at a soul-sucking corporation, think Office Space. Your character opens the letter to find out you have been deeded a farm. You head out to see the rustic farm in a little town. A few people show you to the place. With that, you are off to settle in and begin farming and exploring.
The farming is housed in a simple level up system. You clear space, till the land, plant the seeds, water, wait, and finally sell. The process is simple at first, with lots of extra time as you wait for crops to grow. This is where the game surprised me, seemingly endless possibilities of things to do and accomplish.
The first task you are given is to meet all the towns people. This symbolizes another large area of the game. You befriend and level up your relationships with people in town. Sounds crazy, but that is really what you do. Each person gets an affinity meter. You give presents and talk to them to grow closer. Then you get benefits like getting to go in their room. Yes, you level up your friendships. Just like real life. Sorry dear reader, we are not close enough for you to enter my room. The system works fine. It requires a great deal of gifts and finding the person. There is a nuance added with certain characters, romance. All the single characters seem like egocentric brats, so not terribly enticing to spend the time to woo any singles.
The game has a plethora of things to focus on and accomplish. Fishing is another challenge that is introduced early on. I find the fishing mechanics frustrating and obnoxious, so I avoid them. To catch a fish you mush tap/hold the mouse button to the right amount to get the fish to stay caught. Too many slip away and you are left with nothing to show for your day spent by the water. Maybe a broken CD or boot. At least they do not run! The resulting tediousness and frustration have been a barrier for me to delve into the mechanics and upgrade my supplies (which will likely make easier) to this point.
Where I spend the majority of my time in the game so far is the dungeon crawl battling endless enemies and mining treasure. Based on my initial hesitation for the game, was there any doubt where I would go? The mining in the game gives you precious metals that allows you to upgrade your items and gain money. Doing so early on helps pad the bank account so that affording more crops is possible. Well worth it! The challenge is that when your health runs out and you die (it happens) then you lose your memory of several levels of the dungeon and many items away. This has set me back several times. The mechanic is not frustrating though. It feels like an adequate punishment for dying. Otherwise, players would get too crazy and brave in the mines. The easy way around the consequence is to just start the day over (reset) and try again. This can be very time consuming and feel like Groundhog Day, but you do not end up losing several floors. The mechanics of combat work out ok. The only negative is not being able to sell/discard weapons that are weak or not desired. I have plenty of sticks/swords/knifes sitting in my inventory currently and want them gone! If people want the random rocks and food I find around the town, someone would surely buy the weapons. I guess it is a pacifist town. Right? Maybe, later on in the game it will let me craft a gun/sword rack for all my spoils.
There are many other options to explore and utilize in game. You can collect items for the library, care for animals, forage for random stuff, complete events/quests, or go all Sim City on your farm. The options are amazing. Most of the mechanics in the game are easy to learn, but have depth for mastery. The design is superb.
Finally, we get to the graphics. While the game is retro style, harking back to the SNES 16 bit days, each season and area use the palette perfectly. Stardew Valley always feels modern and beautiful without having to have photo realistic graphics.
As I write this review, I have not “completed” the game. There are major goals to complete and accomplish in the game that can result in an “end game” feel, but the continuous cycle of the game also gives no specific point. Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall keep coming to you no matter what. I may never complete the game, but then again that is not necessarily an issue for a review. The purpose seems to be more of a momentary escape to an imaginary life to escape the soul crushing world. Stardew Valley succeeds here.
Stardew Valley is designed to blend a plethora of game elements expertly into a single enchanting experience. While I was skeptical at first, Stardew Valley won me over with charm, vast gameplay options, beautiful aesthetics, and surprising depth. I quickly became enchanted by the game and looked forward to my next chance to explore. I highly recommend this game for everyone. Even a skeptic like me.