Stardew Valley is somehow the chillest game around, while being mostly deadlines, unfinished tasks and unexplored possibilities. Imagine the raw nostalgia of Harvest Moon with the rough husks milled off and packaged with fresh new ideas, and you’re close to what Stardew achieves.

Can I have just ONE review that isn’t about capitalism…

Farmin’ ain’t easy

The game starts with an inheritance from your grandpa as he kicks the bucket. Dead grandpas are sub-optimal, but laissez les bons temps rouler.

Unfortunately the old git didn’t leave you cash, but a parcel of rundown farmland in the quaint surrounds of Pelican Town, in the titular Stardew Valley. From such humble soil the game grows, regularly presenting new objectives and systems to you in an organic and cruelty-free manner.

Every activity in Stardew Valley nudges you towards more content. Farming requires tools that you’ll want to upgrade with metal from mining. Mining means fighting what lurks underground, levelling your combat and giving you meat. Meat makes bait for fishing, and fish are used to make good fertiliser for farming. There’s loads to do, a limited amount of energy to swing your tools with, and even less time to swing them in.

Each day is 13 minutes long, and every 28 days is a season (spring, summer, fall, winter). Each season brings new crops to grow and kills your old ones, unique fish to find and last season’s disappearing, special events to attend or miss, and villager birthdays to remember or forget.

If you’ve got quikmaffs you’ll make that 6 hours per season, 24 hours per year, with a lot to fit in. And yeah, you don’t have to waste time making friends… or fishing… or anything you don’t want to, really. But experiencing everything Pelican Town has to offer will mean sampling the smorgasbord of options and being a good neighbour.

Learn the ONE TRICK this millennial used to LIVE DEBT FREE!

Swing stick, get carrot

Good news then – the more you do something, the easier it gets. Except making friends. Email if you work that out…

Getting your farm on in Stardew Valley rewards experience which goes towards levels, unlocking recipes and increasing tool proficiencies… that is, making the tools of the trade easier to wield. Not only do you use less energy for the same result, but these recipes give new ways to manage your farm (like sprinklers) and novel things to do with your produce to increase their value, like turning eggs into mayonnaise or berries into jam.

Few can subdue a Dire Kale alone…

Reaching level 5 also lets you choose a Profession, specialisations that give you more bang for your buck. For example, Tillers can sell crops for more money, while Ranchers do the same for animal products. Level 10 lets you narrow your focus, with Ranchers picking poultry or cattle to be more buddy-buddy with, and farmers choosing faster-growing crops or more profitable artisanal goods.

Nothing here stops you pursuing other fields, and no bonus is big enough to make that divergence entirely pointless. They feel like natural rewards for your dedication.

Milking cows and taking names

The why for doing all this, and why you might want to experiment, is to meet the needs of the community. Specifically, the Community Centre, Museum, and villager requests.

The Community Centre provides big rewards for mastering the professions season to season. Depositing high-quality crops, rare fish, hard-to-find gemstones and more will provide valuable equipment and even unlock brand new areas. It’s a gameplay and story reason for mastering the game’s mechanics.

 

The Museum is little more laissez-faire. Any interesting finds can be dropped off here rather than sold, giving you a little background info and occasional rewards. It makes no demands of you, but slowly filling the long rows of display cases and repopulating the library with books is immensely satisfying – and offers lore or gameplay tips you might miss, as well as other less obvious rewards.

Finally, villager requests. Far humbler tasks on a time limit, like finding one quartz for someone within two days. Get the item, find the villager, throw it at their face, and you’ll get a bit of dialogue, a small boost in your relationship, and most importantly some cold hard cash. Exactly how it works in real life. Even if you’re not trying to make friends money is always useful, giving you a gameplay reason to care what people want and where they are.

In this game, I was roleplaying being popular

Growing affection

But why would you want to make friends, except for the roleplaying aspect?

Other than the very gamey pleasure of making bars go up, you get tangible gameplay benefits. Gifts, recipes, help, even extra content. Special ‘Heart Events’ unlock after reaching special friendship levels giving you greater insight into the people of Pelican Town, and letting you weigh-in on significant events. Get hearts high enough, and reach some other milestones, and you can even marry and have kids.

This isn’t as simple as tossing turnips at static sprites. Pelican Town is alive. Villagers have different likes and dislikes, they’ve got different schedules depending on the day, season and even the weather. Though this can be super frustrating if you’re trying to hand in a quest or butter them up or hurling haddock at them, it reminds you that you’re an outsider in an existing space. It also opens another avenue of mastery to you – remembering personal details, like Abigail toots her flute in the rain, or Alex plays pool on Fridays, gives you a clear and extremely rewarding return.

Lame ducks

The few things I’d criticise about Stardew would be the special events and the multiplayer.

Events transform the town and offer new ways of interacting with the villagers, but they also lock-off areas and can take all day, even when there’s no reason for either. As the game lets you literally side with the heartless corporation and demolish the Community Centre, it seems strange that there wasn’t an option and consequence for missing out the fun.

Swear to God Lewis, if this takes longer than a few hours I’m adding you to the pot…

Multiplayer mostly works great, with handy features like sharing or splitting cash or changing the value of crops. The worst you’ll experience is the occasional problem picking up items. However, when it comes to combat it’s obvious there’s a syncing issue. Farmhands will find themselves unable to knockback enemies in time to prevent damage, which is a death sentence. Joining in the first place is also made needlessly difficult by needing a whole new house to spawn in. This can be built cheaply, but is never necessary. You can place chests anywhere and sleep in any bed. Why not just have… bunkbeds?

Stardew Valley: let the thought of Butts empower you

A moo point

Long story short, it’s hard not to like Stardew Valley. The worst criticism I’ve heard is that it’s pointless, or lacks depth… and I’d disagree. Like Minecraft, the point is whatever you make it. The story’s enough to drive you to explore the world, the mechanics solid enough to reward experimentation, and the town alive enough to feel real. It’s simple, but not shallow. The more you inhabit Pelican Town the easier it is to fall in love with the characters who live there, and the stronger the desire to make it a better place.

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