Let’s start a new life.
I only recently discovered the joys of Stardew Valley, but with new content on its way, it seems like a good time to write a review.
In Stardew, you create an avatar who moves to his or her grandfather’s old farm after life in the city has left you depressed. Once on the farm, you meet dozens of interesting and happy people and settle into your new idyllic life of farming, fishing, mining, and making tons of money.
The gameplay is set on a daily loop where you wake up at 6:00 AM and will pass out at 2:00 AM. In real terms, you have about 15 minutes of gameplay each day. The game does an excellent job of pulling you numerous directions as there is simply a ton to do.
When you first begin, you’ll find yourself exhausted by midday (farming is hard work!) and needing to rest before doing anything else. Thankfully, tasks like running around and talking to the townsfolk don’t drain stamina, so you can split your time between work and socializing.
Farming is the primary source of income and should be a top priority for players. As your character becomes better at farming through levels (and gets better equipment) you can increase your land and make even more money. The early game is a battle between making money and needing to spend money to make more. An upgraded watering can will cut your morning chores’ stamina consumption, but also costs a hefty sum, and leaves you without a can for a few days. However, not upgrading it will limit what you can accomplish.
Above is one of many examples where the game incorporates short and long-term goals without the need for official quests or objective markers. A piece of wood that blocks a path requires a better axe, so you know you need to find ore and money to upgrade it. Your house can be upgraded—well, just about everything can be upgraded. Even your relationships!
The gameplay loop requires planning. Knowing you are heading to the mines for a day requires some preparation, likewise, a sudden weather report of rain might prompt you to go fishing and you have little time to prepare. Balancing out your goals allows the game to avoid feeling repetitious as every action you take is moving you towards a specific goal.
The community of Pelican Bay presents itself as an almost idyllic bunch at first. The Mayor, Lewis, offers to help you sell things and even gives you your first 15 seeds. Robin, the carpenter, offers upgrades and new buildings and seems happy with her life. A large portion of the gameplay involves befriending the community. What perhaps impresses me the most about this game is that the idyllic shine of the community dissolves a bit as it is revealed these are real people.
Through friendship, members of the community will let their guard down. Gameplay wise, this is seen when you reach certain heart benchmarks with individuals (2, 6, 8, and 10 for most). We see that certain members of the community are harboring addictions. It is jarring to see a character contemplating suicide while on a binge-drinking night. Alcoholism, PTSD, yearning for a new life, feeling lonely, feeling unloved, and many other aspects of real life come through these characters. You will like someone at first, but later may realize they aren’t a good friend as they take credit for your efforts. Or, you may think someone is obnoxious, but realize they are dealing with familial stress.
Building the relationships yields new items for the player, so there is a gameplay mechanic here as well. Further, your avatar can court and marry the single individuals (and have children) if so desired. Aside from the individuals, your role in the community can greatly shift the gameplay. Early in the game, Lewis shows you the broken-down community center—once a center of the town, it is now derelict. JoJo Mart, a major corporation is wanting to replace the center with a warehouse. The player must decide which path they want to take.
The game does push you towards siding with the community center, but this is also the significantly harder option. Restoring the community center takes years (at least it did us) and the requirements are often seasonally limited to find. However, the rewards are better.
Alternatively, siding with JoJo Mart allows you to upgrade the town with raw cash. The needed elements to unlock all areas and buildings can be done with your wallet (in game currency—kind of sad I have to specify that in videogames…). You don’t get the bonus rewards, but you can move incredibly fast. Both ways have real positives and negatives.
Additionally, the game makes sure to showcase that no choice you make doesn’t have consequences. Your avatar can’t solve everything. Seeing efforts yield real consequences is done better here than numerous AAA choice driven games. The decisions aren’t simple be a good person or a bad person, but rather be a person who is making choices that will have an impact on a community.
Every action in this game feeds into the gameplay loop of planning, attaining goals, and bettering your farm. Despite always being crunched for time, there is a relaxation in the daily tasks. I felt the same way about digging mines in Minecraft. Small victories lead to larger ones here.
The game also boasts an excellent multiplayer where progress is shared (mostly) on achievements and accomplishments. However, each player can carve out their own identity within the community. With a seasonal cycle that offers constant new challenges, slowly introduced new quests, and a literal endless bonus mine, there is always plenty to do.
Developed by one person this is an achievement in videogame making and is honestly one of the best games I have ever played. Any negative comment I have can be summed up into simply wanting MORE!
This deceptively simple game offers a multitude of experiences and ties everything back to a community of textured characters.
This is a masterpiece.