Stardew Valley is a one-man project from Indie developer ConcernedApe (real name Eric Barone), and shows more variety, personality, and heart than most games produced by the work of dozens. It’s an open-ended country life RPG in the vein of Harvest Moon, but with touches of Animal Crossing and Minecraft as well. It’s similar to fellow recent release Salt and Sanctuary, in that it wears its inspirations on its sleeve but it transcends those stolen systems through the quality and unique personality that it shows in droves.
Your Grandfather has passed away, a last-wishes sealed letter in your possession. You’re toiling away at your oppressive office job when you decide to open it. The contents reveal that your Grandfather has left you his farm in Pelican Town, nestled in Stardew Valley. He hopes you’ll appreciate a change of pace; a fresh start. So you quit your job, pack your things, and move to Pelican Town to take up the good farming life.
But wait! The farm’s a mess, overgrown with weeds and rubble. The community centre, once the beating heart of the community, is in shambles. And your erstwhile employers, JojaMart, have set up a giant supermarket that’s set to outcompete local businesses and exert the company’s evil corporate stranglehold over the small town. Will you use your farming to help the community while turning a small profit? Or will you support the corporation, eroding the folksy charm of the town and paying your way to success?
Your core gameplay loop revolves around deciding what you’re going to do on each day. You’ll wake up at 6AM, and you’ll be rationing your your energy throughout the day. You can regain some energy with food, but that’s a scarcity early on. In-game time moves forwards by 10 minutes every 5-ish seconds and if you don’t go to sleep by 1AM, or if you deplete your energy and are exhausted when you go to sleep, you’ll wake up the next day with a severely depleted energy bar. If you stay up too late, you’ll fall asleep where you stand and not only lose a chunk of energy the next day, but also a portion of your gold in payment to whomever dragged your sorry body back home.
It might sound like that mechanic is frustrating, but it actually lends a sense of immediacy to play. You’re forced to prioritise tasks and spend your time, and energy, wisely.
“Country life RPG” might sound like a humdrum affair, but Stardew Valley offers such variety that you’ll never be bored. You can focus on farming if you like, but there’s such a wealth of stuff to do that you can profit from farming on the back burner while chasing more active pursuits like fishing, spelunking, arcade gaming, cooking, and socialising with the other Pelican Valley residents. Each different mechanic is fully fleshed-out and rewarding, and you’re well incentivised to dip your toes into every activity.
To grow crops on your farm, you’ll need to clear out overgrowth and till the soil. You’ll then sow the ground with seeds and water your plants each day until they’ve matured for harvest. You’ll start out small at first, but with a few upgrades and a spot of planning you’ll soon be running a tight operation, planning crop harvests and optimising your land use. Upgrades to your hoe and watering can make cultivating soil and watering crops less time-consuming, but on larger farms watering your plants each morning becomes a major drain on your time and energy. Sprinklers are a mid-game life-saver, and it’s a massive relief when you craft enough that watering your produce isn’t a sizeable chunk of your day anymore. You’ll grow a diverse set of crops in each season, selling some crops for money to re-invest in seeds while keeping some back for crafting or gifting purposes.
Fishing is another way to reel in the pennies, and it’s one of my favourite parts of the game. Really. Set up and cast out your line at a pond, river, or ocean and you’ll wait for a bite. Bait and tackle can increase your bite rate on better fishing rods, allowing you more attempts per day. If something bites, you’re presented with a minigame interface: a column with a little green bar and a fish icon. It’s your job to click to nudge the green bar upwards, keeping it behind the fish icon which represents the fish trying to escape. Early on this is really hard, since the bar is very small and initially fiddly to control. With practice, though, you’ll climb fishing proficiency levels to catch enough fish to make a serious profit. It’s a simple mechanic that’s immensely satisfying to master, and the fist-pumping rush of success after reeling in a difficult sturgeon rivals that triumphant feeling of any game.
Accrue enough money and building resources, and you’ll be able to pay the local carpenter to build farm buildings like a silo, coop, barn, and stable, enabling the rearing of farm animals. You’ll want to build the silo first, since your animals mainly eat hay. Sadly the game doesn’t explicitly tell you this, encouraging you to build a coop but not telling you about the importance of the silo. Nor does it mention that you should pet your livestock every day to improve their mood and quality of produce. Despite this initial poor communication, I really enjoyed rearing and caring for my animals. I was really attached to my little guys, which was really helped by the game’s excellent name generator that threw up memorably absurd words like “Jiskers”, ‘Snerters”, and “Bumbus”.
“Bumbus”. I love this game.
Venture into the mines, and things take a turn for the Minecraft or Terraria. You’ll come across a range of enemies that you’ll fend off with simple sword swipes, as well as rocks and ore veins galore to mine valuable stone, minerals, and metallic ore for smelting. The mines are comprised of 120 levels, and every 5 levels you’ll unlock the ability to travel directly to that floor via lift anytime you return. As you progress you’ll find new types of ore veins and more devilish enemies to encounter.
Exploring the mines, however, really does illustrate how short Stardew Valley’s days are. After taking care of you crops it’s a mad dash to the mines, which depending on random rolls may or may not put some serious obstacles in the way of your progression. You often don’t have much time in the mines past maybe 11PM before you have to hightail it back home so you’re not running on fumes the next day.
All of the resource gathering and progression feeds into the renovation of the Community Centre. Stardew Valley makes sure you’ve got clear goals in the form of quests, but your main objective in the game will probably be the completion of Bundles in the Community Centre. These Bundles require you to acquire and pledge different resources, from crops to fish to forage to money. The kicker is that most of these resources are limited to certain seasons; for example you can only grow parsnips in the Spring, and Tiger Trout can only be caught in the Fall or Winter.
It’s not thankless progression though; you’re rewarded, often quite handsomely, for each Bundle you complete, and there are significant rewards when you manage to complete a set of Bundles. You’ll access new areas with exotic resources, unlock whole new activities, and receive potent additions to your farm. It’s all wrapped up in a mysterious, Ghibli- reminiscent spirits-of-the-valley narrative that’s as endearingly charming as the rest of the game.
You’re not just driven by progression of your farm and resources in Stardew Valley; taking a leaf from Animal Crossing’s book, it feels really rewarding to develop your relationship with the townspeople. Players that choose to engage with the community (which I’d highly recommend for a first playthrough) will find an inherently likeable cast of oddities. It’s really a joy getting to know each new and colourful character, and I’d wager that each player will find several favourites early on. I’ve taken a particular shine to Linus, a homeless man that lives in a tent by the river, Rasmodius the wizard, and the wanderlust-afflicted Abigail. You can improve your relationship with each different person by talking to them and working out which gifts they like most, and you’re even eventually able to marry certain characters. Improving your friendship with individuals leads to rewards in the form of shared recipes as well as little cutscenes that showcase your blossoming bond together.
The relationship system wouldn’t feel so satisfying if the characters weren’t likeable. Luckily, Stardew Valley’s characters are really sympathetic and well written. Despite the limited amount of dialogue, each character’s unique personality shines through their visual design, animation, and lines. ConcernedApe has even vowed to keep adding dialogue to the game post-launch.
A big part of Stardew Valley’s charm lies in its exhaustively, intricately fleshed-out world. Colours are bright, plants sway and rustle in the wind, wild animals dart out of sight, and the whole world transforms with each season. Alongside Hyper Light Drifter, we’re really spoiled for beautifully rendered retro-style presentation right now. A lot of the visual design leans heavily on Harvest Moon, but there’s such a unique energy to Pelican Town and its surrounding locales that the game develops on its own aesthetic. Take into account the characteristically chill soundtrack, and you’ve got yourself an experience that’s as enthralling to the senses as it is mechanically accomplished.
I don’t imagine that I’ll stop being amazed by Stardew Valley anytime soon. ConcernedApe has created a charming, detailed, and complete product that transcends its influences to sit amongst, perhaps even beyond, them. There is so much love packed into every pixel of this game; the world thrums with life and personality, colour, and music. It’s a wide-open experience that supports the easily-overwhelmed with simple-to-follow quests and progression systems. There’s always something new to chase each day, some tantalisingly close goal in your crosshairs, and even the lighter days always feel important. The games that Stardew Valley invokes are, generally, not for me. But this game makes each component meaningfully fun and engaging in a way that keeps me coming back for more. I think I’ll keep checking in for some time.