It’s not outlandish to say that retro games and pixelated graphics are a huge trend in the gaming industry today. While many AAA game studios are trying to make their product look as realistic as possible in order to blur the lines between fact and fiction, many indie studios have taken the exact opposite approach to development. It could be said that, in viewing games as an art form, it doesn’t really matter how realistic the graphics are. In fact, even better if a developer can get the point across without spelling it out for the gamer. It could also be said that these developers want to create games that give the same kinds of experiences as the ones they grew up with. Who needs Call of Duty when you have Galaga?
This sort of simple gaming and non-handholding is the mentality behind Stardew Valley, which at its heart is a reskinning of Harvest Moon. In fact, your in-game character leaves his/her busy, dead-end life in the city specifically to lead a simple life without all the hustle and bustle. That’s basically where the story begins and you, as the player, are left to your own devices to figure things out as you go along. Through the first year, you will get some equipment and other abilities unlocked as you get to know the villagers. Beyond that, your path is yours to develop. This may sound daunting or intimidating for those who aren’t used to this sort of game, but there isn’t much in the way of punishment for experiments gone wrong.
Throughout your stay in Pelican Town, you will have to split your time between 5 different categories of skills: farming, mining, foraging, fishing, and combat. Skills will each gain experience as you accomplish tasks within those groups. As each of these skills are leveled up, the player will gain access to crafting recipes, increased proficiencies, even more professions to choose from based on your playing style. Most of this stuff happens in the background and, though you can check your progress in the menu, you likely won’t realize how much you’ve developed until you get the level-up message.
Time will advance through the 4 seasons with each season having 28 days. Each season has its own crops to grow, foraging items to pick, and fish to catch. Mining and combat are mostly done in the mine, which can be described as rogue lite. The layout of each floor of the mine will always be the same and specific important floors will always be the same. However, all the floors in between will have randomly generated enemies to fight and objects to mine. Through all your actions, by the end of the day you will end up acquiring a lot of items which you will need to bring back to your farm, dropping them in a bin in order to be sold overnight. Each day begins with showing you how much cash you made from your sales and an automatic game save.
There are ways to evolve your character socially as well. Many villagers inhabit Pelican Town and it is up to you to grow your relationship with each of them by performing tasks for them. Many times, this amounts to bringing them items they want. As your relationship grows, they will reveal things about themselves. Eventually you will be able to marry certain NPCs and have a child with them. One of the interesting things about this relationship system is that you have free reign to choose a male or female, regardless of your character’s gender.
There are many more activities and features in Stardew Valley, such as festivals and bundles, but listing and describing each one would make this article much longer than it really needs to be. Suffice to say, you won’t be bored often or be without some goal in mind or duty to fulfill.
Unfortunately, this game does have a few shortcomings, one of which circles back to its core premise. I can appreciate not holding a player’s hand as so many games do, but I found it very irritating how little this game explains what to do. Fishing specifically was never explained and took me a few in-game weeks to figure out on my own. Also many fish appear only at certain times of the day, in certain seasons. As these fish are needed for bundles which unlock more of the game, missing them can add on another in-game year to a playthrough. The only way to figure out when and where specific fish are is to look online. Yet another important omission is explaining the importance of grass. In the beginning of the game, you’re left to assume it is a nuisance that should be cleared from the farm. It isn’t until after you have built a silo that you find out all the grass you previously cut could have been turned to hay for your farm animals. A player should be able to relax while playing this game and not resort to studying guides. This information could easily be added in-game.
Another issue I had was how difficult it is to farm crops, which really is the bedrock of the game. I once played a Harvest Moon game (don’t remember which one) in which the directional pad moved the character a certain direction without having them face that direction while the joystick moved them normally. This helped save an enormous amount of time and frustration while watering, planting, tilling, etc. This feature is completely absent in Stardew Valley. Needless to say, I tried a number of different methods to farm crops more efficiently and almost always left frustrated. This kind of feature would also be handy when laying out hay for farm animals early on.
My final major issue (and this will hopefully be fixed with subsequent versions, but should be mentioned nonetheless) is that the game seems to crash constantly. It probably has had to reboot around 2 dozen times after normal play. This wouldn’t be quite such an annoyance if the player was allowed to save the game manually. A manual save option would at least possibly keep someone from having to do an entire day’s work over again. Once, the game literally crashed as it was saving at the beginning of a new day. And yes, I was hot. Due to the random nature of parts of the game, a crash like this can lead to losing powerful weapons or a sizable catch.
Stardew Valley, while not a new game anymore, has been worth the wait for the Vita version. The handheld seems to be a natural fit for the game and I have enjoyed taking it with me on the go. Despite its issues, it’s easy to get lost in the game’s many features, constantly evolving my character and what I’m able to do, appreciating the beautiful pixel art that wouldn’t look out of place on a Super Nintendo or Game Boy Advance. My suggestion is to sit back, relax, and let the game play itself as you move your character around. You can always start over if you want and there is no real “end” to the game. Enjoy!