I can’t lie, I’m an absolute sucker for casual time-wasting games. Like so many others, I was absolutely captivated by Harvest Moon in my younger days, despite how tedious a game about farming might have sounded. I found out about Stardew Valley at an eerily fortuitous time, when I wanted to play Harvest Moon but, for a few reasons, just couldn’t get into it in the same way anymore. Not a week later, I stumbled upon a Let’s Play of Stardew Valley, a game that seemed to offer everything that I'd wanted out of Harvest Moon. I immediately bought it and I was not disappointed.
I can’t in good conscience say that Harvest Moon is a bad game, but like everything, it has its shortcomings. The same can be said about Stardew Valley, but it gets so many things so brilliantly right that its shortcomings can be pretty easily glossed over. The pixel-art graphics are both charming and beautiful, the characters are endearing and realistic, and there never seems to be a shortage of things to do. In Harvest Moon I never could make it more than about a year and a half before giving up and moving on – in Stardew Valley I’ve made it as far as three years (before I started again, because I have a bad habit of starting a game fifty times over before finishing it). Overall I’ve clocked about 280 hours on this brilliantly simple little game, and I’m nowhere near done with it yet.
If I stopped playing, who would pat my ducks??
One of the biggest things that disappointed me about Harvest Moon was the romance aspect (yes, I’m a huge sucker for dating sims, let me live). While the version that I played (Friends of Mineral Town) had an alternative, female-led game (More Friends of Mineral Town) that was identical save for who you could romance, neither of them appealed to me in that particular regard for the pure and simple reason that it was all heterosexual romance. I wasn’t exactly surprised by that, but it was always a little disappointing. Stardew Valley extravagantly throws any trace of heteronormativity out the window – all 6 eligible bachelors and bachelorettes can be romanced by either gender, and I am dead set on playing a separate game for each and every one of them. (With the possible exception of Elliot. He weirds me out. Maybe his hair is just too glorious.) What’s even better than the blatant disregard for heteronormativity is the attention that these characters get to their stories – get to know Shane, the surly, antisocial retail drone, and you’ll probably end up in tears as your relationship with him progresses. I did, at least. The stories of the characters range from silly little things, like developing new hobbies or teaching goats to talk, to heavy themes such as abuse, alcoholism, bad relationships, and depression. That’s a hell of a lot of depth for a game whose primary focus is making you water virtual vegetables.
[weeping] love me!!
A big part of what makes Stardew Valley so much more enjoyable than its spiritual predecessor is the variety that it offers. Your character is fully customisable rather than pre-determined and unchanging, you can choose whether you’d rather a dog or a cat, and the farm’s layout offers a lot more of interest – such as your dead grandfather’s shrine, which honestly terrified me when I first found it. I’m not sure why. I guess I’m a little jumpy. The animals vary, too, not only in the range of animals that you can get (ducks, rabbits, goats, pigs, and even dinosaurs add more to the game on top of the classic cows, sheep, and chickens that Harvest Moon offered) but also individually – the cows and chickens can be different colours, which is a very small, simple change, but one that somehow makes an enormous difference. With the latest update, you can even choose different layouts for your farm - you can have a farm in the mountains, in the forest, even in the middle of a river, if you're particularly fond of fishing. Even the foraging is more interesting – in Harvest Moon, at least in Friends of Mineral Town, the items that you could forage for a bit of extra cash were fixed, always spawning in the same place. Stardew Valley makes you damn well hunt for those items, so that you appreciate them all the more. This can be a little frustrating at times, especially when all you need to complete your winter foraging bundle is a snow yam and all you’re digging up is clay. I could probably build a whole house out of the clay I dug up trying to find one of those evasive little bastards.
The beautifully dilapidated Community Centre
That brings me to yet another aspect of Stardew Valley that makes it so interesting – the Community Centre, which offers a wide array of bundles for you to complete in order to open up new areas or activate new features. Of course, you could always go the commercial route and get the
evil corporation JojaMart to take your money instead, if you’re a monster you don’t have the patience to present the Junimos, benevolent little forest spirits that have taken up residence in the Community Centre, with every little item on their collective wish list. I’ve personally never gone that route, simply because it doesn’t fit the narrative for me, but I’m sure it’s easier than trying to keep track of what groceries you have and haven’t collected for the Junimos. Either way, it keeps you busy and gives you something to work towards, which is one thing that Harvest Moon never really seemed to offer.
While Stardew Valley mostly took everything that Harvest Moon did and did it better, it also added an element that Harvest Moon never had – that of combat. Mining in Harvest Moon could be a pretty tedious matter, but mining in Stardew Valley has had me rage quit a few times, because, well… monsters. They range in threat from cute little green slimes that nibble on your toes to skeletons that throw bones at you to unsettling little pink balls that hover in one place, staring at you while they vomit deadly fireballs in your direction – and that’s just in the standard mine. Once you reach the bottom of that mine, you get the chance to enter the desert mine, which is a whole new set of challenges. (If anyone can tell me where to get a better weapon than a Lava Katana, dear god please tell me so, I’m dying. Literally.)
Just whoopin' some void spirit butt
As much as I’d love to continue singing Stardew Valley’s praises from the rooftops, there are a couple of little faults I’ve found with the game, though they’re not really anything completely unforgivable. First and foremost, I miss the harvest sprites. Having those tiny little nerd idiots come over and help you Be a Farmer left a lot of time to do other things. For someone like me, who insists on pushing my poor, only-human farmer to the absolute limit of their physical boundaries, simply watering my crops and seeing to my animals can take up most of the day. Thankfully, though, certain elements exist to make balancing work and play easier. If you’re busy for most of the day and you find yourself locked out of your friends’ houses, you can usually find them hanging out in the Saloon after dark, which makes plying them with weird little gifts that much easier. Once you unlock the mine cars, travelling around between your farm, the town, and the mines is a lot quicker. And if you find you’re running out of energy too fast and you haven’t yet upgraded your house to get a kitchen, you can take a walk up into the mountains and have a soak in the bath house to regain your energy.
As far as representation goes, the effort is certainly there, and while I do appreciate the ability to romance whoever you damn well please, in a town of about thirty people, only two of them aren’t white, and they’re related. Even if your farmer isn’t white that only bumps the count up to three. So that could probably use some work. The only other nitpicky little things I have to criticise are the occasional bugs that crop up – for example, I was quite happily playing my game one night, and when I went to play it again the next morning, it suddenly wouldn’t open. That being said, all I had to do was email ConcernedApe with my problem (after exhausting every fix solution I could find on the web, to no avail), and I received a reply the next day with a suggestion that fixed it immediately. For a pretty popular game that was created and is run by one person, that is some impressive customer service.
All in all, if you like to play a game that just allows you to unwind and not think too much, Stardew Valley is well worth trying out. I’m the first to admit that I can be pretty picky with games, but I cannot get enough of this simple, gorgeous little game, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Get out there and give it a go!
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