I first played Stardew Valley in the fall of 2017. While I greatly enjoyed my time with it, things were cut quite short upon the release of Super Mario Odyssey: a game that kidnapped my attention until I had retrieved every Power Moon possible! I hadn’t even made it to the Fall of my first farm year and the game slid entirely from my radar. Games came and went, like my four journeys through Dark Souls III and my 112% completion of Hollow Knight. But in recent months I felt the urge to come back to this tranquil experience and give it another shot. I’m so glad I did, because my return to the outskirts of Pelican Town has been nothing short of an absolute joy!
Players begin their journey to Stardew Valley by inheriting a family farm from their grandfather. The empty land serves as a fresh start for your character, who is currently enchained in menial work by the nefarious Joja Corporation. After quitting Joja (I like to imagine it happens like James McAvoy in ‘Wanted’) and leaving for the valley, your character is welcomed with open arms by the community little by little during your first day. It is quickly made known that the local community center is run down and in need of repair. Your job as the protagonist is to fix up this crumbling abode by bringing in a plethora of items you discover throughout your journey, and that means learning about the wide variety of systems at your disposal.
First and foremost, Stardew Valley aims to provide all the same charm and refreshment of a Harvest Moon title, but wrapped up in a classic-yet-polished 16-bit package. The local shop in Pelican Town sells seeds that you can plant on your new homestead in each of the four seasons…after tilling and watering the soil first, of course! Dry soil won’t yield any produce! Stardew ups the ante a bit by offering a farming experience with much greater detail than its predecessors. There are fertilizers available that offer various benefits to your crops, such as holding water for multiple days or even speeding up the growth process by several days, while various sprinklers will automatically water your farm and free you up to attend to other tasks with your day. While not a necessity, these boosts can expedite the player’s ability to turnover their product or pursue additional fortunes beyond farming, and get that sweet, sweet cash money in hand even faster!
Speaking of additional fortune, there are several other avenues for seeking wealth aside from farm labor as well as supplying you with useful materials for crafting (which I’ll get into later). A mine north of town allows you to delve through 120 floors to get ore, gemstones, and fight monsters for other materials and for completing a bounty board in the Adventurer’s Guild. Players can also fish to their heart’s content in rivers, a lake, and the ocean, finding a variety of life depending on the location, season, and even weather. There is also the option to simply explore and gather materials. You can never have enough wood and stone, not to mention the seasonal berries that grow on bushes or get left behind by wildlife. The axe, pick axe, and fishing poles that you use to get resources (along with farm equipment like your hoe and watering can) can all be upgraded using the various ores that you find while mining. Food materials can be cooked into new dishes if you have the right ingredients, lending an even homier feel to your cozy homestead.
And then there is the crafting. Stardew Valley features an intensive system for creating useful items: Fences of wood or stone. Walkway tiles. Furnaces for smelting ore. Gemstone replicators. Kegs for brewing or fermenting. Dairy machines for making cheese. I dare not put the entire list due to its enormity, but every crop or animal product you culture at your farm can be utilized for some type of advanced food to sell for even more profit than its basic components, whether fruit to aged wine or picked vegetables to hearty meals.
The true beauty of these systems is that they all intersect consistently to push you to even greater fortune. Yes, you might be raking in the gold with your fields of blueberries producing every few days in the summer, but if you gather some wood, iron, and oak resin, you can build kegs to ferment this fruit into wine and subsequently multiply its sell value. Furthermore, the wine can be aged once you purchase the basement expansion for your home and up your profit for selling even more. This latter process takes time and isn’t suited for those needing immediate revenue, but it’s a great investment that pays dividends down the road! Wine-making is only one of the complex systems that Stardew allows players to dive into, so it is worth investigating all of your options to see what sounds most appealing to you!
It is wise to visit the Community Center regularly as you collect more and more resources so that you can turn in any required materials and push toward its restoration. You also get gifts from the Jumino spirits that inhabit it! Finishing up a ‘bundle’ of specified materials earns you a small reward, while completing an entire room’s worth of bundles fixes up that particular part of the Center and offers an outside reward somewhere in the village, such as a Greenhouse on your farm for year-round growing or repairing a bus to go explore the nearby desert. Completing all of these bundles serves as the main story for the game. You can always ignore these tasks entirely and pay the Joja Corporation to advance the story automatically, but who wants to pander to corporate snobs? This is a farming game, after all!
Stardew Valley doesn’t stop at farming, crafting and adventuring: there is a whole town of people just waiting to interact with you! Everyone follows a weekly and seasonal schedule (for each of the 30 days per season, totaling 120 days per year). You’ll have to learn where to find everyone, as they become sprawled out throughout and surrounding the village as they go about their daily business. Villagers can be spoken with daily and given gifts twice a week: and yes, they have preferences. Learning the best gifts to give is crucial to completing each person’s relationship quest which rewards you with cut-scenes that further explain each character’s personality. One individual struggles with alcoholism; another with self-confidence about their art skills. There is even a secret romance between a couple older individuals that is made evident through some very obvious (and funny) context clues. Getting to know the NPCs offers yet another exciting layer to an already fulfilling game.
The icing on the cake is Stardew’s relaxing and peppy soundtrack. Summer features upbeat tunes to spur you on as you work your fields, while winter offers up softer melodies and chimes that replicate the softness of snow. The deeper layers of the mine are devoured by a quivering thrum. Impending danger? Foreboding peril? Yes. To both. The soundtrack isn’t a leap into new territory: it offers up exactly what a farming-sim game needs to keep the player engaged. And while it may not be part of the music directly, there is nothing quite like the satisfying ‘pop’ of picking crops!
If you are seeking a relaxing game that will keep you busy for dozens, if not hundreds of hours, it would be a crime for you not to consider this indie masterpiece. Eric Barone (under the moniker “Concerned Ape”) has crafted what is perhaps the finest farm-life title out there, full of charm and heart and satisfaction and secrets. It is a low-key RPG that capitalizes on soothing adventure and proper time management. You can play in short bursts, or binge it for hours: just please give this game a try! You won’t regret it!
Final Score: 5/5
Review Score Translator
5/5- Magnificent! A quality game that goes above and beyond to deliver a near-perfect experience
4/5- Great! A game that is a joy to play despite a few minor hiccups along the way
3/5- Fun! A good game that has some issues, but is still worth playing despite the frustrations
2/5- Meh! A game with at least a handful of redeeming qualities, despite the majority of it being a mess
1/5- Yikes! A game that shouldn’t have been allowed past the final stage of developer approval