Released: Feb 26, 2016
On the surface level Stardew Valley seems like a simple farming game where you plant your crops, and take care of your animals. The further you play, this illusion is completely stripped from your mind, as you find yourself exploring a joyful world.
The game starts with the player working a dead end job at a huge conglomerate. You soon rediscover a letter that your now deceased grandfather sent you long ago. This letter is basically his will, granting ownership of his house to you. Being an empty husk of a human after working your desk job for years, you obviously move out to the country to live in your new mansion. (Just kidding, it's an old beat down house with overgrown land). You have now started your adventure in this pixel paradise. If you're anything like me you'll begin clearing as many pesky trees and rocks as possible. It's also possible that you explored the town, met the inhabitants, foraged, or went fishing. It's your choice, which is part of the beauty of this game. Regardless of what you do on your first day, you'll soon realise that there are two major restrictions.
From start to end, a day in Stardew Valley is 13.5 minutes. At 12:00 PM you get a warning saying "It's getting late", Â at 1:00 AM a similar warning, and at 2:00 AM your player passes out. This mechanic does a couple of things. One, it gives you the sense that each of your actions have importance. To maximise your efficiency you need to decide what you'll be doing every day. The game reinforces this by punishing your character. If you pass out you'll be brought to your house by one of the NPCs, and a fee will be taken from your wallet, giving you less money to spend on necessities. You will also wake up with only 50% of your energy, which brings me to the next restriction.
Energy is consumed when you take certain actions such as swinging your axe, using your your hoe, watering your plants, swinging your pickaxe, and casting a fishing pole. You can replenish energy by eating food or going to the spa. (Treat yourself). Your first week will be heavily dependant on what you use your energy on, as you'll have almost no money to spend on food. It's also unlikely that you will know about the spa until later in the game. The energy mechanic works exceedingly well in tandem with the day and night cycle, by building upon the already reinforced idea that your actions matter. Do you have enough energy to go explore the mines? If you do, will you have enough time to come back into town and socialise? This is the game play cycle that makes Stardew Valley addicting, and feel like there is always something to do.
As I mentioned before, it's easy to assume that Stardew is strictly a farming game. Don't get me wrong, farming is an integral part in making money, but the game has multiple activities that are fun and monetarily rewarding. An early system that is introduced is fishing. Your first fishing pole is given to you by Willy, the town fisherman that also runs the local bait shop where you'll buy all your fishing gear. When you get a fish on your hook a mini game will start where you have to keep a fish icon in a green bar. You catch the fish by keeping the icon in your green bar long enough to fill up a meter. This mini game is straightforward, it's simple, but hard to get tired of for a couple reasons. Say if you go fishing A LOT. Each day you spend casting your pole at the watersedge waiting for a finned friend to bite. Â If you eventually get fishing fatigue you can ALWAYS rely on other activities to relieve that feeling. It's also good to know that there are over 40 fishes available to catch, which are divided between seasons. Each fish lies within one of five archetypes, Mixed, Smooth, Sinker, Floater, Dart, and their behaviours differentiate based on these types. For example Mixed fish follow a basic path that can be predicted with ease, and Dart fish are the complete opposite, moving randomly at fast speeds. Because of the variety in fish, and the windows in time to catch them, Fishing can become a fun and rewarding hobby within the world of Stardew.
If you find fishing, foraging, and farming mundane it might be time to get some adventure in your life. Why not visit the mines, where you'll not only, well.. mine, but fight monsters! I was surprised to find combat in this game and even more surprised by how deep down the mines go. In total there are 120 floors, which progressively grow in difficulty with different enemies, ore, and loot. The game also rewards exploring the mines by offering more items in the Adventurer's Guild, the vendor for all things combat. While I really enjoy the mine and everything it has to offer, it can be built upon significantly. For example take the four weapon classes, Swords, Hammers, Daggers, and Slingshots. All weapon classes, minus slingshots, have a special skill. Swords have a block, Hammers have a smash, and daggers have multiple rapid stabs. While weapons skills are a good mechanic it's hard to appreciate them when all classes have the same skill. Weapons have different stats, but without skills that correspond and synergize with those stats it's hard to see weapons as unique.
Fighting, fishing, and farming are all accompanied by a unique, yet nostalgic soundtrack that I took the liberty of listening to while writing this. Generally I like to have music with lyrics in games like Stardew where there is no voice acting. While I have virtually always muted Stardew's music; turning on my own, I've started to regret it. Each song created by ConcernedApe effortlessly fits in to the world of Stardew, serene, calm and upbeat each note is a delight on the ears. I've specifically enjoyed Grandpa's Theme and A Stillness In The Rain (Abigail's Theme) for their somber, bittersweet tones. A Stillness In The Rain also reminds me of something you would hear in a Zelda game, almost medieval like.
The most lovable feature in Stardew Valley is by far is the social aspect. Every inhabitant of the valley has a social standing with you, represented by hearts. These hearts, and therefore your friendship with people is dependant on how much you talk to them, and what kinds of gifts you give them. Once you reach a certain amount of hearts with a person, heart events will occur. Heart events can be a couple things, such as cut scenes with dialogue choices, or simple gifts that you get in your mailbox. Either way these are landmarks that show you are growing with people, and eventually you can grow to be more than friends. Once you reach ten hearts with them, you can propose to one of the 12 available NPCs. This causes them to move in with you, which later allows you to have a child. I found the experience of courting a suitor of my choice wonderful, but post marriage could use some work. Marrying someone doesn't really serve much as a gameplay benefit, rather an achievement. Your spouse can help with watering your crops, fixing fences, feeding your animals, and watering your pets bowl so long as they are happy. There are no special perks or skills you can gain for maxing your spouses hearts, only a consumable item. For example wouldn't it be awesome for your spouse to help you in a dungeon? Maybe you could configure the spouses skills and weapons, some skills oriented around mining and others for combat. That sounds awesome to me! The developer is very active in updating and improving the game, so I wouldn't be surprised if more depth is added to marriage.
Overall Stardew Valley is an amazing game. It achieves so many things that many AAA games can't. An addicting game play loop, a surplus of content, a low purchase price, all with a dedicated developer at its side. The most recent update even brought multiplayer to the table! This is one of my favourite games to date, if this review doesn't persuade you to indulge yourself in this refreshing piece of art, nothing will.