Review: Stardew Valley
Who in the world wants to spend their free time farming? Who in their right mind wants to till soil, plant crops, milk cows, and do all those other menial tasks that sustain life on the farm? Well, tons of people if the success of the Harvest Moon series means anything. And it does, because Stardew Valley came along in its wake to build on everything that made farming games fun. That’s not hyperbole either, unless you’ve somehow found a game more inviting, more vibrant, and more engrossing than this one.
Your country boy grandpa’s kicked the bucket and left the family farm all to you, and you’re way too much of a hipster to miss the chance to get back to nature. You ditch your dead-end office job and arrive at the humble tract of land outside sleepy Pelican Town, only to find it in absolute disarray. That’s fine, though, because you’ve got the tools and the talent to clear the land, grow some crops, raise some livestock, and turn the place into the pastoral dreamland you’ve always wanted. And the citizenry will be more than happy to help, whether it be raising barns, teaching you to fish, sending you into deadly dungeons, or teaching you the dark secrets of the universe.
Now would be a good time to mention that Stardew Valley is all over the place, but in the best way possible. You’re not just getting a farming game here, though that is the core of the experience. There are stranger things afoot in the quaint countryside, things you’ll catch wind of in your first few days on the farm. What is that weird tower in the woods? Why is that cave to the north blocked off? Did I hear something whoosh past the house last night? While plenty of the game is grounded in picking beans and milking cows, there’s plenty more hidden behind cryptic riddles, locked doors, and ravenous monsters. And that’s to say nothing of the many, many side activities that fall somewhere in between.
Actually we’re going to talk about those activities now, because they’re probably what kept me hopelessly hooked for 40+ hours. Your farming options themselves are robust, with dozens of crops to grow, nearly a dozen animals to tend, orchards, greenhouses, and even a slime ranch possibly inspired by… well, you know. But you can also take your produce and cook it into nearly a hundred dishes, too. Or you can head out fishing to find the many kinds of creatures lurking in the rural waters. You can drop crab pots, mine up rare gems, uncover artifacts for the museum, and eventually take trips to whole other regions. Even combat is fleshed out with a fair spread of weapons and two deep dungeons of randomly-generated floors.
The vast amount of content available could easily distract from any sort of plot, but Stardew still manages to keep you focused on a few tasks. The main concern of the village is the dire state of their old community center, and the soulless capitalists of JojaMart have their eyes on demolishing the place for their new warehouse. You can choose either side to boost, with collection quests for the town or funding for Joja, and your decision does indeed change the landscape of the place. Villagers can be befriended and wooed, an involved process that requires stuffing them full of gifts and remembering their birthdays, but it also rewards you with little scenes that flesh out their personality and give the town more texture.
It’s easy to get lost in all the things you can see and do in Stardew Valley, and luckily it’s designed in a way that you’ll never run out of those things, either. Even if you get a fully-functioning farm and loads of money coming in, there are hundreds of customization options for your land, your house, yourself, and even your horse. There’s a huge building component to the game that you don’t really have to push, but you can also spend dozens of hours just crafting your perfect homestead. Honestly that might have been the part that eventually burned me out on it, because by the middle of year 2 I had seen and done so much that I started to focus on perfecting my farm to the detriment of my fun. The main appeal for me was collecting and fishing, and once those had mostly run their course I was having trouble getting deep into the other parts of the game. That variety can cut both ways after all, if you really, really love a specific part of the game but not the whole package.
But honestly this isn’t a huge concern, because Stardew Valley is first and foremost a game that wants you to have fun. It wants you to do whatever you want, with bright, happy pixel graphics and peppy music and surrounded by all your friends and pets. There’s an element of time pressure to the calendar and your hard bedtime in the middle of the night, but the game really does give you as much time as you need to do what you like. You can farm, fight, fish, flirt, or find your own way somewhere in its magical world. I haven’t even tried the multiplayer aspect, but I can only imagine that enhances the core brilliance tenfold with real, live friends. And that’s what this game has in spades, the brilliance to give you all the tools to make your own fun, and all the chances and encouragement you need to do it.