In these turbulent times, have you found yourself just wanting something a little more wholesome? Some people turn to video game violence and others to a nourishing bowl of video game soup.
With the stress we have all been under the past couple years, maybe you’re looking for something different, maybe you’re needing something escapist… maybe it’s time to turn back to this 5-year-old simulation RPG gem that is coming to Game Pass soon.
For Christmas 2016, my partner bought our daughter Stardew Valley. And she never played it. The game sat there in our library literally for years. Then, as he tends to do, my partner went digging through our digital collection for something fresh to play that might have been looked over before. He spent some time playing the game by himself and then, as he tends to do, he convinced me to play together. As we descended that spiral, we played for hours while listening to Korn, which has since become a meme in our house. (I know these things do not go together, but maybe you should try it?)
Eventually, I had to start my personal character and proceeded to play on my own for 150 hours before tapering off, so it’s safe to say this game could potentially keep you occupied for hundreds of hours (depending on how obsessive you are). Recently, I started another character and have put tens of hours into that farm so far without getting bored even though I started from scratch.
Do not let this daunt you; my 150 hours were not stressful in the least, basically the only stress you will encounter is making sure you are in bed in time for the end of the day recap. My hours were spent doing a wide variety of activities without falling into a repetitive cycle. And I did not even uncover all the aspects of this game. In all actuality, I am still far from it.
Stardew Valley was developed by Eric Barone (known as “ConcernedApe”) over the course of four years with the intent of not making players feel rushed to complete everything possible in a fixed amount of time. The game was heavily inspired by an old Nintendo property called Harvest Moon and his goal was to address the problems he had with the games. Knowing this before starting this game adds one more layer to the experience knowing that ConcernedApe programmed, developed, designed, wrote, and also composed the entirety of the game as the sole creator.
The publisher, Chucklefish, came aboard in 2016 to help with non-English localizations, some technical aspects needed to create co-op gameplay, and to publish the game so he could focus more on completion. The game was released in February 2016 on Microsoft Windows. Mobile versions were released in late 2018 for iOS and early 2019 for Android (and yes, you can port your existing progress). Multiplayer was rolled out throughout 2018 for all platforms up to 4 players.
Delightful Sights, Chill Vibes, and Relaxing Busy Work
After an in-depth character creator, the game begins with you inheriting a rundown farm from your deceased grandfather in the small village of Pelican Town, located in Stardew Valley. When you arrive, you begin cleaning your farm and preparing for crops with a few old tools and some coins. The tools in your inventory are the hoe, watering can, axe, scythe, and pickaxe. You learn that the arrival of Joja Mart (your former employer) has caused the town’s old ways to slowly disintegrate and the Community Center has fallen into disuse and disrepair—but you can change that and bring the valley community back together and restore it to the small-town greatness it once knew.
As gameplay advances, you are slowly introduced to a wide variety of new activities as you progress at your own speed. There is never any sense of urgency, you are not forced to complete anything within a certain timeframe (but if you want to, there are quests you can complete with a time limit, but they are not essential to progress). You are completely free to experience the game at your own pace, however, this can be limited early on by having to manage your energy meter. There is nothing forcing you to make the farm “successful” as it will happen naturally while your skills grow organically.
Recently, I had the opportunity to show Stardew Valley to my youngest sister and experience the initial delight through her eyes. She absolutely loved the adorable sounds and music, and the charming animations and characters—particularly the mouse that sells hats. She asked me to please mention the Hat Mouse. When you visit them, they hail: “Hiyo, poke. did you bring coins? Gud. Me sell hats.”. All hats in the game are purely cosmetic while boots, rings, and weapons give you some extra stats.
The graphics are a pixelated 2D style with a top-down view similar to the game’s foremost inspiration, Harvest Moon. Every single component of the game is lovingly crafted and it’s hard to believe that a single person artistically produced every element. The music is charming and reminiscent of chip-tune soundtracks of the past and the sound effects are quite satisfying. It offers a diverse experience with multiple songs for each season, location, and events. Eventually, you can craft a jukebox to play whatever song you want.
Each of the game’s disciplines has a 10-level path and at certain increments, you can choose between two useful options such as earning more coins per item or a chance to get double. Funnily enough, one of the most enjoyable aspects for me is the fishing. With a variety of tackle you can craft or buy, the super fun mini-game gives you much-needed variety and fishing could easily entertain you for in-game days at a time while you go to different locations for different types of fish that can appear seasonally and in different weather.
A Few Minor Inconveniences
The only bug I can recall experiencing is a seasonal event that didn’t trigger on the proper day. There aren’t many bugs I’ve come across as there are limitations.
As for the limitations, there are some repetitive tasks that take a decent amount of time to complete every day, so if you want to give your animals hay, collect produce, or give them love (if you don’t, they won’t produce), then go mining, you have lost a few hours completing those necessary duties since they will be asleep by dusk when you return to the farm. Eventually, you can purchase an auto-grabber to collect the animal products every day, but until then, it can be tedious.
Another constraint is that you can’t pause in co-op unless you open a text box, which is quite clunky on Xbox; this unpausable gameplay gives your day a sense of urgency and causes you to have to rush. Stardew Valley is not about rushing and we want a general calming experience!
And although the in-game transportation is convenient at times, you will still find yourself traveling by foot a lot. Even with the horse you can eventually buy, the traveling becomes monotonous. You can learn to make totems, you can uncover a fast travel minecart system, and eventually take a bus to another town. With 2 million coins you can purchase a scepter to bring you home whenever you want.
Last, there is no manual save option. The game is only saved at the end of each day. With Quick Resume on current-gen Xbox, this isn’t much of an issue anymore, but on previous gens, if your game crashes or your internet goes out, your day is lost because you can’t save freely. Unfortunately, if you realize there was a mistake you might have made, say, 3 days before, there is no way to get back to that day. Usually mistakes are easy to correct, but sometimes you really need to go back for whatever reason and simply can’t.
Stardew Valley is a rare experience that has a complex and effective reward system that keeps you saying to yourself “just one more day”. You can easily find yourself losing hours and hours that feel like minutes. You may develop an overwhelming urge to create spreadsheets and fill notebooks with observations, recipes, product values, and villagers’ favorite gifts.
This game will give you a plethora of wholesome experiences and adventures. Whether it’s giving a villager presents until they fall in love with you, harvesting your cute crops (and they are so cute), fighting creepy-cute fauna in the mines, questing for treasure, preventing Joja Mart from taking down Pierre’s General Store, or just hanging out with your neighbors in the Stardrop Saloon on a Friday night.
And it very well may be just what you didn’t know you needed.