It’s the farm life for me!
Stardew Valley is a remarkable achievement in game design, one that combines much-loved game mechanics to create an experience that feels fresh and unique. Although some minor technical issues dampen the game to some extent, it remains one of the finest games I’ve played in 2016 and raises the bar for the simulation genre.
Your Stardew Valley journey begins, not on an idyllic farm but instead inside the grey and soul destroying confines of an Amazon clone workplace. Stifled and exasperated by the drudgery of your 9-5 job you get the chance to escape the tedium and take up a new life in a remote rural town. The intro sets up the tone of the game nicely and gives you a sense of purpose and meaning to your new home as you begin your farming adventure.
As you start your first few days on the farm it’s impossible not to be instantly struck by the similarities it bears to simulation classics such as Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon. However, instead of simply copying mechanics from those beloved franchises, Stardew Valley expands and improves on them, creating a new brand of life simulator, and one that is likely to leave a strong legacy in its own right.
The core mechanics of the game can be broken loosely down into two components; farming and relationships. The agricultural gameplay is simply excellent, there’s a vast array of various crops for you to grow, harvest and forage, all of which require different cultivation times and different seasons to grow in. There are few limitations to how you choose to farm in Stardew Valley, you can put crops where you like in your plot and aside from a few basic ‘grow me this’ quests from the local residents, you can expand your vegetable patch at your own leisure. You make money in Stardew Valley by selling your crops; this takes a little time at the start as you need to build up reserves before you can really start to upgrade your equipment and buy more expensive seeds, but before too long you’ll have a steady income pouring in. The real money, however, comes when you get your first farm animals. By building the relevant animal shelters you can keep a range of different farmyard friends and you can turn their eggs, milk, wool etc. into high-value products for some serious cash.
As well as the financial tinkering, the relationships are what sets Stardew Valley apart from the competition, once you’ve set your sights on one of the locals, you can complete quests for them and woo them with gifts to build up your heart level: once your bond reaches a certain point you can ask them out, then marry them, then have kids, smooth! Although some of the conversations get repeated and characters can at first feel one-dimensional, each person in Stardew Valley has their own unique story to tell, and as you become friendlier with each character their backstories can take some surprising twists and turns. I set my sights on Penny the lovable local do-gooder who was being held back by her alcohol dependent mother (yeah this game can do dark and gritty, too). That is one of the great joys of Stardew Valley; it never stops surprising you, it could be a secret relationship you discover or a hidden area you unearth, but its always a pleasure. Even 40 hours in I was nowhere near uncovering everything the valley has to offer.
Aside from farming and pursuing your one true love, there’s never a shortage of things to do. You can explore the depths of the valley’s mine which is full of monsters and treasures, or you could take up fishing and aim to please Willy the local fisherman by catching everything the rivers and oceans have to offer. The game has odd quests which you can complete for currency and friendship rewards, and some even have vague story lines which can open up new areas, but for the most part you are driven simply by the joy of expanding your farm, upgrading your home and exploring the world. At first, I found the speed at which the day/night cycle rotates a bit jarring, and found myself constantly rushing to pack all my tasks into one day. However, the more I played and the more I honed my farming skills, the more I realised that it has been refined perfectly to retain that slight sense of urgency that gives tasks more meaning, making you prioritise your daily routine and ultimately think more about each decision.
As this game was ported from the PC version it has some minor optimisation niggles. Although the controls are passable on the PS4, you can see that the main mechanics were designed for the ease of a drag and drop system, there were a few times we ended up dropping all our equipment or planting seeds in the wrong place as we lost control of the cursor. The game’s performance can also be slightly ropey at times, we experienced the odd glitch with items getting stuck, a scarecrow who wouldn’t shut up, and some minor frame rate drops, but the biggest frustration however, was the music. The arrangements of cheerful and atmospheric melodies are delightful, but far too often we found that the music and sound effects would simply cut out and stop for long periods. Hopefully, these bugs will get patched in future updates, and they certainly don’t spoil what is undoubtedly still an excellent experience on console, but it does mean you’re aware of playing something not quite as polished as the PC original.
Very few games can offer the amount of depth, the wealth of mechanics and the treasure trove of secrets that Stardew Valley has on display. Not only does it manage to distinguish itself as one of the best farming simulators available, but also one of the best simulation games full stop. When you then consider that this whole game was created by just one man, the heights that this game manages to achieve become even more impressive. If you have ever entertained the slightest desire to get an allotment or even just a window box with a few herbs in it, then you owe it to yourself to play Stardew Valley, you won’t regret it.
Reviewed on: PS4
Released: February 2016 (PC) December 2016 (Consoles)
By: Chucklefish Games
Available on: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Mac
Try it if you like: Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, Terraria
Official Site: http://stardewvalleywiki.com/Stardew_Valley_Wiki
Available at: Digital download only