Publisher: Chucklefish LTD
Release Date: 10th October
Price as of Article: $ 14.99 USD, £10.99 GBP
You start with a pretty moving cutscene, your grandfather is on his death bed and his last words to you are in the form of unforced advice. He leaves you a letter and asks you to open it when modern life breaks you down and you have had enough as presumably he did once. Time skips forward and you see yourself in a bleak mega corporation typing away alone in a cubicle when you have finally had enough – you have kept the letter in your work drawer and open it to find that you have inherited your grandfathers farm, you pack up, leave the rat race and move out arriving in Pelican Town, Stardew Valley where you find the farm in a terrible state – its not much to look at right now. The neighbours greet you in and at this point you are left to play the game as you see fit. The story from this point is quite subtle and non-intrusive, it develops in small touches – being nice to your neighbours has them tell you more about their life and what is happening with their friends and family.
The Town has lost some of its charm as a modern supermarket springs up and the village hall is left abandoned, you are not here as a hero passing through but rather as someone settling in for the long haul trying to find your place.
The story unfolds over 3 in game years which equates to about 20 hours, after this much investment you care about your new home and the story does have you question the pace of your own life and the effect of modern living, very clever for what at first glance appears to just be a farming simulator. What your objectives are and how deep your relationships get depend on how you play and what amount of effort you put in to this aspect of the game.
The game features over 2 hours of music that is mixed in really well, from the hopeful songs in spring to the eerie near silence in the mines. The country style makes perfect sense and each different action has a unique related sound. The developer has done a great job of making everything feel right here.
The opening scene is lush and the rest of the game follows suit, graphics are a simple pixelated affair. The area you can explore is quite big and each part is well drawn from the beach to the mine and your farm itself. The colours are vibrant and whilst you couldn’t say the drawings are beautiful as such its the small details and subtle changes over time that really make the visuals shine. The different seasons will bring with them different fruit and veg that make everything feel noticeably different, at the right time in spring for example the Town will be filled with falling blossom that looks great. Your crops and animals visibly change as they grow and become either healthy or unhealthy and there is always something happening on each screen.
When I first jumped in I was pumped from the cutscene and ready to go which led me to try and understand the game and figure out its win conditions right at the start, instead you find yourself without any instruction on a farm that you now own without any real direction and the change of pace can be jarring which given the story, feels intentional.
Stardew Valley is heavily influenced by Harvest Moon, the original Japanese farming Sim that started back on the SNES.
Each day you wake up at the crack of dawn and figure out what to do with your day before heading to bed at night, a day lasts about 20 real life minutes and at first you find yourself with very limited resources and not a whole lot to do. You will buy a few seeds and plant them, water them and wonder about town before the day runs out.
It took me about 30 days of a mix between boredom and intrigue before I got into the swing of things, once I realised I was in this at my pace and started thinking of the farm as my own little space things got much better. I found a few goals to work towards – get myself a chicken coop, go and dig up some copper ore and turn it into copper bars that I can use to improve my watering can and fix that bridge that had me wondering what was over the other side.
Your character has a small energy bar that is consumed by performing tasks that resets every night, you can over exert yourself but that will set you back and you will be exhausted the next day giving you real repercussions for over extending.
Fixing the bridge early on cost me 400 wood which took me a solid 2 in game days to chop but once I opened up the area I managed to pick up coral daily which bolstered my income.
Once you open up the mine you find yourself in a proceduraly generated dungeon killing monsters, finding loot and getting ever deeper but again you will find yourself running out of either daylight or energy.
There are a lot of characters about town and you can form a relationship with each of them by chatting to them every day and offering them the odd gift here and there which feels semi-random as you are not quite sure what the person will or won’t like beforehand. At the local store you will also find citizens posting requests for items or tasks that need doing in a certain amount of time and doing so will improve your relationship with them and grant rewards.
if you choose to get closer you will find yourself heading towards romance and even marriage in the game and with all of these possibilities you find yourself in more than just a farming Sim, the game has RPG elements with the dungeon and even loot, it has a Sim style relationship system and you have the freedom to perform any combination of tasks.
The beauty of the gameplay is the balance between this relaxed sandbox game where you can pass the days fishing, mining, farming, forming relationships and many other tasks whilst keeping the days short making you feel like every minute counts. For example if you plan to plant some seeds in the morning but didn’t buy any from the shop you will have to walk over to town, wait until the shop opens at 9am, buy the seeds, head back to plant them after first turning the land and sowing the seeds and the watering them. By the time you have done this half of the day will be gone.
As you get further in the possible complexity goes up and what had seemed to be a random bunch of tasks start to come together, if you invested in adventuring you will have mined a bunch of copper which you can use to improve your tools, with these improved tools you will take less energy and time to harvest plants and tend to your animals. This will give you time to gather more resources from which you can start to build artisan style mechanisms like a brewery to make the most of the crops you have planted.
The different seasons and the elements add to this sense of being in a deep world, different crops will grown in different seasons and so when you plant and harvest becomes extremely important. Checking the TV in your house out everyday will let you check the weather forecast for the next day, if you know rain is coming for example you won’t need to plant your crops so you might plan around that and build in some other activities.
Its this slow progression and deep and intricate play without any clues that lure you in after the initial slow start and somehow draw you into its world making you want to play one more day!
The Switch version makes a bunch of sense, you can pass an in game day on a bus or train ride and then pick up later on when you get home. The Switch controls make a lot of sense here as having triggers and buttons make a lot of tasks quicker than just using point and click.
One missed opportunity is the touch screen, this wasn’t used in the game and it feels like something that would of been a really great addition to the game so its a shame it was not included.
My other concern is in the loading times, after each day the game saves whilst your character sleeps and this can take a large amount of time which is not ideal.
At £10.99 in the UK and $14.99 in the US you are really picking up a full fledged game at a very reasonable indie price point.
Even though the game has a natural story arc and conclusion you can easily find yourself wanting to replay the game and the Switch version adds in some different farm layouts that will change your experience giving you added incentive to jump back in.