Stardew Valley Review
An engrossing mix of RPG, farm management, and social interaction elements
I was hesitant to review Stardew Valley for a long time. For an indie game, it’s about as densely packed as they come; a 40+ hour affair that involves management mechanics on a decently complex scale. As a one-man farming operation you spend hours watering crops, chatting up townsfolk, feeding your livestock, catching a variety of fish, exploring an abandoned mine, learning to cook, unlocking new sections of the rundown town hall, crafting items to improve your crops, and paying someone to add buildings to your farm. The game can feel so large and filled with so many layers, it’s hard to get a handle on everything to say whether or not it is objectively good. In some ways, it’s like stuffing down third or fourth helpings at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Was it good? Who cares - there is so much of it, good doesn't even need to factor into the conversation.
The smorgasbord of mechanics might make Stardew Valley tough to swallow, Eric Barone - a one-man dev team - does an impressive job of presenting the elements at face value instead of jamming them down your throat. When you stop and consider the elements of Stardew Valley, they lean on each other in a surprisingly complimentary way. But what really made Stardew Valley something I had to review, was a charm that runs deep through the game. With all of the cold calculations churning beneath Stardew Valley, the game repeatedly shows it’s far more interested in characters and relationships.
Stardew Valley begins with a character creation screen. Here you can choose the character’s skin tone, gender, clothing, farm name, and animal preference. These choices don’t largely impact the game - but that almost feels like the comment Stardew Valley is trying to make. These cosmetic differences don’t determine whether you can run a good farm, they simply aim to make the game more inclusive by providing a variety of options for the main character. You begin the game working for Joja Corporation when you receive a letter from your recently-deceased grandfather, encouraging you to move out to Stardew Valley and take up residence at his old farm. In a stunning display of courage - and maybe some recklessness - your character accepts this offer and moves to just outside of Pelican Town, to begin a new life.
It’s difficult to know how deep to get into the minutia of Stardew Valley. I could chronicle a multi-part diary of every decision I made, every crop I sewed, and every dollar I spent, but that would obviously be exhaustive for you to read. But that’s how you feel when going about your daily business of farming in the game. When you first arrive at the farm, the land is overrun with weeds, trees, and rocks. You slowly have to clear out the land while sewing new crops and then selling the crops for profit that you carry into the next season as you begin the cycle anew.
It’s impressive how many options you have as far as crops go. The types of crops that can be planted depend upon the season and each season comes with about eight different options. You buy the seeds at the local store and then sell the crops for a profit. Each crop takes different time to mature, so you constantly have to weigh the cost and time spent growing a crop with the profit it will give you. When I was starting out, I looked for cheaper crops with a quick turnaround time because I was in desperate need of money, but as my farm grew (as did my pocketbook) I could afford to buy slower-growing crops that came with big paydays.
You can improve your crops with a few different tools and supplements. You can buy miracle grow at the local store to improve the quality of your crops (and their returns), but you can also buy sprinklers to help with the constant watering and care of your crops or a seed machine that takes a crop and turns them into seeds, saving you the money it takes to buy new seeds. You can also upgrade your core equipment like your axe, hoe, watering can, and pick axe to make your farming more efficient. Efficiency is key because every day you have an exhaustion meter that prevents you from working through the night. It’s actually nice because every night when you go to bed, you’ll see your take-home pay for the day from selling crops, wood, rock, or other items you can forage.
Time is an important factor in Stardew Valley as the game can change day to day, season to season, and year to year. Certain days are marked with importance, either being the birthday of a local villager or a village-wide holiday. You’ll likely recognize the holidays as similar to the ones you celebrate, like Spirit’s Eve, the Egg Festival, or the Feast of the Winterstar, but there are surprising social aspects to these holidays as well. At the Flower Dance you have to ask a partner to dance with you, which can earn you a bonus in your relationship (we’ll talk more about relationships later) or at the Ice Festival you can compete in the ice fishing challenge.
But the festivals aren’t the only thing that changes the game - each season comes with its own atmosphere, excellently scored with the game’s beautiful soundtrack. Villagers will comment on the season - for instance Alex, a football enthusiast, will talk about how excited he is for Sundays during the fall as he’s eager to watch professional teams play on TV. Even the years can bring change. During the first year of the game a mother and son will talk about how their husband/father are away, serving in the army. In the second year, he returns to complete the loving family. These little touches are present throughout Stardew Valley, adding a sense of the characters and world existing independently. On Tuesdays the women of the town all participate in an aerobics class, in the evenings many of the citizens head to the local bar to cap off the workday.
After the farming element, the most prominent aspect of Stardew Valley are the relationships formed with the characters. At face value, the system is a little milquetoast. Players can earn relationship points with people in the town by giving them presents. Giving someone something they asked for on the town board will earn you more relationship points, as will giving someone a present on their birthday. Like I said, it’s not all that interesting at first, but as you begin to learn about the characters of Stardew Valley, they reveal complex layers of to themselves.
There’s no random generation in Stardew Valley, and while that means the characters are the same every time, it also means each has their own friends, motivations, and dreams that they share with you as you build your relationship. Some of the younger kids dream of leaving the small Pelian Town and finding something greater, some outsiders are just looking for acceptance. There are ten characters that you can have romantic relationships with and eventually ask to marry you, regardless of gender. While the time spent on romantic relationships is interesting, the characters that can’t be romanced are equally engaging and warrant exploring as well. There’s an old man who feels helpless and misunderstood now that he’s confined to a wheelchair, the mayor is trying to hide a relationship he’s scared will cause the townspeople to think of him differently, and a young girl is trying to cope with her alcoholic mother. There’s surprising depth in Stardew Valley, and its characters are as vibrant as the world they inhabit.
When you’re bored with all of this, there are still more things to do, with various amounts of complexity. You could take up a side gig fishing. There’s three different locations to fish in Stardew Valley (the ocean, river, and lake) and they all have their own variety of fish to catch. Setting aside some time most days (especially the rainy ones where chores around the farm were less demanding) I was able to become a fairly accomplished fisherman, turning in my catches for some extra cash. You can also leave out pots to catch lobster and clams, but I had less success with that.
There is also an abandoned mine that you can explore as a member of the adventurer's guild. The mine has become overrun with monsters and you have to descend level-by-level destroying the monsters and mining the valuables. Progress is saved every five levels and while the combat isn’t robust, it presents a nice little diversion.
There are even more things to do in Stardew Valley. Your crops can be donated to strange creatures that have infested the town hall. These creatures will repair the dilapidated hall with the crops donated to them. You can do favors for the local wizard. You can grab goodies off the passing train as it comes by. There never seems to be a lack of things to do in the game and doing these tasks pay off as your character levels up based on the activities, adding in some light RPG elements.
On top of the endless list of activities, the game is wonderfully gorgeous. The pixel art is well crafted and Barone always seems to know when to use detail and when to let our imagination do the work. Every section of Stardew Valley has something to make it special and unique and changes with each to season and holiday to be constantly fresh. Underscoring each day and special activity is one of my favorite soundtracks this year, electric with energy one moment and blissfully soothing the next. To preserve its well-crafted atmosphere the game snaps along with quick load times and runs smoothly with no crashes.
If there was a complaint to lodge with Stardew Valley, it would be in the game’s pacing, which can move a little slowly. The day-in, day-out monotony of running a farm can get a little dull at times as large portions of every day are devoted to simple farm upkeep. It feels partly authentic to have a bit of a grind to farm life, but it’s safe to say that the routine of the game will turn some players off who can’t get into the slow rhythm offered.
That being said, Stardew Valley is one of my favorite experiences this year. I absolutely loved the fifty hours I happily sunk into the game. The characters feel like friends, my blossoming farm feels like an accomplishment, and Stardew Valley feels like a real place I desperately want to visit. It’s rare that a game comes along that dedicates itself so completely to a location and an idea - this is one of those games.