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There is something quite refreshing about Stardew Valley (2016). Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting much, but its opening cut scene, for risk of sounding like a bit of a douche, spoke to me. You begin your adventure by jacking in your office job for a change of pace and to start life on a farm. You move to the fresh countryside, in a small rural town named Pelican, to run a farm left to you by your grandfather.
When you start work on the farm, the place is a bit of a hole. The land is overgrown with grass and trees, and stone piles are strewn around the place. It doesn’t take long to clean up and it’s useful too, introducing the different resources that you’ll use to build and craft around the farm.
To think of Stardew Valley as just a farming simulator is to undersell the concept. It is about breaking free and starting anew in a totally unfamiliar environment. Meeting and socialising with your new neighbours, adjusting and learning how to become self-sustainable. The appeal of Stardew Valley is much broader in scope and design, and as the in-game days’ progress, you’ll start to become invested in this little slice of heaven you’ve carved out and the people who surround you.
Initially, this appeal isn’t apparent and the game starts slowly as it introduces you to the core mechanics: resource gathering, planting and growing crops, selling, crafting and socialising. Crop growing provides a small return on the investment at first and the townspeople are slow to warm to you. But as the in-game days, which last between 15-20 minutes, pass by, you will not only be overcome with work to do on the farm, you’ll be invested in the relationships you foster with the people around you and their respective backstories.
The core premise to Stardew Valley – packing everything in to live of the fat of the land – is emotive. It also gives context to a game which, without its brief introduction, would feel indistinct to other simulators in the same vein. There was something nice about the presupposed unfamiliarity of your new home and it’s a feeling instantly relatable to anyone who has had to move location for a new job. Thankfully, Pelican Town isn’t just set-dressing or a means of padding out the land surrounding your farm. There are tons of little secrets to find in the little nooks and crannies around you. A wizard’s tower, locked upon first arrival, sits ominously to the west and there is a series of cave systems, filled with monsters to combat.
Unlike Farming Simulator (2013), Stardew Valley doesn’t strive for realism. After all, that’s not really the point. As such, it doesn’t rely on realistic, 3D rendered graphics and opts for bright and vibrant, top down, 16bit artwork. It does the game justice and fits the style of gameplay perfectly.
Stardew Valley features a lovely soundtrack that marries up with the relaxing overtures. It also matches the charming artwork and the overall pace of the game. It adds to the sense that Stardew Valley isn’t something to be rushed through, but it is a game that you need to take your time and understand it’s varied and interconnected systems.
My first in-game year is complete and I am still to discover more about the titular Stardew Valley, as new areas open for exploration and crops and buildings become available to help grow my farm. I went into Stardew Valley not expecting it to be my sort of game, but came out feeling charmed by its bright and colourful aesthetic; deep yet simple to understand mechanics, and a soothing, accompanying score that made my time with the game even more relaxing.
I would normally include any negative aspects to the experience, but I can’t say I encountered anything that detracted from Stardew Valley. It is a game that has emotive resonance, fun and varied gameplay and gives you an excellent sense of belonging in the local community, should you wish to work for it, once you have spent some time toiling on the farm and chatting to the locals. As such, I found it difficult to put down.
We reviewed the digital collector’s edition of Stardew Valley, but for those picking up the retail version, you can expect to find a copy of the game, map of Pelican Town, a mini-guidebook, and a download code for the soundtrack.
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