Just because a love letter isn’t addressed to you personally, that doesn’t mean you can’t revel in its beauty and sentiment. For what feels like the best part of twenty years, I’ve been searching for a game that could match one of my all time favourites, Harvest Moon: Back To Nature, but after myriad spinoffs and sequels, none could recapture that same magic. what followed lost that sense of belonging and discovery that Natsume managed to nail way back in 1999. For lone developer Eric Barone (aka ConcernedApe), he’s done just that with his debut game, Stardew Valley, released last year digitally and receiving a retail Collector’s Edition earlier this month..
This is all the work of one man, and while not impossible to believe, the sheer amount of detail and passion that’s gone into Stardew Valley is, at times, completely breathtaking. From the masterful soundtrack down to the small, intertwining narrative threads, this is a deeply personal game amid wave after wave of money-grabbing imitators.
Before we continue our praise, let’s just hold up a second. For those completely unfamiliar with Stardew Valley or Harvest Moon, they can be described as farming simulators to a certain degree. However, unlike the recent sims we’ve become accustomed to, there is no licensed farm machinery or slowly tractoring along country roads. Instead, there’s a much bigger focus on nature and rural life. In the opening moments of Stardew Valley, the player character abandons their office job in the big city to make a clean break. In doing so, they take ownership of their grandfather’s long abandoned farm just outside Pelican Town.
To say the place needs some work is a massive understatement. Unless you’re familiar with Harvest Moon and similar titles, those first few days of in-game time will be spent learning the basics: clearing debris, planting crops, and speaking to the farm’s network of neighbours.
While the overarching goal is immediately apparent, Stardew Valley is very lax about how you get there and how long you decide to take. With one day equating to roughly fifteen minutes of real time, players will quickly start to develop a cycle that consists of various daily routines. Whether fishing, woodcutting, mining, or tending to your plants and animals, you’ll amass resources that can either be crafted or sold for money. Needless to say, the more work you put in, the more quickly you unlock better items and advanced features.
As you go about your daily duties, so too do the various NPCs that flutter about Pelican Town. They each have their own personalities, quirks, likes, and dislikes, as well as schedules which dictate where to find them at any given time. While some serve as vendors or guides, there are others who simply exist for the player to socialise with.
At first, having this living patchwork of villagers may seem like a nice bit of window dressing. However, as the weeks and months roll by, you can’t help but become truly invested in them. Stardew Valley does an amazing job slowly rendering its characters, knitting together a web of backstories and relationships. To a lot of players, socialising with NPCs quickly becomes just as important as the upkeep of your farm.
The basics are fairly easy to nail down, though Stardew Valley is one of those games best played with a wiki or some kind of guide within arm’s reach. It’s packed with so many small, overlapping features that I never once felt guilty when glancing over at my phone or laptop. From fishing spots to finding out someone’s favourite gifts, there’s a wealth of information the Stardew community was quick to compile and share with one another.
While the game’s core may lack originality, the scaffold of systems built around it help to shrug off that label of it being “just another Harvest Moon rip-off”. For example there’s combat which, while fairly basic, adds some much needed dynamism when exploring caves. Crafting is also another big focus, with Stardew sporting a streamlined system akin to that seen in Minecraft and Terraria.
The fact that everything is realised in a 2D pixel art style takes nothing away from the overall experience. Like with every other aspect of Stardew Valley, Barone hasn’t carelessly slapped together a series of environments and character portraits. There’s some delicate artistry at work which carries through to the game’s brilliant soundtrack.
The constant churn of daily activities may prove thankless and repetitive for those impatient and unwilling to immerse themselves, but if you surrender yourself to Stardew Valley and dig deeper beneath the surface you’ll find one of the best, most impactful games you’ll play this year, homage or not.
Version tested: PlayStation 4 Pro