Game: Stardew Valley
Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch (Review code provided)
The world of Stardew Valley offers nothing new, really. Harvest Moon (and more recently Story of Seasons) has been providing the same contrived story beats about escaping to the country and offering a similar mix of animal and agricultural farming mixed with romanticised courtship simulation since the Super Nintendo. So why is Stardew one of the most revered indie games of recent years and probably the single most sought after third-party title to hit the Nintendo Switch? It’s simple really; it adds to and enhances every single aspect of the tried and tested formula, almost to the extent that it stands apart if only for its thoroughness.
Life in Stardew Valley begins simply enough. Tired of running the rat race for a large, city-based corporation, the player character (who can be customised fairly extensively in appearance) accepts an offer from his or her Grandfather to take over the operation of a dilapidated family farm. Upon arrival, you’ll have nothing but a few seeds, a selection of basic tools and a ramshackle house with a single room. Before long though, you’ll have the interest of the townspeople, and the offers of friendship, stray dogs, fishing rods and Easter Egg hunts will soon be rolling in.
They are a fleeting distraction however, because in Stardew Valley, there is work to be done. Those seeds won’t plant themselves, the wood won’t chop and collect itself and precious ores are hardly going to drag themselves out of the mine on their own. You’ll expend your energy (as little of it as you have) on all of these activities during the early game, placing gathered items into a convenient box and receiving a daily intake of meagre funds as you strive towards whatever goal you’ve set for yourself. You might want a bigger bag for gathering, or maybe a silo so that you can think about storing food for animals. You might want that first, entirely cosmetic house upgrade. You’ll have no shortage of things to aspire to, basically.
Where past games of this kind have featured crops that you could list on maybe two hands, Stardew Valley features an astonishing and varied range of flora and fauna for players to harvest, should they so wish. Fruit and vegetables come in several kinds including trees and vines that produce fruit multiple times each season, whilst animals like chickens, cows and sheep are obvious inclusions. There are plenty less well-trodden paths to follow should you wish, including beekeeping, for example, or ultimately the refinement of base ingredients into better ones ala Minecraft. As an example, you can become a craft brewer if you wish.
However you choose to drive your farm forwards (I spent my first two seasons exploring, foraging and throwing very hit and miss combinations of vegetables into a bit of scrub land) you’ll be drawn further and further into village life. Every season has events to attend and the townsfolk mill about the place doing their own thing, expecting gifts and prattling inanely about the vagaries of life and what interests them. Occasionally, you’ll stumble upon a mini cut-scene that reveals a bit more about one person or another, such as Linus the trashcan-diving wildman that lives in a tent, or Gus, the kindly publican who offers him fresh food from the kitchen.
As this picture of an idyllic life farming, foraging and working the land in a quaint village full of likeable, caring people begins to ever-so-slowly take shape, you’ll inevitably fall in love with it. Stardew Valley burns deliberately slowly in almost every way. The limited energy bar means only so much can be done in a day, as does the rapid progress of the clock, but more importantly, it’s the timed events and the fact that some characters are only really accessible under certain conditions that really keeps the pace low. It also helps that there is no real compelling event – you set your own goals and even after the “assessment” (of which I’ll say no more) at the end of the third year, you can continue.
The social aspect in these games is one I can never fully commit to simply because the dialogue is too basic and I don’t like systems that encourage people to marry simply because of an exchange of gifts over a period of time. Stardew Valley does nothing to change my mind, but it does at least provide the player with a merry cast of characters to romance and some distinctive artwork during dialogue that brings the characters to life visually. Marriage and more is entirely possible in Stardew Valley, but for me it was just a matter of cheap labour because it meant I didn’t need to invest in more sprinklers, or an automated milking system.
And that note brings to me to final thought about Stardew Valley, which is a question really. What does success look like? Once I had several automated greenhouses, an orchard planted with trees to provide fruit almost all year round and a well kept stock of animals, I realised that I was actually just acting out another rat race. I mean, I married someone, in this game, just to put them straight to work. I never even petted the dog once. Had I not realised it would result in disaster just before I did it, I would probably have sold out to JoJa Mart for the short term economic benefit. I felt like I’d seen so much of Stardew Valley, yet I’d clearly missed so much of what it was trying to tell me. When is enough, enough? Only you can decide.