Monday, August 5, 2019

REVIEW: Stardew Valley

In the late 90’s, a franchise called Harvest Moon created a groundbreaking subgenre: the farming simulator. Long before Facebook games had you taping on crops, Harvest Moon was a JRPG style game where you walked around a big empty plot of land, planted crops, took care of animals, went fishing, explored mines, and won women’s affection. And then the DS era began and the franchise took a turn for the less good, becoming less about creativity and time management and more about goofy minigames. Stardew Valley is in an indie game that goes back to the basics of Harvest Moon and brings the original vision into the modern gaming world.

I love Stardew Valley. It’s everything I loved about older Harvest Moon games times ten million. All the little nitpicks and gripes I had about Harvest Moon are removed or adjusted. You can walk through your crops so you can water the inside of the field. You can plant individual seeds so crop layout is more precise. Plus, you can plant virtually anywhere on your farmland while also placing other structures, tools, and decorations in any arrangement you like.

The game borrows just the right amount from Minecraft, namely the way item management works. No more planning out foraging or mining trips based on how much you can carry. Bring 999 bottles of milk in one square, compared to dragging around 9 pieces in Friends of Mineral Town (or 8 if you want to talk to people without gifting an item to them). Chests can be crafted early in the game - and store any item - so you don’t have to wait until you own a fridge to store food.

​The Harvest Sprites, which would do chores around the farm for you, are not replicated in Stardew Valley. Their supernatural aspect is filled by weird fruit spirits that accept offerings of rare items in exchange for big changes in town. These rewards include repairing a bridge to a quarry and repairing a bus that leads to a desert. Since there are no Sprites to do chores for you, tools can be constructed in their place, such as sprinklers that water crops every day.

Festivals, which I expected to consist of simple cutscenes with the occasional minigame, are a surprisingly fun aspect of the game. Stardew Valley has only two festivals per season (Friends of Mineral Town had three to four per season) but they are more detailed. Most festivals have a little vendor stall selling unique items, some have multiple mini-games that aren’t just “tap at the right time.”

Romance is present in the Valley as well. Unfortunately, it’s the “give gifts” method of wooing. I would prefer something like The Sims where you pick topics and get to know details that way, or answer and ask different questions. One nice thing that was carried over is Heart Events, which are cute cutscenes that occur when you are at the right place in a relationship (read: have given them enough gifts.) Unfortunately, other villagers you aren’t romantically involved with do not pair up with each other.

The social aspects of Stardew Valley are flawed compared to older counterparts. In Friends of Mineral Town, every character had a well-defined role in the town. The blacksmith’s apprentice, the innkeeper’s daughter, etc. Aside from a couple of characters, most of the marriage candidates just seem to hang out all day. You do gradually learn more about them as you get to know them (read: give them enough gifts) but that seems kind of weird. When you meet someone in real life, "What do you do for a living?" is a fairly common first question. The idea that someone's life is a complete mystery unless you give them two eggs a week for a year is dumb.

Some bigger complaints involve features that are almost entirely unnecessary. In old school Harvest Moon you could go into the mines and collect ores and rare gems. In Stardew Valley you can go into the mines and collect ores and rare gems, as soon as you’ve cleared the area of vicious monsters by fending them off with swords! The combat is ok, but it doesn’t need to exist - at all.

It’s a pain to have to plan out a mining trip by also planning to bring health-restoring items, weapons, and an escape plan. But you can't just not go in the mines, you need ores to build anything important. I wish there was a separate mine that was just basic ores like copper and iron, leaving the monsters to the bigger mines full of treasure for the more adventurous explorers.

The biggest issue I have with the game is the fishing. It is nearly impossible. Many simple fishing mini-games have you just waiting to press a button when you get a bite, but Stardew Valley adds reeling the fish in as well. Fair enough. But at first, I had no idea how it was supposed to work. I did some Googling and found a million posts about this same issue. I was relieved I wasn’t the only one having problems, but for every post saying fishing is impossible there are twenty comments saying the fishing was simple.

The key thing I’ve gathered is that it gets easier (that’s not how games work, but okay) and as you catch more fish you level up the fishing skill and unlock better poles and bait to make it easier. Eventually, I managed to catch a few things and, as I got the hang of it and leveled up to unlock better rods and bait, fishing did become easier. However, the curve seems backward. Something in a video game should start off easy, yet challenging, and the challenge should gradually become more difficult, not appear impossible and eventually become a cakewalk.

All gripes aside, Stardew Valley is a delightful experience that offers hundreds of hours of playtime and replay value. In addition to spending hours and hours unlocking everything and building a perfect farm, you can restart the game with different types of farms that are primed for certain kinds of play styles. And there are dozens of weird hidden secrets lying around, statues, meteorites, and all kinds of strange and unexplored environments. And as with any PC game with a large following, there are mods on Steam that open up a whole new world to explore. Finding rare ores is satisfying. Uncovering hidden treasures is an adventure. Even something as simple as watering crops sparks joy. And that’s what we want: a simple life on a farm with some fun secrets sprinkled throughout.

Click here to order Stardew Valley on PS4 and Xbox One. Also available here for the Nintendo Switch.