One of the first games I ever played, on a grey giant of a Gameboy, was Harvest Moon. Unlike most other games, Harvest Moon wasn’t about violence. You couldn’t hunt or kill anything; instead, you simply farmed. There were no bosses and you couldn’t die – you just had to make the best farm you could – planting and harvesting crops each season, milking cows and tending to your chickens.
It wasn’t the most exciting game. In all honesty, it was extremely repetitive. But it was fun, and somewhat soothing. It was enjoyable to slowly build up your small herd. It was fulfilling to clear another field of rocks and debris, ready for ploughing. Even though each in-game day was roughly the same, I found myself keeping playing.
Stardew Valley is a game in the style of Harvest Moon, a new entry into a small genre that’s currently mostly known for the monstrosity that is Farmville. It’s clearly – from the graphics to the gameplay – an homage to the original Harvest Moon games, and it has exactly the same simple charm.
Dissatisfied with your grey life in the big city, you move to Stardew Valley and begin a new one – working on the farm your grandfather left you. The farm is run-down, with rocks and trees filling the fields. It will take a lot of work to get everything back in working order. It won’t be easy, but with the help and friendship of the valley’s other inhabitants, you’re sure it can be done.
I haven’t, it should be stressed, finished the game yet. My little farmer is currently halfway through her second year, and there’s still a long way to go. Stardew Valley is a big game, with lots to see and do – it’s not something you can rush through in an afternoon. I’ve got a lot more game to play through, and it isn’t boring yet.
There’s just so much to do – the fields need clearing, and there are all sorts of possible crops to plant. You can raise cows and chickens, but also ducks and sheep and pigs and goats. You can build beehives to harvest wild honey, tap trees for maple syrup, and grow mushrooms in underground caves. That’s all just on the farm – you can venture out into the wider valley in order to mine for precious ores, fish in lakes and streams, and forage for wild produce.
In fact, there’s almost too much – I found the first few hours of the game rather overwhelming, as it’s not clear where you should focus your attention. A lot of new areas and mechanics are introduced all at once, and it’s hard to prioritise. Once that settles down though,.you’ve got a lot of freedom; you can spend your time however you want.
The game does encourage you to try everything though – there’s an overarching plot about a soulless corporation that pushes you to collect resources from all over the place, and some technologies are only available after doing certain things – you won’t get the material to build sprinklers without mining, and you won’t learn how to make crab pots unless you practice line fishing first. You can ignore an area or a skill if you want, but you’ll eventually have to deal with it if you want to make certain kinds of progress.
One area that Stardew Valley deserves particular praise for is characterisation – not traditionally a strength for simulation games. The various inhabitants of the valley are distinct, and clearly recognisable. They have their likes and dislikes, and surprisingly complex relationships to each other. The mayor has a furtive fling with the blowsy rancher, while the local carpenter’s second husband worries about his relationship to his step-children. Valley society is complex and not always happy – there are problems, which the game does not gloss over.
The social mechanics are reasonably simple, but deeper than a lot of games – each character’s feelings towards you can increase or decrease, based on various factors such as how much you talk to them and the kind of gifts you bring them. It’s formulaic, but a better formula than most.
You can make friends, fall in love, and even get married – the game allows both heterosexual and homosexual relationships with equal validity, which is remarkably progressive. My farmer fell for Penny, the bookish daughter of an alcoholic. Despite there being little mechanical benefit to courtship, I found myself extremely invested in Penny’s lonely life, wanting to whisk her away from misery. Again, characterisation is a strong point.
The graphics are simple and colourful. Everything is pixel art, in a predictably retro fashion. There’s a lot of art though, and options for character customisation. It feels like a stylistic choice, not a budgetary one. Every icon is easily differentiated from the others, and it’s always clear what is going on.
There are some problems with the game, of course. The controls are occasionally a little wonky, particularly when milking cows or petting livestock. It’s liveable with, but it is a jarring moment of clumsiness in an otherwise polished game. The biggest problem is the amount of content and the different kinds of activities. As mentioned above, it sometimes feels as though there’s too much going on. The amount of content is great, but there’s a lot to do and the simplicity of the idea is harmed slightly by it. The game should be soothing, but it often ends up somewhat frantic.
Unlike Harvest Moon, this is not a totally peaceful game. One of the activities on offer is descending deep into the mines, looking for ores and artefacts. These artefacts happen to be in the homes of monsters – sentient slimes, witch doctor shadows, and cave bats. You have a sword, you fight, you either prevail or wake up at the mine entrance with no memory of how you got there. It’s an element I could do with out – it complicates the farming game with not-very-interesting combat – but it doesn’t ruin everything, it just doesn’t really fit.
Mostly though, Stardew Valley is a polished game that provides the same rustic, simple fix that Harvest Moon does. If you’re at all interest in games that don’t focus on combat, this is definitely one to look at.