“Beyond the Wild Wood comes the wild world,” said the Rat. “And that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or to me. I’ve never been there, and I’m never going’ nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all.”
― Kenneth Grahame,
Chucklefish Games’ Stardew Valley is one of the most successful indie projects in recent years, largely due to the fact that it sticks to the time-honored traditions of task-based, open-ended gameplay pioneered by the many games to influence it. Earning money by raising livestock and cultivating crops, which we’re all so familiar with, has proven to be truly addictive. Just ask Harvest Moon, Story of Seasons, Rune Factory, Farming Simulator, and even FarmVille and any number of its clones. Don’t pretend like you don’t remember FarmVille.
The two most significant things about Stardew Valley, to my mind, are firstly that it does an excellent job of collecting, fusing, and refining the best fundamental elements of the farming sim genre, and secondly it doesn’t do too much to reach beyond those same elements. Think of it as a super farming sim. A lot of what I’ve seen in previous Harvest Moon games is here but there isn’t really anything new. Sure, there’s more to do. There is more ground to till, more cave to explore, more crops to grow, more animals to feed, more villagers to befriend, and so on. Just don’t expect an epiphany of innovation that steps beyond the boundaries of typical farming simulation. These games have always been about making friends and making money and Stardew Valley doesn’t end up being an exception to that rule. Therein lies its strength.
I played Stardew Valley on the PS4 so that’s the angle of this review.
A new game begins with character customization, which is far more advanced than what was typically available in farming sims of the past. The options are huge, right down to adjusting the RGB of your character’s eye color. Customize their name, gender, pet, shirt, hair style and color, skin color, accessory, favorite thing, farm name, and the plot of land for your farm. That last option is a great addition to the farming sim genre.
Instead of just starting your farm on the same plot on every playthrough (though I can’t imagine how many different full playthroughs of Stardew Valley one could endure), you can now select from the standard plot of land as well as mountainous terrain, forest, islands, and a wilderness area. The standard plot allows much more room for growing crops and raising animals and buildings. The mountains put your farm near to a private quarry for gems and ores. The forest plants the bounty of nature right at your doorstep. The islands afford better opportunities for fishing. The wilderness is far enough removed from civilization that it’ll be haunted by monsters at night, giving you a shot at raising your combat skills.
Once every last detail has been nailed down and you start a new game, you’re treated to a Microsoft Paint scene of an old man dying. And you thought this game was going to be happy. No, actually the old man represents the old premise archetype of the farming sim, the only difference is the image is particularly ugly by modern graphical standards (and even by retro standards).
Dying grandpa leaves you a letter, which you later open in a fit of boredom at your horrible corporate desk job. The letter anticipates that you’re in dire need of a change of lifestyle. You’ve lost sight of the things which matter most in life: connections with people and nature. The letter explains how grandpa found that place once and you decide to leave your career in the city to follow that rabbit trail to Pelican Town in Stardew Valley, a peaceful, diverse, happy village-utopia of friendly neighbors with individual problems and pursuits.
You are welcomed (more or less) by the small community and led to your grandfather’s run down cottage and overgrown farm, which is in dire need of some TLC. Mayor Lewis suggests you get some rest after your long trip then spend the following day introducing yourself to your new neighbors.
Thus begins Spring day one. Every time you sleep in your house, you’ll progress to the next day. Each season has 28 days from Spring to Summer to Fall to Winter. You can do nearly anything you want now in nearly any order you’d like. Sure, you can be a decent fellow and introduce yourself to the community or you can spend the days clearing your land, harvesting lumber or stone. Eventually you’ll be able to use these materials to construct barns, coops, silos, fences, and many other things.
You’ll need to till the earth so that you can begin to plant crops, then water them daily to ensure they grow until they can be harvested and sold. Later you can purchase animals to inflate your profits through selling their products. You’ll be able to fish and explore the mines for jewels and treasures. The townsfolk will welcome you if you’re friendly toward them and you can participate in their festivals. As the seasons change, more opportunities will arise. There’ll be new crops to grow, new buildings to build, new natural resources to gather, new projects in the village to head up. Time flies by and there is so much to do.
The beauty of Stardew Valley is this open-endedness. The game never ends. (spoiler: highlight to reveal) Your grandfather’s spirit will appear on the first day of Year Three to measure the merits of your farm, to see just how successful you have been. But the game doesn’t end there. There is simply a wealth of content here, since Stardew Valley takes so much of the best of its progenitors and expands them.
These are just some examples of what you can do with a standard plot of land:
Could you easily sink 80 hours into this game? Yes. I put in 117 hours (and a few all-nighters) before writing this review. Even more if you figure in the second simultaneous playthrough I had going for a little while. Am I real proud of that number? Well… I start to question the meaning of existence after spending anything over 100 hours in a game, but I had fun with it at least and that’s much more than a handful of hours of entertainment I only paid for once. As an indie game, Stardew is really well crafted. It’s a triumph, even. However, as fun as Stardew Valley is, when it became a chore, a digital list of checking off squares grinding toward purchasing end-game content, that’s when I checked out.
Every game eventually becomes this and we’ll grow tired of it, no matter how addicting or how expansive its world is. Yeah I’ve read some articles about people playing the same game for years (usually an online game) so they’re out there. As for me, the ability to keep playing the same game for an indefinite period of time has been a draw for me since I first played Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town. Imagine playing the same game for ever! It’s economical. But with too many exorbitantly expensive items to buy post-game, items up in the 2 million gold range, I just didn’t have the drive left to milk out the days to earn that much cash.
However, as a game which can easily be picked up and put down, I expect I’ll return to my Nostalgia Farm someday, especially since it will be coming to the Switch where I expect it’ll thrive thanks to its new inclusion of multiplayer.
The 8-bit Review
Stardew Valley takes its visual cues from the 16-bit era of the Super Nintendo and that’s what originally drew me to it. Side by side with the SNES Harvest Moon, Stardew looks very similar albeit more modern. It also echoes Terraria in terms of its character sprites.
Little touches like felled trees falling to the ground or cherry blossoms blowing through the air in Springtime go a long way to enliven familiar graphics like these. A lot of the backgrounds of Stardew Valley are also exceptionally well done. The changing of the seasons are always a delight with Autumn being exceptionally beautiful though the snow falling in Winter is drab. Lighting these backgrounds is also interesting though late at night there’s an over-tinted bluishness to everything rather than the darkness merely being back, but that’s just nitpicking.
What I really did not like in Stardew were the character portraits. Like the opening cutscene, they also resemble something out of MS Paint. Some of these folks on occasion downright look like trolls. Even though I married Leah, her crooked laughing smile reminded me of this:
Stardew’s soundtrack is at least relaxing and at most beautiful. It wears its country setting on its sleeve and the music follows suit. Most of these tunes the exactly the sort you’d expect from a quiet little town with cattle fields and rolling, grassy hills, where life slows to a crawl. Stardew delivers musically with a soundtrack that’s much fuller than you’d expect from its graphics. I fully appreciate that they chose not to completely emulate the limited bit-tracks of the retro age and instead went for something that sounds much more orchestrated.
Of course, though, most of the music you’re going to be hearing in the game are the seasonal songs. Each season has three standard songs that begin playing right when you wake up. Considering you’re spending 28 days in each season, you’re going to hear these tunes a lot. They’re the musical meat and potatoes of the game so how do they hold up under repetition?
Firstly, I noticed that some of these aren’t as catchy or melodic as other seasonal themes in farming sims past. That’s virtually a non-issue since we’re not judging Stardew entirely on its peers and predecessors. So secondly it should be said, more importantly, that a lot of the seasonal songs just aren’t memorable. The musical landscape in gaming has shifted since the 16-bit era to be less melody and more ambience. Therefore, some of the seasonal tracks sound like filler, at least to me. Summer (the track below was unpleasant to me) and Winter were particularly guilty of this with Fall’s music coming close to capturing the magic of Autumn and the Spring tracks coming to represent the standard for the game.
On top of that, and I don’t know if this is unique to the PlayStation version, the music kept cutting in and out. I noticed it seemed sometimes like a song just ended abruptly. It even seemed to happen at a set time periodically. I couldn’t put my finger on it but it was jarring to be working in the fields to music and then suddenly being enveloped in silence. Audio glitch of some sort?
This is really what we’re all here for. A farming sim is a success or a failure based on its gameplay. Control schemes are especially important and thankfully Stardew Valley was awesome on the PS4, a great translation from PC to home console controls. Stardew has the benefit of coming after so many predecessors and not making the same mistakes.
Some examples of what I mean are things like in Harvest Moon 64 where you had to open your menu to take out an item and drop it in the drop box , or where items didn’t stack in every game’s menu. Making the farming part of the game as streamlined as possible keeps essentially what are chores from feeling that way.
I also appreciated that your character can walk over planted crops, allowing you to use up all that available space. The inclusion of advanced crafting, scarecrows, containers for collecting tree syrups and resins, a greenhouse, and the auto-feeders in barns and coops (what a Godsend!) make Stardew Valley a sleek experience. The two greatest gameplay features have got to be sprinklers and forest sprites.
As your farm grows, you’re going to be spending a lot of daylight and probably even moonlight working on your farm. Burn the candle at both ends to squeeze out every last bit of cash that you can. However, once you’ve entire fields of crops, watering will become a huge chore that can take up the entire day if you’re using the watering can, even if it’s upgraded. This will be particularly true if you picked the standard plot of farm land. Solution? Sprinklers!
Sprinklers come in three varieties that each water more and more adjacent tiles with Iridium Sprinklers being a true gift to humankind. These will water crops nearby every morning so it’s possible to fully automate your farm. But what about picking all those crops?
That eventually turned into a massive project for me and it took up hours of daytime to do it all. I remember hoping that this game would do something like having helpers for your farm that could support the farm work. I did read that your spouse could help as a farm aid but minimally. I wouldn’t expect them to harvest an entire orchard for me! Then I ran into the Jumino Hut, a kind of leafy, ramshackle structure you can build on your farm that harbors forest sprites who will pick nearby crops for you. That means the only thing I had to do was keep the ground tilled and plant new crops once the season ended. Amazing! A nigh-fully automated farm had been realized.
If I have a single tip for Stardew Valley, it’s this: get the horse as soon as possible. Things are pretty spread out in this game and you can waste a lot of time in transit. The horse is indispensable for travel time.
Stardew Valley features the basic farming game storyline: you inherit your dead patriarch’s farm which is all run down and weedy and it’s your prerogative to turn it into a money maker again. This is ironic because the whole point of moving to Pelican Town in Stardew Valley was for your character to get away from the hellish corporate business world and come to the country to experience a more laid back lifestyle, yet you find that you’re to turn your grandpa’s farm into your own private corporate empire complete with forest sprite employees and mass produced products. Funny how that works out.
This game is interesting though in that the storyline splits into two possible branches. You can either choose to embrace the natural world or welcome the industrial one into Pelican Town. This involves two mutually exclusive events surrounding the town’s Community Center.
If you choose to pursue the natural path, you can offer gifts to Jumino forest spirits living in the ruined Community Center, who will use their magic to spruce it up. Eventually, they’ll restore the Center and the townsfolk will come to use it to bring their neighborhood closer together. This path emphasizes exploration and collecting since you’ll need to find several sets of items to give to the forest spirits, who will then in turn perform upgrades on the town such as fixing the mining carts or restoring your greenhouse.
The other path, the industrial one, involves buying a membership with the local Joja Mart. Nearly everyone in town despises Joja, considering them an infringement upon their otherwise peaceful village. Joja is every sterile, soulless, mechanical corporation in the modern world. There’s an eligible bachelor who works there, hating his job by day and drinking away his feelings at night. Joja wants nothing less than to take over the Community Center and transform it into their warehouse so they can expand their empire in Pelican Town and monopolize. If you choose to help them, then you cannot help the forest spirits. And everyone in town will probably hate you. Taking this path emphasizes making money as quickly as possible to purchase upgrades for the town.
This approach to storytelling was interesting and I really liked how it put you the player in charge of deciding these characters’ futures. And next, let me tell you next what didn’t work for me…
Bisexual characters… Obviously this is a hot topic in our culture today. I can only share my personal thoughts on the matter. All of the bachelors and bachelorettes being bisexual is a bit much. “But they’re gay or lesbian or straight, depending on the player’s character gender”. Right, which means they’re bisexual and that’s a bit much. There, I said it. Why? Because I think it takes away from their personalities and individualness simply by making them amorous to both male and female player characters. Not everyone in our society is bisexual. Simply put. I think assigning something like sexual orientation in fiction willy nilly is detrimental to character development. Please allow me to explain and also understand that I’m not bashing bisexual people, rather I’m pointing out that making characters all bisexual across the board is detrimental to character development and portrayal.
Seeing a character on two different playthroughs act two different ways when attracted to a male player character and a female player character undermines the NPC’s central identity. Yeah, this is a farming game but I think on a larger scale we see the same thing from a society obsessed with “representation”. Movies and now I guess games are changing their characters’ race or ethnicity or preference for no reason other than to appeal to an audience, to cause that audience to feel “represented”. You hear about this all the time, how some minority clamors about how unrepresented they are as if that were the sole responsibility of storytelling and not storytelling telling stories for the sake of entertainment. But here’s the question: what could it possibly add to the character unless their entire personality and history is also altered? Would you think that if I was born a different ethnicity that I’d be the same person, or if I was gay that I’d act the same as I do now? Probably not. Then if we broaden those questions to apply to an entire community of fictional characters, the situation becomes absurd and the characters themselves become flat.
I mean, imagine how different your favorite film or novel would be if every character in it was bisexual. I remember a conversation at a comic shop I frequented where two African Americans and a Caucasian (to keep the most PC terms) were discussing the filmmaker’s decision to make Johnny Storm black in Fantastic Four. The two African Americans were offended that the filmmakers thought so lowly of race and background that they would just change J. Storm from white to black but make no other significant alterations to the character, from their standpoint. I tend to agree with their complaint. That’s not how individualism works. Again this wasn’t coming from the white person, but from the two men that Storm’s racial change was intended to appeal to by the filmmakers. In fact, I’ll say this perpetuates racism, not the other way around.
It’s the same thing, to my mind, in Stardew Valley. Past Harvest Moon games, like Magical Melody, have tried to rectify this by including androgynous characters that can be wed by both male and female player characters, though in these cases the androgynous character was portrayed as a member of the opposite sex of the player character. In Stardew Valley, I think we have a game that could only have been made in 2016. It’s one which tries its darndest to appeal to the modern American sense of diversity (interracial couple, mixed race woman, openly gay or lesbian characters who are in fact bisexual given you can wed them with both male or female characters) but it isn’t very diverse in the end, is it, if only there are bisexual characters? This is the inherent problem with the obsession with diversity as each minority tries to become (or is portrayed as) the new majority.
I don’t like to say this because I did enjoy the game, but honestly this kind of pandering to a ruse of “diversity” tears down the uniqueness at the heart of good fictional characters as individuals, because it treats the characters as essentially homogenous with only attributes like race and orientation being important rather than a character’s history, background, education, interests, beliefs, morality or lack thereof, decision making, methods of speech, and so on. Is gender equality the same thing as gender homogeneity? Ask yourself that. If race and orientation precede personality in importance than these characters are less like real persons rather than more like them, though I’d imagine this could be paradise for real world individuals who are most concerned with race and orientation over a person’s personality and character.
Seriously, this is not a rant. I’m providing my genuine thoughts. I’m not just bagging on it. If you do disagree with me, please don’t respond simply by calling me a “homophobe”. One, that’s not true and you don’t really know anything about me personally anyway, and two, if I’m wrong then show me objectively how this trend in storytelling does not flatten character portrayal and development. I’m not demanding that choices like these not be made in stories nor am I bashing bisexual people. Thanks!
Stardew Valley takes things slow and though there’s a lot to see and do, there’s time enough to learn how to do it all. This game does a great job of prompting you to learn how to do something without forcing you to sit through endless tutorials. I think that’s in large part to how well-done the interface is. If you’ve played a farming sim before than this is going to be a proverbial piece of cake.
One of the more addicting games I’ve played in some time. The thing that really impressed me about Stardew Valley was just how much content was in this game: more crops and animals and items and buildings than ever.
Even if it ultimately cannot and does not break the mold, Stardew Valley may be the best and certainly the biggest farming sim we’re going to have for a very long while. It’s a callback to the golden afternoons of the 16-bit era and it just keeps getting better with new updates, such as the one coming with the Switch. Pulling ahead and becoming a sensation in a sub-genre that by all accounts appeared very much to be a dead horse is a measure of success that shouldn’t be underestimated, and I think that speaks to Stardew’s uniqueness.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Stardew Valley is just as addictive as any farming simulator. It boasts several additions to this cookie-cutter style of gameplay but even these cannot sustain infinite interest. I would recommend Stardew Valley to fans of the Harvest Moon, Story of Seasons, and Rune Factory franchises, since Stardew really takes the basic concept and blows it out of the water. I expect Stardew Valley will be a great title on the upcoming Nintendo Switch, specifically since it already seems like a handheld game you can play on a console. Soon it will be a console game in the vein of a handheld game that you can actually play as either a handheld or a console game. In my estimation, it may not be every bit as perfect or flawless as the lauding critics have said of it but it is still a really good game. I’d be more than proud if this were my personal creation!
Thanks for the good times.
Aggregated Score: 8.1