A Love Letter To Stardew Valley

My first experience with a farming simulator was the first Harvest Moon. I had just moved to a more rural area and one of my new friends was just as much of a gamer as I was but had the means to pick up newer games or hunt down older games. It was 1998 or 1999, and on one of the nights we were hanging out and not playing Pokemon, he introduced me to Harvest Moon.

I was hooked instantly. There was something about being raised in a city and then playing a game that involved escaping from the city and into the country with a farm of your own.

Of course, being gamers, we found ways in which we could break the system, like abusing the “endless nights” or trapping a bachelorette in a shop during a rainy day, but even then I couldn’t help but feel something for the little guy. I wanted the best for my little avatar, whether it was finding the right person to marry or even eating decent food.

Over the years, I’ve come and gone with the Harvest Moon franchise, and eventually got absorbed into Rune Factory. While I still pick up the classic game and Friends of Mineral Town (and recently started playing A New Beginning for the 3DS), I like the extras that Rune Factory offers, and really loved it.

Once I heard about Stardew Valley’s production and then seeing it was finally out, it was a no brainer that I had to buy it.

Title

==The Pitch==

Stardew Valley was produced by ConcernedApe, on his own, over the course of four years. The game itself is basically a Harvest Moon-like game.

If you haven’t played a game like Harvest Moon, it’s simple: you are in the city working a dead end job for a big corporation and remember that you have a letter from your grandfather (Santa?) that he gave you before he died. Included in the letter is the deed to his old farm, as he believes that you need it and could bring it back to life.

You then take over this farm and become a member of the nearby town/village, mingling with shop owners, eligible marriageable partners, politicians, and various mystical beings.

This type of game is tried and true, but how does it stack up?

==Gameplay==

Like most games of this type, you have an isometric view of your world that you move around in. Even if you haven’t played Harvest Moon, if you’ve played any game with that type of view recently, like Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, you’ll be right at home.

Moving is a breeze with a controller or WASD (I prefer my keyboard) and includes diagonals. Item/people interaction is done by standing in front of it and pressing a button. If you are using a mouse, the cursor will actually tell you what you will do when you interact with it, whether it’s speech, picking up, or interacting (searching, opening, etc). If you are going the controller route, there’s an option to make a box appear in front of you to denote that you’ll be interacting with whatever is inside.

Most elements of the game are easy to grasp. There are obvious progressions with your actions (seeds become small plants which grow into products), anything that is acting has an animation (preserves jars, for example, are always boiling), anything that is ready has a bubble on top showing what’s there to be picked up, and there’s a number of intuitive elements to help you along the way (as well as NPC input and a library to help otherwise).

The game is broken down into Days (which pass by pretty quickly; about a second is a minute, give or take), and there are 28 days in each Season. Certain crops can only be grown (or found) in each season, so you have to make your 28 days count.

The NPCs of Pelican Town all have their own schedule, lives, likes, goals, and stories. By getting to know them (talking to them and giving them gifts), you can learn more about them and learn more of the overall story itself.

As you play, you’ll find yourself building a schedule based on the thing you want to do. Want to be successful with farming? You’ll probably spend your morning tending crops. Want to ensure that you’ll get the chance to socialize with that special someone? Spend some time exploring and see where they like to hang out. There’s always something to do, and the game rewards you for figuring it all out.

Honestly, this is a simple game about a simple life with easy controls and an in-depth game hidden beneath it.

Added note: there’s talk of a multiplayer patch at some point in the future. I’m really curious to see how that will work, and how it will impact the general gameplay.

==The Good==

For being done by one person, this game is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

If you’ve ever played the older Harvest Moon games, it takes the best parts of Friends of Mineral Town, adds in the best parts of Rune Factory, includes elements from the hit game Terrarria, and rolls it up together into a game that has an excellent pacing mechanic that doesn’t feel too slow nor too fast.

Many games of this type tend to fall flat in the first hour or so due to the slow progression. In Stardew Valley, there is ALWAYS something to do (sometimes it feels like too much to do). You have a farm to tend, animals to care for, foraging the countryside and beach, fishing, socializing with people (often with events that take place at certain times), and a mine to go explore.

The mine is a key part of the game. Not only is it a place to explore for materials (like in Friends of Mineral Town), but it has monsters that you can slay for loot, which ranges from items to sell (like slime) to items you need (like ore). The mine ensures that you ALWAYS have something to do, as once winter settles in, you are going to be hard pressed for things to do on the farm (well, sort of).

The game also gives you decisions to make that cannot be undone, which promotes replaying the game (but would you really want to with how expansive it is?). Right at the get-go, you get to choose your gender, appearance, and your preferred animal (cat or dog). You are also asked questions about what you want to do with certain parts of the farm and town which will then impact your gameplay. Every decision matters here! For example, are you going to buy a membership at JoJa Mart and let them take over the old community center, or are you going to fix the place up yourself? The choice is yours!

As you play and take actions, you gain levels to your skills. While in similar games you simply just gain more HP or Stamina, you become “proficient” with the item instead, giving you special perks (like reduced stamina costs) or choosing a profession (which gives you special powers). You also learn new recipes, which can really change the game in your favor. As an example, once you gain levels in Fishing, you learn how to make Crab Pots, which are basically traps you place in the water and check for whatever you can catch. This can be a game changer for some who want to make extra money via fishing but don’t have the (literal) energy for it.

The crafting system is easy to work with. Like Terarria, as long as you know the recipe and have the materials in your pack, you can automatically craft it; no ordering items around into a shape, no need to stand by a special bench, just click and it’s in your hand. Considering the sheer number of recipes, this is HUGE and a brilliant design choice.

A vital part of games like this is the music. Like the games that inspired it, there’s music for each season, weather, and for special events, and the trick is to make it a memorable earworm while not sounding horribly repetitive. While I haven’t gotten through all four seasons yet, the music thus far has been brilliant.

Tied to music, the art style has to stand out. Some people may not like it, but the art style is reminiscent of Chrono Trigger with character portraits similar to older SNES RPGs. For me, it added that wonderful nostalgia element and a was an important touch for this game.

And don’t forget about humor!

The last element of this game is the addicting nature. If you’ve ever had the “just one more turn” situation with games like Civilization, you’ll be running into “just one more day” here with Stardew Valley.

The days don’t take horribly long unless you are doing a ton of talking and item management, so if you have an hour or two to dedicate to the game, you can slice through days of in-game work. I think my current in-game days take about 15 minutes or so, which makes “one more day” not only feasible, but dangerous. Epically so.

The addictive nature is tied into what makes the game so great: there is always something to do. Early on, you’ll probably spend your days foraging in the woods to find things to sell in order to kickstart your funding needed for seeds as well as socializing with everyone (as some items, like your first sword and the fishing pole, have to be given to you). After you get settled, you’ll be working on a few different projects, such as tending your growing crop collection (about 75% of my stamina goes into crops each day), foraging, exploring the mines, fishing, or finding special events such as hidden items (think Animal Crossing’s fossils; there’s usually one hidden every few days) or special people (a traveling wagon shows up once every week).

And you’ll be getting sporadic quests like this to keep you busy.

Once you get the hang of things, you’ll be making a routine. My current routine consists of watering/tending crops in the morning, running to town for things (community center, job board, talking to marriageable characters, supplies, etc), quick foraging (the beach at least, sometimes the woods), and depending on my needs, either hitting the mines or clearing more on the farm (especially clearing trees for wood and space). I’m sure once Fall hits and I start getting animals, that will change, and once we get to Winter, that’ll change even more. Even with the simple schedule, there’s always something new to make things interesting.

Checking the board is the first thing I do before shipping crops. That says something.

One of the things I didn’t go too much into is the relationships, and there’s a reason for that: I haven’t gotten too far with them beyond the basics (and just racking up hearts). This isn’t a bad thing, if anything, this is GREAT. I’ve played some Harvest Moon games and was married by the end of the first year’s Fall (good summer harvest for cash, quick learning for presents, etc), but the approach programmed here is pretty solid to prolong the process.

First, you can only talk to characters so many times a day. Usually this is once or twice, but some characters can have three or more speech bubbles. This doesn’t sound like much, but it serves two purposes: you know who you’ve spoken to that day (they don’t have a speech bubble when you mouse over them), and you can’t spam them until you get what you want.

Second, you can only give a character so many gifts a WEEK. In the first Harvest Moon, you could trap someone in a shop while it’s raining, buy a gift, hand it to them, run into another room, and come back and repeat it. With enough gold, you can be well loved and ready for marriage in a single day. In later games, the first present of the day grants a number of “affection points” while further gifts become negligible due to diminished returns.

With the enforced limitation in Stardew Valley, it keeps you from hoarding a number of gifts and just handing them to the target of your affection on their birthday (which is still a solid day for gifts; giving someone something they love on their birthday can net you two hearts). It also means that every gift will need to count, as giving a poor gift isn’t nearly as nice or useful as a well-loved gift…but you won’t know their loved gifts until you start giving them gifts and gauging their reactions, especially since everyone has their own way of saying they love something. It’s like trying to get to know someone, only they can’t lie to you. By the end of summer and I already had four hearts (out of the necessary 10) for three of the potential candidates, but few hearts elsewhere (as well as not having ANY of my house upgrades). By mid-fall, I netted the fifth for two of the candidates and, thanks to a birthday, leapt to the seventh heart for another. This might take a while, but probably not as long as I had originally thought.

Finally, you can marry ANY person who is single, regardless of gender. From what I’ve heard from friends and read online via the Q&A with ConcernedApe, you can give a bouquet to someone you want to be serious with and that begins to unlock the true romance elements of that character, eventually leading to marriage. This means if you aren’t keen on same-sex marriage, you don’t need to worry about it at all as you wouldn’t be handing a bouquet to a member of the same sex. I think this is a brilliant and progressive approach to this style of game, and hope that we see more like it. Rune Factory 4 tried to get close to it with “pajama parties,” but I’m sure it didn’t quite scratch the itch for some people.

As an added, final, note: ConcernedApe has done an amazing job keeping up with the game. Within the first weekend, patches were already being released to fix errors people were finding, and just recently we’ve had a patch that fixed more bugs as well as added a new zoom feature. Even better, more patches (such as multiplayer) are in the works, meaning we can be seeing a number of improvements and additional gameplay elements in the future. For a one-person developer, this is huge, and is amazing.

One of the newest tweaks: a zoom feature. Here we’re zoomed in.
And now we’re zoomed out. See the difference? I rather like it!

==The Bad==

There are a few minor issues to the game, and even then, the question of whether they are issues is a valid question.

One big one that came up, for me, is the lack of cloud saving. Not a major deal breaker by any means, and it’s probably for the better (I can only imagine the hassle of rushing through a day during my breaks or wanting to sneak a day in while waiting for people at the library), but it is a bit disheartening that I’d want to play a day or two during a break at work but won’t be able to without going through the hassle of transferring my saves back and forth. Of course, this could be a replayability perk in disguise.

The next one is a bit of a design choice, but for some may be a turnoff: you can only save by sleeping. Mechanically, it is a perk so you avoid save scumming the randomly generated mines hoping for a good bit of loot, but it is a bit frustrating when something comes up/you lose track of time and have to make the decision of being late or losing the progress of the day (especially in said mines). One morning, I was playing, lost track of time and realized I had to be out the door for a doctor’s appointment, but I was in the middle of the mines with most of the game day to go. I was able to opt to leave the game running all day while being an adult, but it was not my preferred method (as I share my PC with my wife, so it may not have stayed around if she were home). A Quick Save option that lets you save and sign out and automatically erases after loading would be brilliant for situations like this.

Some elements of the game are not entirely intuitive for non-veterans of similar games, and it may be off-putting for some new people. Granted, many things are openly explained, but some might be confused as to the importance of building a Silo before a Coop (the suggested mission was Coop first) or what level of equipment you need in order to break through certain objects.

Some people find the fishing minigame difficult or not intuitive. I don’t have an issue with it, though.

I can’t say anything officially on it yet, but it seems like the game doesn’t have a major overarcing story. . .yet. Granted, I haven’t even finished my first in-game year, so the only “story” I’ve been finding is the note about your Grandfather returning on the first day of Year 3 (a bit of a nod to the tradition in Harvest Moon games of having two years to get things done), a sewer that no one can get into, and the needs of the village (and the issue between the current mayor and the owner of JoJa Mart). This is story enough for me, but I know some may find it a bit lackluster.

With regards to the story, I find the some of the characters are rather annoying at first, keeping me from wanting to interact with them. Sure, I get that there’s a grumpy old man that wants to be left alone and the mom that’s raising two kids on her own while being busy, but most of the bachelors come off as condescending and annoying (and the one bachelorette is a total airhead). Not sure if they are the same way if you play a female character or if you get to know them, but most of the male counterparts to your character just seem annoying.

Next up, the interface can be a bit awkward. For example, the crafting menu doesn’t have a way to search, so everything is just sort of lumped together in a paginated menu and appears exactly the size it would on your field. If it were broken down by skill type, purpose, or even a list with a pop-out menu, it could improve it.

This is just page one of what I unlocked. There’s no real method to organization here.

Other interface elements are the tool use box (even with the option on, I still can’t seem to water my plants correctly without missing one due to timing), character conversations that vanish as soon as they begin, and for some, the fishing minigame just seems odd (I enjoy it, though).

Final note on the crafting system: you can only craft items/furniture and a few rings, but not major gear like weapons or tools. Unlike the Rune Factory games, you cannot do your own tool/weapon crafting, and must rely on the blacksmith for tools (and wait days) or find ways to get new weapons (paying gold or completing missions). It can be a bit of a turn off for some (and an extra hurdle after getting used to those games), but it does promote further gameplay.

I’m honestly just nitpicking at this point (and could nitpick on silly things) because this is a solid game, and would hate to not have things for ConcernedApe to look at and hopefully improve upon for this game or later games.

==The Verdict==

At it’s core, Stardew Valley feels like a love letter to Harvest Moon. When you dig deeper than that, you see that it’s much more. Yes, it’s a love letter to an amazing type of game, but it also sneaks in surprising lessons about what life means, how things can turn around with a change of scenery and hard work, the importance of caring for and coexisting with nature, that love of community, and sticking it to the big corporations that ruin it all.

Rating 5 Stars

You are seeing it correctly: Stardew Valley is getting Five Buns. Five golden, delicious, luxurious buns.

It’s not just because of bias and nostalgia. The game truly deserves it. ConcernedApe took a premise that is tried and true, added a number of new elements to it, cleaned it up, and released a hidden gem that may be one of the THE best game of 2016. A game that gets pirates to apologize for pirating and then purchase a copy, inspires random strangers to purchase it for other strangers, and even with the flaws still gets a resounding collection of stellar reviews deserves every bit of praise it receives.

And anyone with the gumption to name the city Pelican Town has got to have a good sense of humor.

ConcernedApe, my hat is off to you, and if I could buy you a drink for your awesome work, I would. Instead, I’ll probably be gifting your game to a few friends that can’t get it and hopefully call it even.

Stardew Valley is available on PC and can be purchased via Steam, GOG, or the Humble Store (which is where I’d suggest purchasing it), and is currently priced at $14.99. The soundtrack (70 tracks, about 2 hours long) is also available on Steam as a DLC for $4.99. I can assure you that the game is worth every penny you’d spend on it.

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