One of the best aspects of video games, at least to me, is escapism. The ability to turn on a game and just let the real world fade away as you become immersed in game lore, game play, or just plain fun. One of my favorite virtual locations to escape to is the Harvest Moon, a series of simulation games that revolves around farming, raising livestock, and finding someone to settle down with. When it comes down to it, Stardew Valley feels like the best type of "spiritual successor", one that takes everything the original did so well, and adds concepts and ideas that truly makes it feel special.
The game starts with your grandfather on his deathbed, as he hands your protagonist a letter. He claims you should only open the letter if you feel lost in life, or if the woes of the modern world start to bring you down. Fast forward a couple of years, and you find your protagonist slaving away at a company called JoJa Corp. Your custom protagonist, whether it be a he, or she, remembers their grandfather's final words and opens the letter. It contains a deed to a farm located somewhere in Stardew Valley. The protagonist then leaves their job and starts life as a farmer in the quaint little town.
In terms of narrative, that's really as far as the game goes. The rest of your time is spent making your own personal story. Sure, events will play out the same no matter what, but how they happen and when is all dependent on you. Each and every citizen in Stardew Valley has their own stories and cutscenes (obtainable only when you have enough friendship with them) so really it's you who drives the various stories forward.
There isn't really even a true point or endgame to be found, all you do is set goals for yourself and then work hard to accomplish them. You try and raise the best livestock, grow the most quality crops, and find the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, all because you want those things for yourself. The game never pushes you towards a certain play style or even towards accomplishing anything. Everything you do is because you want to, and even though that means the narrative is almost non-existent, it makes it feel all the more rewarding in the end.
Stardew Valley features both mouse and keyboard controls and controller support, so which ever way you enjoy gaming the most can be utilized. As someone who has almost exclusively played on consoles, it was nice to see how well optimized the game was for a controller. All inputs and commands were located in natural locations so I didn't have to struggle when I first plugged it in. If you prefer the old fashion way of playing a PC game, the keyboard and mouse approach is a perfectly fine way to play as well.
When you start the game, you will have 12 spaces of inventory. While that sounds large initially, keep in mind that half of those spots will be occupied with tools you need to complete chores. Using the bumpers on controller or the F buttons on a keyboard, you can quickly switch between any item or tool you need. After you've selected what you want to use, all you have to do is press X or left click.
On the bottom left of your screen, you will see a big bar which represents your energy. Doing anything in the game, from chopping down trees to tilling soil, will consume some energy. This energy bar will be the biggest dictator of how you live your day to day life in the game. If you wake up and decide you want to spend the day in the mines, you may have to skip some of your daily chores just to ensure you won't pass out in the mines. Sometimes I found myself changing what I was going to do depending on how much energy it took to water all my crops in the morning. While having an energy meter does put a restriction on everything you can do in a day, I actually love the idea, because each day felt more significant when I had to plan around how much energy would be used by a certain task.
Like many indie games in recent years, Stardew Valley goes for a retro 16-bit graphical style. While hearing that might make some people wince, since sometimes having a 16-bit style is more trying to play off nostalgia than anything else, I can assure you that it was the perfect decision to make. Despite being 16-bit, everything looks crisp, clean, and colorful, making it one of the prettiest games I've played this year, ironically enough in this day and age of realistic graphics.
Character interaction is a big part of the game, and it's conveyed in two different ways. The first one is through a character portrait which appears with every text box. There you will get a detailed picture of all the townsfolk and even see them react to what you say, whether it be shock, laughter, or blushing. The second way is through character gestures and movement. Say something surprising and a character might jump in the air. Say something sad and they might get a little storm cloud over their head. Both ways come together to make each character feel alive and realistic.
The music you will encounter throughout the seasons is absolutely wonderful, from a lively tune in the Spring, to the slow, beautiful instrumentals that appears in Winter. Even though you go through 28 days each season, none of the songs got old, and as the second year came on, I even began looking forward to hearing them all over again. Beyond the four main songs dictating the seasons, music is used sparingly, mostly reserved for special events.
The one thing that brought a smile to my face the moment I started playing, were the sound effects. Most sound like they came straight from Harvest Moon 64, even though I'm sure they are all original. To anyone who is a fan of that particular entry, the sound effects in Stardew Valley will give you such a wonderful sense of nostalgia.
As I've stated before, Stardew Valley feels like a true spiritual successor to many beloved Harvest Moon entries. There are many things, however, that the game does much differently than those that came before it. For example, early on in the game you will be given a sword. The sword just isn't for decorative purposes though, you use it to keep yourself alive in the mines. Combat, while simple, plays a big role in the game as it helps you complete quests, collect monster items, and generally helps you descent into the deepest, darkest depths of the mine.
To always give you a sense of progression, your character is able to craft anything on the fly, given they have the right materials. You can craft almost anything, from roads, to fences, to machines. Said machines allow you to create even more goods from the products you grow. One machine will let you turn junk into usable items, while another turns your milk into cheese. Any item you create with these machines give you drastically more money, so it's always a good idea to use them as much as you can.
For a game that's focused around making your farm as profitable as it can be, you will rarely get anywhere with just throwing money around. Resource collection is a huge aspect of the game, and more often than not, it will make the items you craft feel super rewarding. For example, I wanted to create a mayonnaise machine to turn the eggs from my chickens into mayonnaise. The problem was, I needed one more Earth Crystal to craft it. I devoted the entire day to scouring the mines, killing creature after creature, opening ore after ore, until, by dumb chance, I found one. Finding that one crystal, just to make one machine, made the whole experience so much more rewarding than outright buying it. That, is the charm of Stardew Valley.
One of the most impressive things to me about Stardew Valley is just how much content is packed into the game. With all the stuff there is to see and do (some of which I haven't even experienced), you would expect the game was updated a handful of times, but you would be wrong. The base game comes with almost everything available, with one update for end-game stuff like buildings and quests. Even after I had sunk over 30 hours into the game, I was still finding stuff that amazed me. If you are looking for a game to sink a lot of time into, that also constantly offers you new things, Stardew Valley is the game for you.
When I first saw the game in action, I was immediately convinced I would love it. Once I purchased it and started putting dozens of hours into it, I knew that this game was, without hyperbole, perfect for me. For someone who has always loved the Harvest Moon series, Stardew Valley felt like a wonderful homage and an improvement every step of the way. Make no mistake, this game is not for everyone. Some people may find a game about farming and raising livestock boring, and some might be turned off by how the game gives you no direction and you have to plan things out for yourself. But for someone who has found these games peaceful and relaxing from the very start, there is no better game I could recommend than Stardew Valley.