Justin reviews last month's release of Stardew Valley.
Some nights, after a particularly harrowing week in the corporate world, I think to myself how nice it might be to run away; to live a simpler life. Maybe sell my house, sell my game collection, gut my 401k, and move out to the country somewhere to live off the land. Then, I remember the closest I have been to tilling a field for crops was playing Harvest Moon 2 for the Game Boy Color during childhood vacations. I have fond memories of cultivating my digital crops, giving flowers to the nice girl in the library, and spending the winter fishing up lunkers for fat cash. And all these fantastic memories, and more, came rushing back to me within minutes of starting a farm of my very own, in Stardew Valley.
Stardew Valley begins not unlike the hypothetical story of my own. The camera pans across a cubicle-laden room in a dystopian exaggeration of the modern mega-corporation teeming with implied frustration and dissatisfaction, ultimately landing on the player at your desk. You remember your past, and an opportunity arises that allows to you start anew by traveling to the small village of Pelican Town to start a relaxing little farm of your own. After some introduction and story setup, the player is greeted with some mechanics that will be familiar to you if you have played games like Harvest Moon or Rune Factory in the past. You have a house, you have a field of rich soil (that is unfortunately full of rocks and trees), you have some rudimentary farming tools, and you have small town full of friendly (well.. mostly friendly) people trying their best to help you out.
The ‘day to day’ gameplay loop is similar to that of Harvest Moon: Till the land, plant some seeds, water your crops, and if you have time and energy left, you have a variety of options for what you can do. Stardew Valley changes up the gameplay frequently in this sense, every day there are multitude of areas to explore and things to do that aren’t just traditional farming activities. If you are a fan of games where you have a lot of plates to keep spinning, this is a game for you. Similarly to Harvest Moon you can explore open areas outside of town to gather wild plants, collect stones, or chop down trees for wood. Additionally, you can also engage in a surprisingly deep social interaction system that not only allows you to increase your reputation with the various townsfolk, but also can progress to relationships and marriage. On top of all that, there is even a compelling combat system in the game, something that I was not expecting.
While simple, the combat adds a nice means of changing up the gameplay when watering crops and bringing gifts to the townsfolk becomes tedious. A few days into the game, the player is allowed to explore the abandoned mine, and in the process you meet the adventurer’s guild, and given a charge to explore the depths of the mine. The mine is treacherous, but you are rewarded with metal ore, expensive gems, and monster bits for cash and crafting. The mines and the combat have their own respective progression: you continue to go down floors of the mine deeper and deeper, and in the process are greeted with new treasures and enemies. You can find loot as you fight through slimes and skeletons, buy from the adventurer's guild, and your combat level increases over time as you hack and slash, increasing your health and unlocking crafting recipes.
This basic progression is not unique to the combat system. There is some light RPG leveling mechanics with most aspects of the various barnyard activities. Growing and selling crops increases your farming level, allowing you to craft more farming accoutrements like sprinklers for automatic watering or fertilizer to help crops grow faster. Increasing your fishing skill allows access to creating crab pots and upgrading your fishing pole. The list goes on with other skills like foraging, mining, and combat, each having dozens of upgrades as you play. The skills progression all seems well to do, but to be honest, my biggest problem with this system was fishing. If I had to have one gripe with the game mechanically, I would have to say it would be with the fishing system.
After reading some others’ thoughts about the game online, the fishing mechanic seems to be by far the most divisive of any portion of the game. It’s not particularly complex; the fish you catch moves up and down a bar, and you have an area of your own to move up and down to follow the fish. As long as you are even with the fish a meter fills up, and when you lose them the meter empties. The fish move sporadically with very few tells as to what direction they are going to zig or zag, which makes sense as a facsimile to fighting with an actual hooked fish, but the controls for the player to adjust quickly are clunky and frustrating. You can go about controlling it in a few different ways, but seemingly the most effective way is a controlled button-mashing approach that will allow you to adjust your speed depending on how quickly you want to move up or down. The majority response online was just ‘keep doing it and you will get a feel for it’, which isn’t wrong, I did learn to get much better at it over time, but I still think there could have been a better way to make it more approachable. It is very easy to overcompensate when moving in either direction, and the cursor bounces off of the top and bottom in a way that feels awkward. The ratio of how quickly the bar fills up when following a fish to how quickly it empties seems similarly unfavorable. I would even consider increasing the difficulty of the average fish, if in return smoother controls were achieved or the bar didn't empty as quickly. I think that would make the system more fun, but still would keep the overall difficulty balanced. The developer has been quoted as saying how much he loves the system, and I don’t like to take away from the author’s intent, but it was really the only problem I have had with the game after nearly 40 hours.
Fervent fishing frustrations aside, Stardew Valley might just be my favorite game i've played so far in 2016, and at the very least is the most addicting. It does the ‘just one more level’ hook really well, and I would be lying if I said I haven’t sat down just to play an in-game day or two, and realized later when looking at the clock that I had been playing for six hours. It gives just enough direction to keep listless players moving forward, but allows for enough variety that people who love games like Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, or even the classic Legend of Zelda titles can all find something to latch onto. Stardew Valley is easy to pick up and approachable for kids or adults, but still provides enough depth to keep playing for dozens of hours. If you are looking to quench your thirst for tranquility, look no further than Stardew Valley.
Kindly, share this review.-Justin Wicker
Developer: ConcernedApe / Eric Barone
Publisher: Chucklefish Game
Release Date: February 26, 2016
Reviewer’s Platform: PC