Reviews

Stardew Valley Review – So Relaxing, So Engrossing

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Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Developer: Eric Barone
Publisher: Chucklefish Games/ 505 Games
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Review code supplied free of charge by 505 Games

Games like Stardew Valley are a prime example of how humans can be very strange indeed. Every day most of us wake up and follow a strict schedule. We get up, grab something to drink and eat, get a shower, brush our teeth, work, return home and go to bed, only to repeat it all again the next day. And then strangely we play games like Stardew Valley, games in which you simulate having a whole other life where you get up, grab something to drink and eat, get a shower, brush our teeth, work, return home and go to bed, only to repeat it all again the next day.

Having been out on PC for over a year and Xbox One and PS4 for a about five months Stardew Valley is now getting a physical retail release complete with a map, guide-book and download code for the soundtrack, and since I never played the game when it first arrived, now seems like a good time to finally grab some wellies and dig some dirt.

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Stardew Valley tells a very simple tale of a customizable person who inherits a farm from their dead grandfather. Working in a horrible job for some uncaring corporation the farm represents a chance to escape to a more wholesome and hopefully fulfilling life building a farm and interacting with the local townspeople. There is no true overarching story other than the one you make yourself as you farm, explore the local mine and interact with the people, but there are things going on in the background to discover, things that reward your curiosity. There seems to be an affair going on with the mayor and a woman, the local town hall badly needs repaired, there’s a wizard who hangs around in his tower and everybody has their own little stories that you can gradually piece together.

But at its most basic this is a game about farming, a task you can never truly fail because even if you run out of cash your little avatar doesn’t require food and there’s always stuff to be scavenged to sell. Your first day or two might be as simple as clearing out the farm land, using a pickaxe and axe to power through rocks and trees alike, collecting the wood and stone which will all have a use later. It’s at this time you’ll learn about the energy system, too, which governs just about everything you do. Whenever you hit a tree or water a plant or do just about anything else energy will get used up and when it runs out you’ll become about as fast as an elderly snail at the DMV. When this happens it’s time to clamber into bed and wait for a new day, although if you manage your energy through the use of food you can keep going into the night, up until 2am where you’ll collapse from exhaustion regardless of what you do.

With some space cleared and a few seeds donated by a kind local comes the most basic and reliable of your skills; planting and maintaining crops. By whacking the ground with a hoe (not that kind, you pervert) you can get the Earth ready to accept some seeds. From then on you just need to water the crops every morning until they are ready to be harvested and sold. Simple! Well, almost. You do need to consider how long crops take to mature, whether they continue to grow after harvesting or whether you need to buy more seeds, and what season they can be grown in, because as soon as the season shifts your current crops will die off if they can’t handle the new weather. Mechanically there’s nothing complicated going on here, and yet somehow planting crops and watering them every day until they are finally ready to harvest is a satisfying process.

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But there’s a lot more to tending and growing to your farm. Before long you’ll find out you can build a coop and use it to house chickens who’ll lay eggs every day, but they need to be fed hay and hay is expensive to buy so you spend a load of time getting the resources to construct a silo so that you can harvest and store the hay. And then you might find out how to build a machine that makes eggs into mayonaise, so you make a few of those, and then get a barnyard for cows who provide milk and sheep that can be sheered for their wool. Oh, but wait! Now you can tap trees for resin or maple syrup, and plant fruit trees that can have their produce gathered and turned into lovely jam! At some point you might want to make sprinklers to water your crops automatically and a scarecrow or two to keep the crows at bay. Eventually, you may upgrade your house so that it has a  kitchen where you can cook meals, craft fences for your livestock so they can enjoy fresh grass and make paths so that everything looks pretty.  There’s just so much too….hang on, I want to go cut down some trees to get the sap to make some fertalizer for my melons. Wait, I can make wine? And cheese? Good God, I’m cultured. Oooo, what does that thing do?

Stardew Valley always rewards the time you spend through a straightforward levelling process. The more you do of something the better you get at it, and as you level up you’ll unlock new crafting recipes for bigger and cooler stuff. I can’t say if there’s any true end-game because I never did find one, but what I can say is that in the dozens of hours I spent quietly running my little farm there always seemed to be something else to build or do, a constant sense of discovery that the game cultivates by explaining very little of its own systems. Admiteddly there are a few basic things that the game could probably do with actually telling players outright, especially as the controls and interface aren’t always the most intuitive, but for the most part I love that Stardew Valley let’s you find things for yourself. It prods you here and there thanks to a quest system, like urging you to build a coop, but it’s never overbearing. It gives you a nudge and then lets you get on with it.

It’s tempting to never venture off your farm, and yet you must for there is a bigger world out there and you’re going to need to explore it to get everything you need to make your farm the most awesome farm ever in the history of awesome freaking farms. The local town will be one of your earliest stops due to the fact that from its store you can purchase new seeds and other useful things, like inventory upgrades which should be an early priority as they make things so much easier. Ambling around are some thirty residents, all with their own little quirks, routines and personalities. You can get on their good side by gifting them items they love and attending some of the annual events such as the dance or the creation of a giant soup. The more you come to know some of them the more you might wish to get married and have kids, both entirely possible within Stardew Valley’s almost absurdly cutesy and colorful world. It’s here I could get a tad philosophical because giving people presents to get them to look you is as game-ish a mechanic as possible, and yet contrasting this is the fact that they all feel surprisingly real. You want to get to know them, and learn about them. There’s Pam, the seemingly miserly older lady who spends the evenings in the same stool at the bar, yet there’s more to her, or Abigail, the quiet, withdrawn game lover.

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By ambling around the map you’ll also come across the mine, an incredibly deep location bristling with enemies and loads of valuable minerals that you need to make your farm even better, like copper or iron that you can smelt in a furnace and turn into bars. Every five levels you hit a save point in the form of an elevator so when you return you can skip having to work through all the other levels yet again. As for the creatures you find lurking in the depths combat is very, very simple; you hit a button to attack and there’s an option to block. That’s it. A fight basically comes down to you swiping madly at a thing until it dies, or in the case of slimes just forcing them into a corner so you can stab ’em. It’s entirely unexciting stuff, but then given what the game is about it’s hardly surprising that combat was kept to a bare minimum. In fact, you can’t even die, instead just like becoming exhausted you’ll simply collapse and lose a few items. You will, however, also lose your memory of the last five levels of the mine, which is a pain in the proverbial.

What Stardew Valley does best is engross the player. The relaxing music, vibrant visuals and the lack of a fail state lull you into a relaxed state where hours can pass by unnoticed. It drags you in and then rewards you not just with a pleasurable feeling of peace and relaxation but also with a constant sense of progress, because no matter what you do you’re always working toward something. Even if you spend an entire in-game day chopping wood you’re gathering the resources needed for barns and coops and house upgrades. Just hanging around chatting to the locals will make them like you more, and that could result in some pleasant surprises. This ever-present feeling of progress means the game feels rewarding whether you jump on for an entire evening or just for 15-minutes. It doesn’t matter, you’ve moved a little closer to doing something else.

As for how Stardew Valley has made the leap over to console you’ll be pleased to know that it all seems to work rather well, although it’s not slickest of control layouts at times. Using the left stick you can move your little avatar around the place, but I highly advise turning on the tool market option in the options menu in order to see what tile you’re about to dig up or water because a lot of the time where you think you’re aiming isn’t where you’re aiming at all. Even with the marker on it’s easy to end up wasting time or water by doing something that you didn’t mean to. As for the right stick it controls a cursor needed for getting around some of the menus and other options. It feels a bit odd, but works okay.

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There’s a lot I’ve not talked about,. I could probably fill an entire article just chatting about all the little things in the game that had me pondering all sorts of strange things, because in such a relaxing state as Stardew Valley puts you in it’s easy for your mind to wander and begin contemplating stuff like Alex, the kid with dreams who doesn’t seem to know how to make them reality and who really needs to just leave the damn valley, or the writer who wanders around constantly waiting for that magical spark of inspiration rather than just working hard. The game is never subtle about its message of working for faceless, uncaring corporations but still has a JoJo mart that you can become a member of in order to see the town get slowly taken over by the very same company your character left at the start of the game. There’s so damn much to talk about, which is why I suggest reading this wonderful article by Paul Dean (also of Shut Up & Sit Down fame) over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

Y’know, for a game that is about leading a life of hard work Stardew Valley is shockingly absorbing, quietly sucking away hours of your week until at some point you have an existential crisis about what you’re doing in your real life, or you come to the realisation that you’re playing a game about working after you come home from working. Musings aside I genuinely love this game. I find myself thinking about it when I’m not playing it, idly wondering what I want to do next or thinking about how much the next crop could bring it. Slowly getting a bigger, more effective farm feels great, and honestly I can’t think of anything that I would classify as a true flaw. Sure, one could make the argument that the game is as wide as the ocean but as shallow as a puddle since individually all the mechanics are simple, basic affairs, and yet that would be missing the point; if they were deeper then I don’t think the game would be as relaxing and peaceful as it is. And there is depth there, it just comes from the fact that there is a lot to discover by yourself rather than by the complexity of the systems. Quite simply put, Stardew Valley is beautiful.

And did I mentioned the whole thing was made by one guy? Eric Barone. You’re awesome, Eric.

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