Videogame Review: Stardew Valley

Released in February 26 of 2016 on Steam, Stardew Valley is an RPG Farming Simulation game (in the same vibe as the Harvest Moon games for the Nintendo handheld consoles) for PC developed by ConcernedApe and published by  Game Studio Chucklefish of Starbound fame.

In the game you control your farmer character (which you can customize and name to your liking) who starts living in the abandoned farm of their late grandfather once they, as the game puts it, get sick of living in the city and seek the peace and quiet of Pelican Town, a once thriving community which has fallen into decline since the Joja Corporation recently opened a new JojaMart location in the area. However, as you begin to restore your late Grandfather’s farm to it’s former glory, you may as well help the town to heal as well.

Let’s get something out of the way at once. If you have ever played a Harvest Moon game for a considerable lenght of time, then congratulations, you probably have a pretty firm grasp of around 70% of the game mechanics. In fact, I had little to no trouble guessing what I had to do from Day One, my major complication being having to meet everyone for the first time and checking where everything was, something common whenever you play a new Harvest Moon game for the first time. Even new elements, like the addition of a Mouse or an action menu, didn’t prove a challenge for me to adapt to (It should be noted, however, that the controls are fully customizable, and the mouse is not an essential).

You use your tool to clean the soil and prepare it. You buy seeds to sow. You spend the following days watering your crops until they are ready to harvest and then you sell them. You gather wood, stone and money so you can later build and buy things. You can Fish. You can explore the caves. You can socialize with your neighbours and even marry some of them. As you play, you quickly learn that time is a precious thing and there is a limit as to what you can do and everyone has their own schedule you will need to learn in order to befriend them or to buy the stuff you need.

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I believe I am not exagerating when I say the game plays almost identical to the Harvest Moon games (which the creator has openly acknowledged as the biggest inspiration), from the use of time management and dates, to the way you harvest and sell your crops, to the collecting of ores and fish, to even similar character archetypes such as The Mayor or The Blacksmith. I will repeat myself: If you played a Harvest Moon game before, you already know this game’s core mechanics.

The creator also seems to trust you already know this formula, since the game start without giving much eexplanation as to what you should do other than a very basic explanation, with most of the game hints in a TV Show that is optional to watch and is only available certain days of the week, meaning newcomers may miss it entirely.

It should be noted, however, that I am not saying this as a negative. Quite the contrary, I think it is quite impressive how well the game manages to replicate the charm and addictive nature of it’s source of inspiration that makes you play another day, it’s specially impressive considering how other attempts (such as World’s Dawn) don’t quite manage to capture the charm nearly as well.

Likewise, I believe the Harvest Moon franchise has perfectioned it’s formula in a way that makes it a natural choice for any game developer that wants to make a simulation game of this kind. If you are going to imitate something, imitate something good, is what I am saying.

Now, while I say that the game succesfully imitates Harvest Moon and the way it plays, there are one or two areas in which I think the gameplay could use some work. First of all, the detection box is very sensible and it can easily mistake the square you want your character to focus on. You also consume Energy whenever you use your tools no matter wether you used it on an empty space(only exception being the Scytche and weapons, meaning spamming the attack button is a valid tactic when exploring the caves).

I also find the distance between my farm and some locations to be more than a little inconvenient. It takes around an hour in-game for me to go from my farm to the store which closes at 5:00 P.M, for example. And since faster ways of travel are not available right away, good luck trying to go to the store any time after 3 P.M. And that’s the closest location to your farm. And since there is a penalty for staying up beyond 2 A.M. (point at which you automatically jump to the next day), there is a point where it will be impossible for you to reach your bed in time.

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Another element brought directly from Harvest Moon is the socializing aspect. you can meet and befriend each of the town residents and your level of friendship is measured in a scale of ten hearts. to increase your friendship, you need to speak with them each day and giving them gifts of their liking, however, you can only give them one gift per day and two each week. you will require to learn their schedules to do this, since some of them become really hard to find, specially since you can only enter their room if you have reached two hearts with them.

Even if you learn everyone’s schedules, it will be impossible for you to speak with everyone before the day ends, so deciding who you befriend and when is another aspect you will have to decide. There are character events that become available once you have reached a certain level with them, but this events usually trigger at a specific time of the day.

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As you befriend people, they start telling you more about them and may even start to give you gifts. This is the way you learn most of the character’s backstory and relationships, everything else is implied. This backstories offer a level of depth that is not clear at first glance, but that is still there (for example, one of the characters is heavily implied to have had an affair in the past).

The game also has the option of marrying some of the townsfolk (there is a total of ten marriage candidates, 5 men and 5 women). To marry them, you will need to fulfill some requisits such as befriending them and triggering all their events. But unlike Harvest Moon, in which you could only marry those of the opposite gender of your character , Stardew Valley allows you to marry any of them regardless of gender.

Among the new features the games bring, there is a leveling system based on your different skills (Farming, Foraging, Mining, Fishing and Combat), each new skill level improves your proeficiency in said skill and may even include a new crafting recipe. at levels 5 and 10 of each skill, you are giving a choice between two “professions”, each with their own benefits.

Crafting is pretty simplistic, but necessary to get some of the more valuable Goods you can make or to make make farming easier for you. To craft, you first need to unlock the recipes, some are bought, others are gifts from the town and the rest get unlocked as you level up your skills.

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The game has a lot of room for costumization as well. when you build a building, you can choose where it will be set, you can make roads and fences, you can install lights, you can redecorate the inside of your house as oyu see fit, etc. In short, there is a lot of freedom for you to make a farm you are comfortable with.

While the game has not a clear end point beyond what the player decides, there are certain goals for you to reach. The main one being helping rebuild the town’s Community Center, which is in ruins. In order to do this, you need to complete “bundles”, a list of items you need to deliver at the community center and which you will be collecting as time passes on (some of this items are only available in specific seasons, others are impossible to get in the first year). as you complete this bundles, you get a number of rewards such as items for individual bundles or new features for completing a bundle tree.

On a graphical standpoint, the game is nice to look at, with a pixelated style reminiscent of Terraria and Starbound, but still it’s own thing. Each character design is easy to differentiate and they all have a character portrait with different moods for when you enter conversation. The game is also filled with a ton of little details such as cloud shadows or little critters running away when you approach them or sometimes butterflies fly out of the tree when you are chopping it down.

The music is nice to listen to and brings a relaxed feel to the game (I am particular fond of the music used in the Holidays, with a happy and animated tune that makes clear it is a time to smile) And i guess that is the best way to describe this game: It is a very relaxed game. The game doesn’t punish you for taking your time and let’s you do things as you like.

As i said at the beginning. If you have played a Harvest Moon game before and you like them, you will most likely enjoy this game as well. If you have never played a Harvest Moon game but want to, this game is essentially Harvest Moon for the PC. If you just enjoy casual simulation games where you just live your life, no complicated stories or gameplay, you are going to have a good time. However, if you do not enjoy this style of gameplay or want something challenging, then I am afraid this game is not for you.

Stardew Valley was developed by ConcernedApe and distributed by Chucklefish. it is available for digital purchase on Steam and GoG. At the time of this writing, the game is only available for PC, but there are plans of expanding into Mac and Linux. The material used on this review is protected under Fair Use.

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