Breaking news! A new craze is sweeping the nation! It’s farming simulators! Who’s playing them, you ask? Why people who would never, ever work on a farm in their real lives!
Okay, so, pretty wide generalization there, but seriously folks, farming is hard! Something little me obviously didn’t realize when she told adults that she wanted to own a farm when she grew up. All I can say is thank god for farming simulators! I can own the farm I always wanted with absolutely none of the real effort required.
My love affair with the genre started when I actually was still a fairly young kid. Flash back to fifth grade where a friend got Harvest Moon 64 and we all played it at a sleepover. I never had a N64 as a child…
I know, I know, I call myself a gamer, right? How very dare! But look, you try being a child with a mother who won’t accept inferior graphics specs. I wasn’t allowed even a GameBoy growing up because it didn’t look good. Nope, my mom would accept nothing less than the shiny look of PlayStation. However, I digress. The point it, I played Harvest Moon 64 at a sleepover, got Back to Nature for PS some months later, and an addiction was born.
All that is to say that I have a long history with the farming simulator, and when Stardew Valley first came out, I actually kind of scoffed at it a little. “This is nothing more than a Harvest Moon knock off,” I said to myself with a sneer.
My uppity disdain eventually turned to mild curiosity as the craze continued, which eventually gave way to a genuine want to play the game. However, I know me, and I know how quickly I get sucked into these kinds of games, so I thought it best that I wait to play until I got more pressing games out of the way. Well, one bad week and a promise to myself to indulge in a mindless game later, we see how that went. How about I eschewed all other gaming (and more) responsibilities to sink over 100 hours into this game. In all fairness, that wasn’t all one playthrough. I did get mad at my farm’s layout in my first game, at which point I completely restarted. However, as that is neither here nor there, on to the review!
Gameplay & Visuals
We’ll start with the controls. The beauty of the Stardew Valley control scheme is that you can literally change it to whatever you want it to be. I played with it some, changing a couple of things here and there for my own ease of use. You can set hotkeys for most any screen you would want to interact with, along with changing the basic movement and selection keys/buttons. This makes for a super easy learning curve when it comes to actually controlling the game.
Gameplay itself is pretty straight forward. If you’ve played any Harvest Moon game in your entire life, you basically know the drill by this point. You earn money by foraging, fishing, mining, or farming so that you can spend that money to make your farm better. Stardew Valley also offers the opportunity to do odd jobs for your fellow villagers either by picking them up from the bulletin board outside the general store or via letters they may send to your mailbox. Tasks from the bulletin board typically have a time limit of two in-game days, while tasks you receive in the mail have no deadline. That said, even if you decide you don’t want to do the task later, once you accept it, it’s stuck in your quest journal. That’s fine and dandy where bulletin board requests go because once their time limit is up, they disappear. However, with the other tasks, they will officially never go away once you accept them unless you actually fulfill them.
You also have a hand in shaping the village’s economy by more means than just your day-to-day farming. Stardew Valley has been infiltrated by the nefarious JojaMart! Basically, they’re the Walmart/Sam’s Club of this universe. You can either buy your things from them at a lower price, or you can shop at the local general store and have the satisfaction of helping out your local economy for a slightly higher price. On a micro transaction level, I’m honestly not sure if where you do your daily shopping makes a huge difference. I never bought anything from JojaMart myself, but I don’t think purchasing a few crops from them makes a huge impact on the game. The key story point here is whether or not you get a JojaMart Membership card. If you do, the decrepit community center than you are introduced to after the first few game days will be changed into a JojaMart warehouse where you can then purchase the unlockable areas of the village for a high price. If you don’t buy a JojaMart membership, you instead revive the community center by fulfilling a bunch of item requirements, unlocking the areas after completing specific bundles. This is the route I went, and while it was time consuming, I think it definitely added more enjoyability to the game. However, it all boils down to how you like your play experience.
Last, but not least, what farming simulator would be complete without the ability to marry someone and have offspring with them? It’s got your basic formula of talk to someone and give them gifts to woo them, and once said wooing is done and your house has been upgraded to big enough, you can propose to them with some special item. However, I do appreciate the queer representation! You can marry a male or a female, no matter what gender you play as. Also, the girl I married actually had an ex girlfriend! I wondered how children were going to factor in once I did marry her. Was there just going to magically be some unexplained pregnancy? Nope! My wife “filled out adoption papers” and we got our baby that way! You can have up to two children, though I just had the one before I finally stopped playing. Also, while on this topic, I do have to mention at least one grievance, which is that the jealousy mechanics of your spouse are a little over the top. I gave a birthday present to another one of the romanceable characters thinking that while sure, I shouldn’t give them gifts randomly, seeing as they are my friend, certainly a birthday gift is fine. Nope! My wife acted all crazy-pants jealous and proceeded to spend a day moping in bed. It was honestly a little excessive. This would be fine if it felt in-character for her, but it was actually pretty at odds with her personality.
I do have a few complaints gameplay wise, but they seem sort of moot in that the next big patch ConcernedApe has planned addresses many of them. However, I will mention them so that anyone reading this can make the educated decision on whether or not to wait to play.
My first complaint is the inability to move buildings I had built on my farm. Early on, it’s hard to know what the optimal layout will be. In my initial game, I placed things in a way that I was not happy with and even accidentally placed a building to where I couldn’t enter it at all, which resulted in having to destroy the whole thing, making the money and materials I’d spent on it all basically go to waste. This is going to be addressed in the patch.
I also have a somewhat small complaint in that once you rebuild the community center, there’s not a whole lot left to do. I had promised myself I would play until the first day of year three because there is a plot point that happens then, but around early fall of my second year, I had basically done all there was to do, minus having kids, which made the last two gameplay months a pretty boring slog. There were a few quests here and there, but nothing challenging. This is also apparently going to be addressed in the form of more later game content.
Visually, the game is decent to look at. These aren’t super great graphics, but they are definitely palatable. Besides, in games like this, clarity of the graphics isn’t super important. The colors look nice and vibrant, and the environments are dynamic and fitting. While rough around the edges, for what this game is, I’m super happy with how it looks.
Story, Characters, & Atmosphere
Stardew Valley basically wins on all these fronts. The “weakest” is probably the story, but it really isn’t because it’s weak. It’s pretty standard fare for farming sims: dissatisfied with the life you lead, you leave it behind to run a farm. It’s not even that unique in how you get the farm, as several Harvest Moon games, especially the earlier ones, have you inheriting a farm from your grandfather. However, it isn’t a bad story, and I do like the way it addresses small town economy versus large corporations. I felt like in that sense, it was fairly unique.
The characters are what make this game for me. At first, I wasn’t overly fond of any of them. They all seemed flat and uninteresting. However, as the game progressed and I interacted with them more and more, I got to see their personalities. There’s a realism to the game in that sense: you don’t get the full picture until you actually know them. The characters are also highly diversified. There are, of course, characters that fit a certain cliche – the jock, the goth, the vapid pretty girl, ect. However, even these characters become more complex and layered as you get to know them. I could honestly write a whole piece on the characters of this game alone, but in the interest of allowing people to discover things for themselves, I won’t do that here. Though I will say that I love how through the characters, many different things were touched upon such as alcoholism, PTSD, and sexism (maybe also abuse, but I’m not sure on that one; I got some vibes, but it wasn’t super explicit). There’s a maturity to the themes and characters that you don’t get in most farming sims, as those are usually marketed to children. Granted, all these things are still addressed on a fairly shallow level just because that’s the nature of not only game, but the genre, as well. Either way, I found myself wanting to know more and more about these characters, and I’m excited that the next big patch is supposed to include more character scenes/development, as well. I also felt like the characters all had fairly unique and varied dialogue, especially in comparison to other games that dominate this genre.
Atmospherically, the game works. The music is nice and unobtrusive (though in truth, I usually was also watching things while playing). The sound effects never gave me any sort of issue. Honestly, as a whole, the game worked pretty flawlessly all around.
Considering the patch that is going to come out, there is literally nothing I have to complain about with this game. And if I’m honest, the only reason I have anything to “complain” about at all is because this game sets the bar so high that it’s basically just a wish list I have of other things I’d like to see. Stardew Valley was created by one person, and the thing is, if I didn’t know that, I wouldn’t know it.
Stardew Valley takes everything that’s great about the farming sim and basically just makes it better. It’s a whole different standard, and I can’t wait to see what else the future holds for this game. You can be sure that once the patch comes out, I’ll be jumping right back into it.