In an industry dominated by gritty first-person shooters, epic fantasy sagas and innumerable takes on the global obsession that is football, there exist a few peculiar and unexpected niches. One such genre is the farming simulator. In concept, it might sound unappealing. You wake up, water your crops, tend to your animals and then go right back to sleep only to do it all again the next day. There’s a tonne of minutiae spread throughout those core steps, of course, but that’s the gist. In execution, though, the farming sim genre offers its its own brand of appeal, and Stardew Valley is no exception.
The game takes a lot of cues from the long-running Harvest Moon series (now known as Story of Seasons), the forerunner franchise for the more cutesy, fantasy-lite style of farming experience. With a few prominent digs at the soul-crushing nature of work in a capitalist society, Stardew Valley begins with the protagonist inheriting their grandfather’s old farm. After realising that they do not want to spend their life working a nine-to-five desk job in a cubicle under the gaze of a security camera, your character sets off to the titular Stardew Valley region to begin their new life.
The game’s presentation evokes that classic SNES look, full of character sprites that jump about emphatically when shocked. Its old-school style is accompanied by a relaxing musical score that nicely accompanies the game’s quieter activities. You customize your own character, though the game’s art style means your options are somewhat limited. Your character doesn’t receive a dialogue portrait like the rest of the cast, so minor changes to your appearance won’t make a huge amount of difference. You can play as a male or female character, as should be standard in games these days, and edit everything from your hairstyle to eye colour. It’s not much, but it does a good enough job at adding some individuality to your character.
True to the games that inspired it, Stardew Valley throws you in at the deep end. No one has managed your farm since your grandfather’s time with it; most of the usable land is now overgrown with weeds, trees and an inexplicable array of boulders. Armed with only the basic tools of the trade and a few general tutorials to aid you, your life as a farmer begins. There’s a variety of season-specific crops to plant, and after purchasing the right habitats you can fill your farm with a range of livestock. If cared for properly, your animals will reward you with goods like milk or wool, which can be sold or used in crafting and cooking. Your farm itself can also be upgraded; if you have the money and requisite materials, the local carpenter can build you a larger home and install buildings for your animals.
Whilst the first few weeks can be a struggle, the crafting system helps take a little of the edge off. For the first few days, I made the mistake of selling everything I obtained by removing the weeds and trees from my farm. Instead of trading them for a very minor financial reward, I should have used them as crafting materials. Storage chests and scarecrows are some of the more useful early items you can craft; the latter will stop pesky birds from turning your precious seedlings into a meal for themselves.
Outside of farming, Stardew Valley offers an entire community to meet and befriend. From the helpful blacksmith and carpenter to the reclusive fishing expert, close to thirty people call the town home, each with their own lives and stories. The citizenry of little Pelican Town also includes 10 eligible romance options – five of each gender. For those who tire of the lack of same-sex options in more mainstream titles, this is the game for you: there are no gender boundaries to romance here. Giving gifts – a maximum of two per week – and completing quests are the best ways to befriend your neighbours. Each resident has their own particular likes and dislikes, and you’ll get a much better response if you provide them with items they’re especially fond of. Give them something they hate and they may hold it against you.
As for more hands-on activities outside of farm work, there’s no shortage of activities to keep you busy. Pelican Town’s ample coastline lets you while away the time fishing, and a substantial forest close to your farm can be explored and foraged from. Most significant are the mines to the north-east of your new home. When you first arrive there, you’re greeted by a man representing the nearby Adventurer’s Guild. Presenting you with a sword, he challenges you to brave the depths of the long-deserted mines; there’s bound to plentiful ore, he says, before offering a vague warning of monsters lurking below the surface.
It’s farming with a twist, then. When you’re done with your crops and animals for the day, you can stock up on healing items and head for the mines. Even if you’re not particularly in the mood for some monster-bashing, it’s a pursuit worth your time. Some of the game’s best and most useful items can be found in the mines, and you’ll have a tough time upgrading your tools without venturing into its subterranean caverns. It’s also chock-full of unique artefacts, which can be donated to the local museum as part of the game’s biggest collect-a-thon.
As a long-time fan of Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons, I found Stardew Valley a little more challenging and demanding. There’s only so much difficulty you can add to a charming farm sim, of course, but this a game that offers you only basic help in starting your new life. Unlike older entries in the series that inspired it, Stardew Valley starts you off with a true shambles of a farm. Not even a barn is provided for you. If you’re used to the clock pausing when you’re indoors, as it does in some Harvest Moon titles, I’m afraid that’s out, too. You now have to exercise a certain level of planning as you go about each day, lest you run out of time or energy before finishing your work.
Early struggles aside, it’s a cohesive experience, and I was quickly hooked by its charms. As indie development becomes more and more prolific, it’s easy to be discouraged by the innumerable retro-style games on offer. Every so often, though, a game comes along that sticks out from the masses. Developed by a one-man team and packed to the very edges with compelling, near-addictive content, Stardew Valley is one of those games.
- Charming retro art style
- Lots of romance options, include same-sex choices
- Addictive farming gameplay
- Lovely, soothing music
- Large and varied cast of characters
- Lots of side activities including fishing and monster-slaying
- Straightforward crafting system helps alleviate the early grind
- Can feel a little overwhelming at first, particularly with the constant passing of time
- Tutorials can be limited and only scratch the game's surface