Stardew Valley Review – Back to Nature

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Stardew Valley is one of those farming/livestyle RPGs that I’ve been waiting quite awhile for – the wait makes sense when you learn the entire game was built by one man: Eric “ConcernedApe” Barone. The culmination of his several years of work is nothing short of classic Harvest Moon nostalgia.

The game begins with your player-made character leaving their soul-crushing job working at the equally demoralizing Joja Corporation to take up residence in their grandfather’s old farm. It’s described as old for a reason – the Harvest Moon inspiration is there right from the get-go.

First up, let’s talk performance. The game isn’t really demanding at all, you can run it on a machine with an average integrated graphics chip and it’ll run like a dream. I haven’t encountered bugs or slowdown issues, and the gamepad support works intuitively, which is a big plus.

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You begin your new life by simply reclaiming the neglected and overrun farm that your grandfather left you. Just like its spiritual forebears, Stardew Valley has the same kind of beginnings complete with hand-me-down tools, a couple of free packets of seeds, and eventually – your own dog or cat.

You’ll quickly see the days pass by as you develop your farm, grow crops, raise animals, explore the mines for new gear (weapons, shoes, and rings), develop up your skills to unlock talents, pursue friendship or romance, and of course – try to prevent Stardew Valley from being overtaken by the Joja Corporation (or by working with them in their corporate dominance).

In my playthrough I naturally took the “save the homeland” route, in which I quickly focused on upgrading my weapons via exploring deep into the mines, with the ultimate goal being reclaiming my field and developing it up. I also quickly found the fishing mini-game addicting, if not time consuming.

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If you’re reading this review you’re more than likely (if not, that’s ok) a fan of the Harvest Moon series, so your first question is probably: How does it stack up against its long-running inspiration, now known as Story of Seasons? I’m happy to say that Stardew Valley is the first lifestyle/farming RPG I’ve played in a long time that genuinely feels like the classic, magical Harvest Moon games of old.

It might be the pixelated visuals, the nostalgic music, the story combination of a run-down village threatened by a growing corporation and the goal of meeting your grandfather’s expectations at the end of year three, all of it is wrapped up in a package that really made it hard for me to put the game down.

The villagers in the town are something I’ve had friends or strangers compliment in the game, sometimes even lauding them above their contemporaries in the Harvest Moon series. This is just a difference of culture, with the former developed by an American and the latter developed by the Japanese.

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Of course there will be differences in how the villagers behave, talk, and live out their lives – however I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other.

Harvest Moon was always meant as a game meant to recapture the feeling of living in the countryside, while Stardew Valley focuses a bit more on having characters that have their own flaws, some are obvious and others are more nuanced. They both focus on that feeling of returning to the countryside and connecting with nature again, however the former was always a bit lighthearted, with more simplistic characters.

I don’t want to discourage people into thinking the game is nothing but purposefully tainted characters living out dead-end lives in a slowly collapsing village – this is far from the truth. The characters all have their own daily routines, behaviors, likes, dislikes, and a consistent barrage of canned dialogue that doesn’t change much (typically only when you increase your relationship with them), just like Harvest Moon.

I did enjoy some of the more varied characters and dialogue in the game in comparison to Harvest Moon. Take the freeloader Linus, who makes a living in a tent, surviving off the food in villager’s trash. Despite me calling him a freeloading vagrant, he still comes to my aid if I push myself too far and collapse from stamina exhaustion. Despite my telling him to get a real job, he still lives in that tent, scrounging for morsels in trash cans.

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There’s also the girl I’m set on: Penny, the local teacher borne of trailer trash. No, literally, she lives with her single mother in a trailer, while her mother drinks herself to death in the bar she tries to educate the local kids. Perhaps she reminds me of the girl I lost my innocence to all those years ago (a trailer trash girl as well, however she was a bit psychotic).

The thing about the classic model Stardew Valley follows is that it carefully balances farming, exploration, upgrading tools and RPG-like mechanics, alongside interacting with and developing relationships with the villagers. It doesn’t beat you over the head with the complexities of the village-folk, that all depends on who you want to befriend or romance, and of course, present gifts to.

It took me about 18-20 hours to get to the end of summer, and this involved me maximizing nearly every day growing and tending to my crops, foraging, delving further into the mines, upgrading my tools, all while trying to figure out which pixelated girl tickled my fancy. Days feel about as long as the ones in Harvest Moon, although you’ll find time only stops when you bring up your menu; it still ticks away indoors.

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To complete the game you’ll need around triple or quadruple that amount of time, and that’s just touching the surface as the game doesn’t end at the three year mark. You really are free to pursue whichever path you want, and one of the more interesting surprises is the skill/talent tree.

As you perform menial tasks on your farm or in your journeys, you’ll level your skills up – at level 5 or 10, you can unlock a talent which benefits that skill. This varies depending on the skill, with the talent you choose typically influencing your income or overall performance of your farm.

I’ve been playing the Harvest Moon series for most of my life, with the majority of my upbringing happening in the farmlands of southern New Jersey. Wouldn’t you know it that moving to the big city made me enjoy a game like Stardew Valley that much more, to the point where it filled a now-depleted need for nature in my life.

Between the nostalgic visuals, music, gameplay mechanics, and more – I really, truly, loved my time with Stardew Valley. This game is a love letter to fans of the classic Harvest Moon series, and I found it very hard to put the game down.

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I can’t recommend Stardew Valley enough, it’s quite possibly one of the best entries for the genre in a long time, a staggering accomplishment by one developer, even when it doesn’t necessarily do anything really new compared to its predecessors – and that’s fine. It’s an amazing game.

Stardew Valley was reviewed on PC using a digital copy provided by Concernedape. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.

The Verdict: 9

The Good:

  • Classic, addictive, Harvest Moon-style gameplay
  • Heart-warming soundtrack
  • Some elements of Rune Factory/RPG mechanics thrown in
  • Throwback visuals that still feel fresh

The Bad:

  • Default portraits show too little of the characters
  • Romance/friendship development is akin to its predecessors, i.e. somewhat basic
Brandon Orselli

About

Big Papa Overlord at Niche Gamer. Italian. Dad. Outlaw fighting for a better game industry. I also write about music, food, & beer. Also an IT guy.