Thinking back to the fall of 2011, there were two games I had become aware of that I wanted more than my next breath. The first was Cube World, which is currently lost in development purgatory. The second was Stardew Valley, and it’s the best damn way I can think of to cap off more than four years of waiting.
Developed by one man—ONE—Stardew Valley is everything I had always wished Harvest Moon would be when I was growing up with it. Borrowing the theme of inheriting a farm to work (though with the added twist of quitting your job at a faceless megacorp that also happens to be trying to snuff out the businesses in the farm’s local town), Stardew Valley takes many of the best elements from Harvest Moon and mixes them with some of the finest RPG mechanics of the SNES era—all put to splendid 16-Bit graphics and a truly wonderful soundtrack. Sure, there are a couple other games that have attempted this in the past, but they’re all marred for various reasons, and none have managed to preserve the “squee” factor of the classic chibi visuals—until now.
The core loop is much of what you would expect at first: wake, farm, sleep, repeat. But upon exploring the town’s mine for the first time, you’re handed a sword for protection. This is the moment when all expectations of the game are shattered. Exploring the mine and its plethora of floors pits you up against increasingly challenging enemies in combat that’s immediately reminiscent of Secret of Mana. Along with the difficulty curve, there’s also progressively better ores, minerals, and artifacts to be had from within the mine, many of which can become a staple income for players wishing to stay light on the farming aspect of the game. And for those who don’t, the ores you’ll be fighting for can be smelted into bars and used in crafting the multitude of stations, upgrades, and bits of equipment you’ll use to either automate your farm or transform one of your produced items into another. My character spent the bulk of the summer in the game growing hops so he could spend the winter holed up making ALL the beer.
What’s really amazing, though, is that any part of the game you don’t fancy, you can pretty much leave behind. Don’t like farming? Go foraging. Foraging not your thing? Go mining and battling. Don’t want to mine for your resources and upgrades? Use the money you’ve made from other avenues to purchase ores and skip the mine altogether. There’s a very “your game, your way” sort of feel to Stardew Valley, and there’s been great care taken to ensure that no one route is the “correct” option, nor is it unbalanced in its returns. Want to spend time and effort earning the favour of the various citizens to unlock side content? Go for it! Don’t much care for socializing? No biggie; nothing’s forcing you. Brilliant!
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of games that have some sort of progression to them—leveling-up, tiered crafting, unlocks, bonus content, creative aspects, etc. What many don’t know is that I’m the biggest sucker for charm in a game, and Stardew Valley gets me right in the d’awwww every time I play it. This coming together of artistic vision, clever systems, tightly refined gameplay, and oodles and oodles of charm makes for the most thoroughly enjoyable and uplifting gaming experience I’ve had since I first discovered Animal Crossing with New Leaf. The fact that this game has been developed exclusively by one man isn’t just a marvel, it’s absolutely unfathomable. I’m not at all surprised that there are twenty-five thousand people playing it on Steam as of my writing this, just two days after launch. For any small studio, that would be incredible, but for a one-man show that is, if I’m not mistaken, his first game, it’s simply astonishing.
The two very minor bugs I encountered in my time with the game were patched out within hours, so really, the only obvious shortcoming I can find is that there’s no notification that upon reaching level 5 and level 10 with a given skill, the two bonuses that are shown are not immediately granted, but instead have to be chosen between. Because of this, I ended up with a couple skills where I would have preferred the other option, as I thought I was just advancing the menu. Other than that, though, Stardew Valley has been the most rich and heartwarming experience I’ve had in a game in years, and when the multiplayer gets patched in at a later date, I’ll be ready for it to absorb even more of my time—only then, it’ll be with friends!