Stardew Valley, launched by Concerned Ape, is essentially a PC version of Harvest Moon, improving on the tried and true genre console fans have come to know.
As such, when I first bought Stardew Valley, I was expecting a very Harvest Moon esque experience. And I wasn’t wrong, per say. But what I found was a whole lot more then watering crops and taking care of animals. Due to an absurd amount of content (players have reported spending 400+ hours on it since the Beta, and are now at ‘end game’ levels) I decided to play this game for only one week before reviewing it.
In this time, everything I thought about was related to Stardew Valley. Even if I was hanging out with friends, in the back of my mind I was attempting to plot out where I would place my farm buildings. Almost making it through the first in-game year, I’ve not only gotten to know the layout of the town, but also the intricacies of the game.
Stardew Valley starts out with a charming story, similar to that of most Harvest Moons. Your grandfather has passed away, and he leaves you an inheritance – a letter that you are only to open it when you get tired of city life. Years later, you open the letter and its a deed to the farm.
Upon returning to Stardew Valley, you are met with the simple goal of making a living, and an overgrown farm that has almost no structures left standing. There is a worn down building that appears to be a greenhouse, and then the main house. Its small, just enough for a few decorations you’ll collect throughout your travels and chests to keep all your loot in.
Surprisingly, the game works well with keyboard and mouse controls. I wasn’t expecting it to feel as natural as Harvest Moon does with a controller, but the only issue I had with the games controls appears to have been a bug. Occasionally, while running in one direction your character will continue to run in that direction, even after you’ve told it to stop. By pressing buttons to move in different directions, it breaks the bug easily.
There are roughly 30 villagers to meet and befriend in Stardew Valley, putting the number high above any Harvest Moon game I’ve ever played. The 10 bachelors and bachelorettes in the town all vary in personality, from the stero-typical blonde bimbo to the moody teenager living in his parents basement.
When it came to picking a spouse, no one really stood out in personality. A lot of the NPC’s appear pretty flat, and only 4 characters have really caught my interest as far as storyline goes. Shane, Linus, The Mayor, and The Wizard. Although The Wizard, at times, feels like a randomly thrown in character, his tower has, by far, the best atmosphere in the game. The sudden shift in music and lighting really sets the scene whenever you visit him.
Growing your farm in Stardew Valley presents you with several options. I chose to invest all of my hard earned cash into getting more seeds for crops, so by the time that winter hit I was sitting on 50,000. I had built a silo, barn, and chicken coop during the summer. The income that the animals began to bring in was enough to sustain me through the winter, and I’ll be finishing up some of the buildings in the mean time.
Overall, Stardew Valley is as much a game about time management as anything else. Typically, I would finish watering my crops anywhere between 12pm and 2pm on the average in-game day (bearing in mind that if you go to bed on time you wake up at 6am). I spent a considerable amount of energy, especially in the fall, raising these crops for some spending cash. Although the game started out difficult in terms of cash, the curve quickly drops off and it becomes almost impossible not to be sitting on a stack of money and supplies.
There are a few other things that you can do in the game, including foraging, fishing, and mining.
As the NPCs will tell you, to be a successful farmer you must be well rounded in all aspects. You are first encouraged to start fishing with you meet Willy, a local fishermen who is trying to keep the ‘old art of fishing’ alive.
Fishing is a pass time that doesn’t take as much of a commitment as mining, allowing you to still visit the villagers and spend a what little excess energy you have on earning some extra cash.
The fishing is frustrating at first, with different kinds of fish having different patterns when you are reeling them in. But it gets easier. As for how it works, you cast your line into the water, wait, and once you get a bite you click as fast as possible. Once you have a hit, a large vertical display appears on the screen. Inside the slider is a green bar and a fish, with you controlling the green bar. You must keep this bar behind the fish to catch it. Since the bar is finicky, you’ll probably lose a fish or two on your line before getting the hang of it.
Foraging, on the other hand, is the most straight forward thing in Stardew Valley. By exploring the surrounding forests and mountains, you can find different fruits, flowers, veggies, and fungi. These can be used as gifts for certain villagers, sold for profit, or donated towards the community center. You can also create new seeds to plant, which will bring more gifts and more profits by the end of the season.
It can however take a few trips to find some of the items you have to forage during the season, making it more frustrating than it has to be. The items appear to be in certain areas (forest, mountain, town) but are still randomized as to where they actually spawn.
Then there is mining. One of the most popular activities with the community since the game launched. As you go deeper into the mines the monsters, loot, and atmosphere all change. Reaching the bottom of the mine becomes one of the main goals in the game, so you’ll have to find time in your busy farming schedule to explore the depths. That doesn’t mean mining is easy on your supplies though. You’ll have to stock up on enough food for extra energy.
Perhaps the biggest annoyance in the mines is that your progress only saves every 5 levels. You’ll have to carve out time to go into the mines, and as a large crop farm, I simply didn’t have time to get to the bottom throughout the year. The winter is, in my opinion, the best time to get all of the extra side things done. Fishing, Mining, and befriending any villagers you may have missed. You can also take that time to upgrade your watering can.
When it comes to the seasons in Stardew Valley, unsurprisingly the best season is Spring. With short growing times for crops, you can continue to plant crops close to the end of the season. Fall and Summer are great for making money as well, with Summer having the introduction of corn – which will keep producing until the end of Fall.
For Summer, the investment rate is high, and only pays off towards the end of the season. Most of the crops take a long time to grow, so you’ll probably find yourself low on cash. This isn’t a new concept to farm sim games, and makes each season feel unique. You’ll also find yourself with little energy if you lack sprinklers, so befriending the villagers is easiest during the summer.
Winter, however, has one major flaw. The snow. At first you probably won’t notice it. The snow happens to be falling one day, and it looks kind of nice so you go about your business. But then you stop to fish, mine, who knows, and the nausea hits you. Stomach turning, illness inducing animation is what accompanies the final season.
This, along with an abundance of flat characters, is the biggest downfall to Stardew Valley. Even with flat villagers, a majority of the gameplay is spent tending to your farm, fishing, or mining. The villagers are there to make you feel like you’re part of a community. Nothing more. But the snowing animation follows you, it doesn’t stop for the day, and there is no guarantee it’ll be done tomorrow. So you best learn how to navigate the town with your eyes closed come winter.
The average day, like most Harvest Moon style games, can get long and boring at times. But Stardew Valley attempts to minimize this through the extra activities that, in theory, could be used as the main way to get money.
On top of these few gripes, the layout of the town is incredibly confusing when you first start playing. The layout could of been much more simplified and created for efficiency. It could be argued however, if this is a life sim it is better to be accurate. And most small towns have terrible layouts.
The main conflict found within Stardew Valley is the ability to either rebuild the community center or offer it to Joja Mart. Both are difficult, but Joja Mart’s path focuses entirely on giving them money. For the community center you’ll have to gather supplies, quality crops, items from the mines, foraging, and fishing. Finishing the community center is a large task, and it most likely cannot be done within one year unless you’ve played the game through before.
But it still feels like the right thing to do.
Through the small conflicts throughout the game, you’ll see Stardew Valley slowly come to life. As you continue to befriend villagers they unlock more dialog and cut scenes at certain friendship levels. The dialog choices you can make during the cut scenes are small, but still have an impact on how the villager will perceive you. Again, a lot of these interactions feel a little flat though. And while it helps the other more interesting characters to pop, it also creates an atmosphere of only wanting to visit certain characters.
It’s up to you to save Stardew Valley in the end, but it’s difficult to see how your actions impact the town short term. A lot of the actions you take in the town appear to have only long term effects, which is frustrating to play through. It’ll be interesting to see how decisions impact the town in the end, but it’d be nice to know how they have an immediate impact – no matter how small.
Stardew Valley, overall, feels like a solid addition to the life sim and farming sim genres. It improves upon an already great model that has been developed over the years, but misses the mark through the lack of depth in characters and inability to curve the difficulty properly.
With enough time and patience, your farm will be running itself – and you’ll no longer be needed, except to gather crops. The unfortunate side to that is that you’ll no longer have to befriend the villagers at that state in the game, and it’ll just run like a well oiled machine. This provides little in game content to do at the end of Stardew Valley, and ultimately, will be where most players stop playing.
Since it’s release late last month, the game has met with resounding success, and Concerned Ape plans on adding DLC and porting the game to other platforms(as it is currently a Windows exclusive). With a solid, fun framework already in place, more content can only make the game better from here.