Seemingly out of nowhere, an RPG-style indie farming simulator rose to the top of the charts on Steam's bestseller list after its release on February 26. Placed amongst big titles such as Dark Souls II and Tom Clancy's The Division, it piqued our interest and we decided to pay Stardew Valley a visit ourselves.
First and foremost the thing that needs to be addressed is that Stardew Valley has been entirely created by one person. Under the alias of ConcernedApe, Eric Barone spent four years on Stardew Valley before it saw release. Barone stated he created Stardew Valley as a fan-made alternative to the Harvest Moon series, which in his opinion deteriorated after Harvest Moon: Back To Nature. Other games Barone mentioned as influences games like Animal Crossing, Rune Factory, Terraria, and Minecraft.
Stardew Valley takes us back with its pixel art. Don't let the seemingly simple style turn you off - with a wide range of colour and rich detail it quickly becomes clear the choice for a pixelated style was not one made out of convenience. When starting the game you're asked to build a character, and with a wide variety of customisation options (and even some player mods already available for further customisation), you'll soon grow to love the bundle of pixels depicting your alter ego.
Accompanying the pixelated game is not the expected 8-bit music - instead, the soundtrack is beautiful, atmospheric music that fits the game very well. Impressively, like the rest of the game, Eric Barone also made the musical pieces himself.
After creating a character, a short intro commences. If farming simulators have taught us anything, it's that farms apparently make great and perfectly normal gifts. From distant relatives to friendly neighbours - a lot of people seem to have a good supply of farms to give away. Stardew Valley is no different: in this game, it's your dying grandfather who gives you a letter, stating you inherit his old farm. The game then shifts to your character stuck in a seemingly dead-end office job at Joja Corporation. Perpetually bored and worn out by your corporate job, you remember your grandfather's letter, and soon catch the bus to leave the rat race and flee to the countryside.
After being welcomed by friendly locals, it's time to learn the most important basics of the game, which is of course farming. Using WASD to move around and your mouse to use items, the basic controls are simple and easy to learn. M opens your map and F brings up your journal (where you can find information such as your skills and quests).
As with most farming simulators, you'll start with very basic tools which you can upgrade as you progress. Your farm could use some upgrading as well - upon arrival it's a jungle of weeds, rocks and twigs. The spacious plot is entirely yours to do with as you please, meaning you get to decide where you grow crops or build animal quarters. The game also offers a great deal of decorative items, allowing you to adorn the inside of your house to your heart's content.
No farm is complete without animals. Your animals won't die if not fed, but will become upset and won't provide you with any wool or milk. Besides the standard farm animals such as chickens and pigs, you can also adopt a cat or a dog, and a horse that will come in very handy when you want to travel faster. Oh, and there's dinosaurs.
Another aspect familiar to those who indulge in farming simulators is of course the building of your skills. Just like in real life, the more you practice a skill, the better you master it. In Stardew Valley, you get to level farming, mining, fishing, foraging, and even combat - more about that later.
Likewise, you are limited to the amount of Energy you have. Actions such as farming and fishing costs energy, whereas eating or a good night's rest replenish your energy levels.
Of course, there are also a wide variety of recipes to learn to enhance your cooking and crafting skills. Remarkably, unlike most other games the cooking aspect is purposely made unprofitable. Becoming a 5-star chef in order to quickly become rich will therefore be futile. Instead, food will provide bonuses such as energy bursts.
Farming is undeniably the core of the game - without farming, you'll have no profit, meaning you can't buy, build and progress. Anything. That being said, besides farming, being part of the local community is important too. You can attend and participate in events such as seasonal festivals, and of course build friendships. The community aspect of the game is where the influence of Animal Crossing really shines through: all townies have unique personalities and their own schedules, roaming around town attending their daily business. You can have a chat, give gifts, or just flat out ignore them - the choice is yours. As you build friendships, residents will open up to you, sharing personal facts and secrets, and sometimes they'll have requests. Where Animal Crossing only offers a handful of homebodies to befriend, Stardew Valley is home to over thirty characters with their own unique background stories, which makes town-life feel a lot more realistic and lively.
Similar to Harvest Moon, you can keep track of your friendship levels with every person you meet through your Journal. Some characters have "single" under their name, revealing you'll also be able to build romantic relationships over time. In total, there are ten singles in your area. Notably, you can marry whomever you want, regardless of gender. When you've successfully wooed someone, they will live on your farm with you. We haven't tied the knot with anyone yet, but the possibility to settle down and even starting your own family is there.
Most community simulation games house communities desperate for a helping hand, and Stardew Valley is no exception. The local museum could use some help in acquiring items for exhibition, but above all, the towns' old community centre needs restoring. However, you're not obliged to do any of these things - in fact, you can even go in an entirely different direction and join JojaMart, operated by the very same corporation you used to work for, and help them grow instead.
When visiting the town, you'll notice the generous map. Where most of the games that influenced it can feel quite confind, Stardew Valley gives you a lot of room to explore. Besides its citizens, the town also holds shops such as the carpenter and blacksmith, and the previously mentioned, perhaps rather dubious JojaMart...
Outside of town there is plenty of exploration to do as well. Without giving any spoilers, Stardew Valley is riddled with hidden Easter eggs, inviting you to examine every inch of the map. There is a mysterious cave where you can find useful items for crafting, or find minerals and artefacts that can be donated to the museum. There are even monsters.
At first glance, Stardew Valley feels like a game set in modern time. But once you discover areas such as a wizard tower, explore a cave full of monsters, and start wielding weapons, it soon becomes clear Stardew Valley is also heavily influenced by titles such as Rune Factory.
As mentioned before, your character also has a combat skill. With a simple hack 'n' slash mechanic, combat is easy to master - perhaps a bit too easy for some. The further you travel underground, the more valuables you'll find - but beware, as the difficulty of the monsters also increases!
At first, this merge of a modern world with fantasy aspects felt a bit strange, yet not uninviting. Soon the line between the two thinned, and we found it perfectly normal to one moment stand in a modern supermarket followed by scoping out caves for combat.
Story-wise, there is some sort of story arc (we see you, JojaMart!), but Stardew Valley is an open-ended game, meaning you can keep playing endlessly even after rebuilding your grandfather's farm and reviving the town. We have high hopes the developer will keep us interested with regular updates, especially since 4-player co-op has already been announced. Even though you are provided with quests, you can do these at your own pace, if at all. There are no huge consequences one way or the other - you simply can't lose the game. Whether you focus on farming, live as a recluse, start a family, go on adventures, help Joja Corporation rise to power, or just spend your days fishing - the choice is yours. Because you are free to do as you please, when you please, the game allows players to create a very personal game experience. This makes Stardew Valley significantly accessible for a broad range of players, from those with virtual green thumbs looking for a laid-back farming experience to experienced adventurers ready to explore new lands.
On the surface, Stardew Valley doesn't seem to bring anything new to the table - with so many great farming simulators, RPG games, community simulators and dungeon crawlers available, what makes Stardew Valley stand out amongst its predecessors? Stardew Valley took the best aspects from each of them, and merged them all together in an open-ended game. It sounds very simple, and it is - in fact, it's the simplicity that makes the game work so well. Even though Stardew Valley merges many themes together, it has been done seamlessly, and without unnecessarily overcomplicating things. Providing players with plenty to do and explore yet leaving it entirely up to them how to spend their time seems to be the golden formula here.
To say Stardew Valley is an impressive debut from ConcernedApe would be an understatement. This is a game you don't want to overlook.