"The game can go on indefinitely and will consume as much of your time as you are willing to give."
It is the independent game developer's dream. To spend hours, years even, toiling away on a passion project that is embraced by gamers worldwide as a critical and commercial success; and it is precisely what happened with Eric Barone (AKA Concerned Ape) and Stardew Valley. The game took nearly five years to complete and has recently been ported to consoles after selling millions on PC.
Stardew Valley is a reinterpretation of the Harvest Moon franchise — a love letter of sorts. By now, that franchise is practically a genre unto itself, and I will refer to it as such for the rest of this review. This one-man project skillfully captures the magic of that series, particularly the charm of the first game that more recent iterations seem to have lost. Later Harvest Moon (and Story of Seasons, as they are now called) titles have gotten hung up on introducing a new gameplay gimmick with each installment, rather than cultivating the serene enjoyment and bucolic task management that first drew many players to the series. Stardew Valley returns to its roots and brings all of that back.
Befitting the depiction of peaceful farm life, Stardew Valley's environments are colorful, detailed, and varied. For an indie project, the sprites and character portraits look well drawn, although they don't suit my tastes personally. The music, on the other hand, fits the pastoral setting and can even be catchy at times, though it isn't the main draw either.
Gameplay will be very familiar to Harvest Moon fans and intuitive enough for newcomers. Players are charged with restoring an old family farm, which they accomplish by completing various tasks. They can till fields, sow and water crops, raise livestock, forage, fish, mine, etc. As a farmer, the principle source of revenue, at least at first, will be raising crops for market, with some foraging and fishing to supplement income. As the farm becomes more successful, players can buy better crops, livestock, and more efficient tools, leading to a virtuous cycle. Some of the annoyances of older Harvest Moon titles have been relieved; no longer must you push each farm animal outside individually in order to let them graze on fresh grass. There are other innovations as well, like the ability to craft automatic sprinklers or items that warp players across the expansive map. Crafting has been largely simplified and streamlined from recent Harvest Moon titles, which is a win for usability in my book but may disappoint others.
Mining involves exploring a series of caves and fighting off enemies while cracking open rocks for minerals and other materials. The player can equip swords and accessories and must balance health, stamina, and time in the day to progress through the caves. The combat works surprising well for what it is, but it can still be an annoying obstacle to overcome in order to acquire the necessary materials for crafting. The biggest problem with the gameplay is unreliable controls and hit detection; it is often hard to tell which tile of soil your plow will hit, which plant you will end up watering, or how your sword will land.
In order to give the game a motivating sense of progress, players unlock a system early on whereby completing certain tasks — raising a certain number of a specific group of crops, or catching certain types of fish — both grants a reward and alters a portion of the town. This system sets achievable goals without becoming all-consuming or distracting.
Getting to know the people of Stardew Valley is another staple of this genre. The townspeople are generally written well, but interaction is limited to giving gifts from your inventory and talking. There is little dynamism in these interactions, as they basically don't change as you become better friends. The whole thing seems rather shallow, which is strange given the depth and detail paid to the game's other systems. Dating is fun, with a good variety of potential mates to woo, but suffers from the same problem.
Overall, there is an almost overwhelming number of things to do in this game. On top of daily money-making tasks, players can complete objectives to restore the community center, fill the library's collection of artifacts and gems, gamble, explore the mines and sewer system, and much more. The map is larger and contains more distinct areas than any Harvest Moon game. The developer has also continued to add content post-launch, such as a system for divorce. The game can go on indefinitely and will consume as much of your time as you are willing to give.
Though it is not driven by much of an overt narrative, woven into the tapestry of Stardew Valley are rich threads about the decline of small, rural towns and the stultifying effects of corporate capitalism. The characters are realistically written and have real-world problems: take the returned army veteran, or the unemployed alcoholic for example. There's even a homeless character barely scraping by in the woods; such a social problem would be unheard of in a Harvest Moon game. In some ways, the town itself is its own character that players can grow to love as it changes and responds to their efforts. The only way it could be improved is if the main character also had a sense of progression, rather than being a voiceless avatar.
Stardew Valley is without a doubt the best game in the "Harvest Moon genre" in many years. It has a subtle message about what it means to live a good life and to flourish through a combination of hard work and human connection. The Harvest Moon games all basically boil down to managing a mix of time, tasks, and metrics, and recent entries in the series have relied heavily on exploiting a new gameplay gimmick with each iteration: in one it's crafting structures for the town, in another it's trading with foreign economies. The problem with this approach is that once these gimmicks are exhausted — all the houses built or all the goods traded — the games feel hollow. Stardew Valley succeeds by delivering a robust experience that does not merely rely on watching a meter go up. It has something to say and says it well, while never abandoning the core gameplay that attracted players in the first place.