As Concerned Ape's indie RPG adventure sim Stardew Valley opens, you've reached your breaking point at your mindless job, and that's when you remember the letter left to you by your grandfather long ago. He told you to open it when you felt hopeless and lost, and, well, this fits, I suppose. Turns out he's left you a farm... it's more than a little run down, but the locals are willing to lend you a hand. Packed with secrets, surprises, crafting, the potential for marriage (regardless of gender!), dungeons, and much, much more, Stardew Valley is an ambitious and addictive Harvest Moon-alike game from a one-man team that delivers a startling amount of content despite some shallow portions. (Please note that as of this writing, Stardew Valley is only available for PC, though the developer says ports for Mac and Linux are a top priority.)
Playing Stardew Valley is initially a little daunting due to a lack of anything other than the most vary basic instructions if you haven't played a Harvest Moon-alike before, though a little experimentation will quickly show you the ropes. There's farming, fishing, mining, cooking, crafting, monster slaying, festivals, livestock rearing, and much, much more... including the potential for marriage with one of the town's ten eligible suitors, regardless of gender. The basic controls are [WASD] to move, and clicking to interact, while hitting [ESC] brings up your menu and inventory. The game is broken up into seasons, each of which has its own special events and things to grow or find, and as you might suspect, they pass a day at a time. You can do whatever you want to fill your days, though most activity consumes energy... if it runs out, you'll pass out, but you can recover it by eating or other activities, or simply sleep in bed, which also saves your game. While you're free to do whatever you like, most of the townsfolk and businesses have set schedules, so don't forget to check what day it is before you go traipsing off into town. Bad weather doesn't mean you should stay indoors, however, since it can bring its own surprises...
On the edge of town you'll find a mine that seems to go on forever, and in addition to valuable ores and minerals, there's beasties about. Combat is a real-time affair with clicking to attack and right-clicking to temporarily block, but make sure to keep an eye on your health. You'll find improved swords and magic rings to increase your abilities, but you'll also gradually gain experience in combat itself, which brings boosts whenever you level up. The same holds true for all your other skills, from fishing to foraging and beyond, so try a little or a lot of everything. Just don't neglect your social life! You may think life as a farmer is all about amassing resources to expand and rebuild your farm, but befriend the townsfolk and they'll treat you right, even if you don't have romance in mind. You can give each person two gifts per week, and they all have their own likes and dislikes. You'll see more events and cutscenes the better you get to know them, and if you take on the random quests that come in your mailbox or that can be found posted on the town bulletin board, they'll like you a lot more for it.
I can remember the first time I saw the original Harvest Moon when it came out for the SNES. It was at the game rental place just a few blocks from where I went to junior high, and I remember laughing at it with the store's owner, an excitable German woman who looked like somebody's grandmother/librarian and really really loved Final Fantasy. The concept of a game that revolved around repetitive chores with no real conflict or fantastical elements seemed ridiculous to us... and yet that very weekend, I and two of my best friends stayed up until five in the morning each day brushing our fat pregnant cows, plucking weeds, and repairing fences. Stardew Valley's entire tone and gameplay casts me back to that time with alarming ease... it's endearing, it's vibrant, and it's addictive in that "just one more day" fashion that makes the hours fly by. Its pixel artwork is absolutely lovely, filled with subtle environmental effects and little details that make it feel alive, and while the characters are simple, they're varied and cute, if more than a little frosty and dismissive initially. Don't want to find romance or friendship? There's plenty to do otherwise, like finding out what's at the bottom of the mine, where the bus goes, tracking down legendary fish, and much more. Stardew Valley has a great sense of discovery to its gameplay that means you're never short of things to do and see as long as you avoid getting stuck in a routine of your own making.
The downside is that Stardew Valley feels like it's spread thin in some areas. Combat is simplistic and clunky, click-detection to use or give items in certain locations (usually immediately above you) can be spotty, characters recycle their scant dialogue so often and have such a limited handful of scenes that they feel robotic rather than fleshed out, and why, oh why, is there no option to make the soundtrack loop? These are the things that started to leap out at me after a few seasons, and while they're hardly critical, and in fact are even issues Stardew Valley shares with many Harvest Moon titles, they may mean the game will start to feel stale for some players sooner rather than later. The developer has already issued a patch that expands and improves on married life in the game by giving spouses some more unique dialogue, but spending weeks throwing presents at someone who cycles back and forth between two lines of dialogue (most of which can be frosty or rude in the beginning) feels a little hollow. On the other hand, part of the reason why these nits can drive you to pick at them so much is allowing yourself to get stuck in the rut of a schedule. Stardew Valley feels most alive when you're really exploring it, interacting with everyone all the time, and the more people you're friends with, the more you'll see, especially when you focus on completing side-quests and objectives, so don't let yourself turn the game into a nine-to-five with a schedule.
None of this means Stardew Valley is a bad game, of course, just that some aspects are a little more engrossing than others. It's actually very, very good, and its ambition is pretty tremendous. Everything about it, from top to bottom including music and visuals, was made by a single person, which makes me want to lie down and stare at the wall and contemplate my life a little. The developer plans to add some pretty substantial free content updates in the future, including more marriage candidates and unique events and even multiplayer, but what exists is pretty gargantuan. There are new areas to unlock, challenges to complete, things to repair, and much more in addition to turning your sprawling, debris-ridden land into a massive functioning farm. The crafting elements are a nice touch in that they make everything feel useful, and give you a lot more freedom to customise your building and growth. It's a game that's expansive and impressive, yet at the same time feels comforting and nostalgic without resting on the laurels of those that came before it. If you love life simulations, Stardew Valley is an easy recommendation, and it's only going to get better from here on out.
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