The Ninjabot

Stardew Valley Review: An Insatiable Desire for Turnips

Posted on June 17, 2016 at 1:18 pm by Victor Chaves

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Stardew Valley is an addicting small-town farming simulator where you quit the 9-5 drudgery to farm in the boondocks. Anyone who has played a Harvest Moon (and Story of Seasons) will be familiar with the rhythm Stardew Valley carries; at the start the main character moves into an abandoned field, and proceeds to slowly over a few years build a farming empire while meeting villagers, fishing, and mining. Yet Stardew stands above the other games simply because unlike other farm games, Stardew Valley really helps the player feel like they have become a member of a community.

A True Heartland

What is meant by “community” is that because the player is a new person in town, no one knows or likes the player (some even actively despise you). On top of that, thanks to the relationship menu indicating the player’s relationships are filled with empty hearts, it only drives that initial isolated feeling. These hearts do get filled as the player introduces themselves again and again in quick conversations (or gifting), and sometimes cutscenes showing a villagers’ backstory or driving force opens up to the player, thereby humanizing the villagers. One of my favorite characters, Linus, is a hobo who has to live in a tent outside of town. Talking with him, he mentions how people throw rocks or destroy his tent, and during town festivals the player can find Linus standing to the side, knowing that both he and the villagers do not want to be near each other. He is a character that hurts the player’s heart, and trying to become his friend had become a personal mission of mine. You may also find your own character to connect with, since each villager is interesting in their own way with their own quirks and relationships to other villagers. Some dote on others, stand under trees waxing philosophy, and one or two are straight-up wizards. Some can even be married to, and even have children with; even though this feature is in other games, these other games don’t have the ability to connect the player to other characters like Stardew Valley does.

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One of the best things about Stardew is the rapid pace the game employs in order to never have a discussion drag, or a chore amble for too long. For instance, Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley made farming an absolute pain, with a camera that would keep shifting automatically and terrain required too much effort to manipulate (think of Minecraft but not fun), and Story of Seasons made the game too complicated for any sort of relaxation (over-complicated village, bad framerate, and not enough player feedback). What Stardew Valley does is ditch the 3D that the others adopted and aimed to give its own interpretation of the original Harvest Moon from the SNES days: a wide and top-down 2D view, a hot bar to quickly switch between items and tools, and easily understandable progression indicators.

Carrot On A Stick

These indicators of progression are probably the best things about Stardew Valley, as these fuel an insatiable hunger to keep playing. I would almost say it is like a cookie-clicker game, where not only does your money increase from farming, but exploring mines saves progress every five floors, anything fished or foraged can be sold or used in crafting a new utility, and a heart fills in every time your relationship deepens with a villager. It’s deeper than a cookie clicker game, but instead of “two more minutes” it’s “one more chore”, or “one more floor”, or “one more fish”, until 3 AM. There is a gigantic amount of things to do, it’s never complicated or annoying, and it’s always satisfying.

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What the game does well is also bringing the player in with their own background. Remember the 9-5 drudgery? That job was from a company named Joja who moves in to the village at the same time to open a store (think Wal-Mart). You can ignore the store, but in a way Joja is everywhere, especially when you fish out a can of Joja Cola from the river, or see the toxic waste from Joja seeping into the ocean. Joja’s impact is not just the environment but the villagers as well, as Joja is actively trying to push out the local grocer by dropping prices to actively shove out the local competition (only to raise them again later). What all this means is that Joja essentially has become the antagonist in a farm game, something that was actually really needed in order to drive the player. Although the game doesn’t have an actual ending, there are several world-changing quests the player can do in order to complete the Joja story, whether the player cares about that or not (which is absolutely up to the player).

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Wikicheats

An aspect of Stardew Valley that is hard to understand negative or a positive, is the need to have the game’s wiki at hand at all times (http://stardewvalleywiki.com/Stardew_Valley_Wiki). Of course it can be argued that if a game does not fully explain itself that it’s the fault of the game, but without the wiki the player would have to write down where each character goes at each time of day, wander around for a specific item, and basically waste time. What makes this not a negative, however, is that the extra help from the wiki contextualizes that temptation to keep playing. As an example, say that in order to build a silo to hold chicken feed, you find that you are missing 10 clay. Instead of being frustrated at not having any idea where to find any (after wandering the village and surroundings for two months) you look on the wiki and find out where clay is and the best way to harvest it. Suddenly that becomes a carrot that leads to building a silo, which leads to getting more farm animals, and finally leads to getting more products to use or sell. Although this can be construed as cheating, the player still has to go through the effort of knowing the cost, saving, paying, foraging, etcetera in order to continue. You can’t cheat effort, and seeking knowledge is, very much like real-life, a requirement to live. So is it bad to need to use a wiki? If you have dual monitors or a tablet/phone to look at while playing, it’s not bad. If you play without the wiki, know that the game may be more frustrating than what you’d like.

Final Thoughts

As of writing I have put in 32 hours in Stardew Valley and I’m not stopping. Thanks to a friend who enjoys these farm games like I do, I was able to rediscover a love for the farming genre, much in part to strong characters, easy and intuitive controls, and an incredibly well-developed reward system. Buy Stardew Valley, you’ll be there for years.

Presentation: 9

Gameplay: 9

Replay: 10

LEGACY SCORE: 9.3

Follow Victor on Twitter @fake_brasilian to see him put the cows out to pasture.

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