Stardew Valley Review
Two weeks ago I was doubtful about what Stardew Valley had to offer. Even after watching its development for no less than three years (and being a die-hard fan of Harvest Moon and its ilk) as the release date approached I found myself pretty indifferent. Whatever I expected, it certainly wasn’t that Stardew Valley would turn out to be as good as (if not significantly better) than any of the games that inspired it. But here we are two weeks later, and that’s exactly what I think it is.
If you’re familiar with nearly any Harvest Moon game, then Stardew Valley’s basic premise will feel familiar. After leaving a soul crushing office job for the simple life in the countryside (perhaps a little nod to why these games are so appealing) the player character ends up in the struggling hamlet of Pelican Town – presumably with the ability to reinvigorate the local economy through the power of locally sourced produce and artisanal goods.
My routine in Stardew Valley is familiar too. It’s similar to one I’ve repeated often since my ethically dubious teenage exploration of SNES roms lead me to the very first Harvest Moon game.
First thing in the morning, I water my crops and harvest any that are ready to be shipped. Next I visit with the animals, making sure the livestock are fed, harvested and of course, hugged. One jug of milk goes into the cheese machine, one egg into the mayonnaise maker, and the rest into the shipping bin.
Then it’s on to a tour of the perimeter where I’ll check to see if there’s any honey ready in the beehives, any ripe fruit in the orchard and so on. At this point it’s usually approaching noon, but unless there’s a festival or an event to worry about the rest of the day is free. I might spend some time foraging in the woods or the mountains, where I’ll run into my lady friend by the lake and pass her a flower I’ve been hanging on to for just such an encounter. I could head into town for supplies and buy a friend a beer for their birthday. Maybe I’ll go fishing, or press a few levels deeper into the mines, or spend a couple hours redecorating my house. Or I could put some work in on the sprinkler system I have in mind, which will shave a few hours off my morning routine and give me a little more time for everything else.
That’s really what it comes down to: Time. Time is more precious than strength or even money. You can have a snack to get some energy, ship a few fish to build up your funds, but time only flows one way, and progress means getting more and more out of every hour.
I’m the first person to admit that all of this might just sound like work to someone who isn’t familiar with these kinds of games. Maybe even worse than work, because all you really have to show for it afterwards is a save file, some numbers that went up and others that went down. The best way that I can explain it is that these are the games I go to when I feel frayed, when I need to feel like I’m in control of things and moving forward. Life can’t always provide those feelings when they’re needed most. Sometimes you need to see that even if a storm wrecks your crops, in the long run everything will probably be fine. You will be fine. You will plant more, and water them, and things will all come together again.
Virtual farm work isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and there’s still plenty to do in Stardew Valley if that’s the case. There are monsters to fight in the mines along the lines of Rune Factory, collectables to gather along the lines of Animal Crossing, a dash of sandboxy crafting and an abundance of quests and both short and long-term goals that give the game a much more brisk pace than others like it.
But Stardew Valley isn’t merely a patchwork of borrowed ideas, either. It’s obvious that it was made by someone with a good understanding of what works in these games, and how they could be improved on. At times it feels very much like I sat down with someone else who has played far too much Harvest Moon et al. and hashed out everything that we love and hate about them. I might say,“It’s great that you can put cows out to pasture and it makes them happier, but herding them around is such a pain!” To which they reply, “What if you could just open the barn and they’d come out on their own?” Beautiful. “I hate when I grab too much or too little fodder from the dispenser for animals and I have to shove it back,” I groan. They nod, “It should just count the number of animals in the barn and give you that much fodder.” It totally should. “Why do I even have to buy grass? Isn’t grass basically everywhere?” You get the idea.
The list goes on, but as someone who has played nearly all of the games in the series’ that Stardew Valley is drawing on, I can only think of a couple things that it doesn’t do better… And most of those are incredibly nitpicky. I can say I prefer the cooking system from Harvest Moon: Grand Bazaar that allowed improvisation and discovery of recipes, or that I wish I could pick up and move buildings as you can in Harvest Moon: A New Beginning. But none of these issues really detract from Stardew Valley itself, they’re just differences.
The most prominent improvements in Stardew Valley involve the characters and the story. Harvest Moon (now Story of Seasons) was built on a foundation of simplicity and nostalgia. With subtitles like Back to Nature and A Wonderful Life, it’s always worn its reverence for “the good old days” on its sleeve. Those games offer a worldview that is for better or for worse wholly unchallenging. It’s safe.
It’s also incredibly inauthentic, and it excludes a lot of people who don’t quite fit in with that pasteurized, storybook world. Stardew Valley tries to be better than that. There are jealous exes waiting to ruin your picnic, tired veterans returning from who knows what, people who live in trailers that are more than just punchlines. One character’s daily routine consists of hiding away in his room until 3:30 pm, then wandering out for a smoke by the lake before he heads home again. These aren’t cardboard cutouts of people leading their own idyllic, pastoral lives. The story Stardew Valley wants to tell about this community is a little more nuanced than that, and consequently, a lot more interesting.
I should say that I’ve put about 50 hours into Stardew Valley at this point, and I haven’t even come close to seeing all it has to offer, particularly in terms of that story. Some of what I’m missing is certainly good, but there may very well be some questionable elements in there as well. I’ve only encountered one issue so far in which one of my favorite characters, a man named Linus who lives in the woods, was more or less ruined for me by an exceptionally creepy joke that happens as part of a friendship event with him. As refreshing as I find a lot of what’s going on in in this game narratively speaking, scenes like that do make me worry that sometimes the easy jokes might undermine some of the good being done elsewhere.
Stardew Valley also allows the player to romance male or female characters, regardless of their gender. Making characters whatever sexual orientation the player wants them to be (often called “playersexuality”) is not the best solution to the question of romance in games because it can reinforce some harmful attitudes about real-life sexuality. If you like someone whose preferences don’t align with your own, giving them two tomatoes every week for a year shouldn’t change that. That said, so many of Stardew Valley’s predecessors are as blandly heteronormative as you can get, so it is honestly nice to have any choice at all.
For its many highs and few lows, the greatest piece of praise that I can give Stardew Valley is the fact that I want to play it again. From the start. I’ve been playing these kinds of games for about 15 years now, from that first SNES rom all the way up to a launch-day trip to the store for Story of Seasons, and I have never once even considered replaying any of them from the start. I’ve never particularly cared to find out about the characters that I didn’t romance, or to take a different path with my work and construction, but that’s exactly what I find myself wanting now. I thought Stardew Valley would be a game I’d seen a dozen times before, but instead it feels like I’ve only barely scratched its surface.