LAN Mob Game Review - Stardew Valley

Every once in a while a game comes along that directly effects how I examine the gaming medium boundaries. As a kid, JRPGs like Breath of Fire 4, Final Fantasy Tactics and Suikoden 2 proved to me that gaming has the capacity to craft narratives unlike any other style of writing I've ever seen. Games like Street Fighter, Smash Bros and League of Legends have shined a really social and competitive light on this culture for me, while a game like The Witcher 3 stands out as a golden example of immersion. Enter Stardew Valley, a 16 bit indie "farm simulator" game developed by one guy, Eric Barrone, and published by Chucklefish games. You've probably heard of this game before, as it has become wildly successful, pulling consistent good reviews and positive media attention. Stardew Valley originally released back in 2016, but I just recently started playing it, and boy am I glad I did. Stardew Valley has the capacity to fill players with a sense of accomplishment every single day, while making the work they put in a pleasant and relaxing experience. It helped me relearn that, as a medium, video games are still very capable of being a relaxing escape.

Currently Stardew Valley is available on Steam, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 for a mere $15-$20

Stardew Valley is an insanely difficult game to categorize. Most would say Stardew Valley is a "farming sim", akin to "Harvest Moon", which is unsurprisingly one of Eric Barrone's major inspirations. When I was on the fence about starting the game up, I asked a few fans about what made it so great. I was coming into the game about a year and a half after release, and I felt like I really missed out on something. Most responses were, "It's very relaxing.", which is probably the best two word description available. However, despite the unrivaled peace, Stardew Valley can easily make you feel constantly challenged and keep you frantically busy. You can get into farming, fishing, foraging, cooking, mining, fighting monsters and even building relationships with the fellow community members of Pelican Town. You can also do none of these things! Or some of them! There's a whole lot of stuff to do in the charming and rural Pelican Town and letting players discover and dive in to whatever tickles their fancy is one of Stardew Valley's massive strengths. You're trusted to make your life doing whatever you want, but it will suggest things from time to time to help you not be poor! I currently have some decent crops, and a handful of chickens, but I'm making my living in Stardew Valley doing what I love best...FISHING.

It begins.

After creating your avatar, Stardew Valley opens up with a really sudden and emotional scene of your grandpa dying in bed. He hands you an envelope, but tells you not to open it just yet. He states that there will come a day where the modern world will become too stressful, and to open the envelope than. Fast forward "XX" years later, your avatar is sitting in a crappy corporate job, looking all oppressed and what not and decides to open the envelope. Inside is a letter from your grandpa, with a deed to his old farm, a place that saved him when he "lost sight to what is matters most in life...real connections with other people and nature." This scene was pretty well written and really sets the stage for why your avatar is here, which is also parallel to one of the strongest themes that Stardew Valley drives home - the value of disconnecting from the modern day nonsense stress. The game's narrative continues with multiple themes addressing capitalism and the hustle and bustle of modern life as you meet and interact with the townspeople of Pelican Town. I was really surprised for the narrative to be so heavy right off the bat, but it certainly lightens up as you continue to socialize with the townspeople. Each neighbor has a very distinct personality, and it's pretty easy to start to memorize their names and personalities. You can choose to give gifts to the people of Pelican Town to become their friends (capitalism, ho!) and unlock more narrative with them. You can also find love with the same system, and even get married! I have to admit, the social system doesn't feel as gentle as the rest of the game. It feels pretty awkward to run around the village grinding away at tasks and gift giving to get people to like you. It almost feels like a counter to the themes in place. Some NPCs are struggling with some very real problems like PTSD, homelessness and depression. Sometimes after a conversation with an NPC I can't help but think, "Welp...I'm going back to farming now."

RIP Gramps

Gameplay starts off really simply, as you are introduced to life in Pelican Town. The farm is really unkempt, as is Pelican Town in general, and you can help! Players get started by cleaning up the very messy farm and deciding what to do from there. Farming itself is pretty simple, you just prep the earth with a hoe, lay some fertilizer if you wish, and plop the seed in the ground. As time passes (the interval is about 10 in game minutes per 7 seconds) and the sun sets and rises, more and more parts of Pelican Town become available. Eventually a simple day of waking up and watering your crops can turn into a tightly packed schedule of watering entire fields, making sure all your livestock is fed, fulfilling requests for the townspeople, or going to the nearby mines and wrecking some monsters. It's up to you how busy you want to be! Most of these activities are extremely simple to pull off, just a button press or two, but some systems can be a bit vague. It took me a while to figure out how to use the resources at my disposal to earn money and improve my farm, but eventually I did and it was extremely satisfying. Outside of fishing a lot, I basically just make a ton of mayonnaise and jelly. It's a simple life.

My first autumn on the farm. This was right before I found out you can slingshot eggs at people.

It's important to note, Barrone stated in many interviews that the "goal" of Stardew Valley is not to just make money. It sounds strange, but Barrone's game is certainly capable of keeping you motivated beyond money, but rather using improvement as a main motivation. The better you get and the various ways of life in Stardew Valley the more capable you are of making your daily activities come full circle. If you sell X crop you can raise enough money for a bigger barn and a few more cows which will produce milk that I can cook with some fish and bring a good meal down in the mines so I can get some iron ore and make sprinklers that make watering crops easier and....well everything is fully connected. This is not unlike games like Terraria and Minecraft, where you can utilize a lot of what the game world gives you in tandem to create better things, but the very specific and unique atmosphere and theme of Stardew Valley makes the experience much more personal. 

I keep mentioning the atmosphere, which is so excellent thanks to all the pieces working in tandem. The 16 bit art style not only drives home a potent sense of nostalgia, it also helps tie in with the game's theme of simplicity. Each season feels distinctly unique and even the weather effects are fantastic. This is all tied together with one of the greatest OSTs I've ever had the pleasure to own, which was also composed by Barrone.

Ultimately, Stardew Valley completely surprised me. There are some flaws; mainly the awkward social system. It's also clear that some players may not want to invest time in certain activities, with one of the most polarizing activities being fishing, ironically enough. Some may say the game's systems and lack of tutorials are a bit of a flaw, but I didn't mind too much. Even when my chickens were starving because I couldn't figure out how to feed them...Minor gripes aside, Stardew Valley is a small masterly crafted game that drives home some really important themes in some really great ways, while still presenting challenging and fun in-game physical challenges disguised as mundane tasks. The major themes of allowing capitalism to take over your life and how important it is to truly connect with your work and the people around you help shape this "RPG farming sim" into not only a fun game, but a pretty genuine experience. Spending time in the world of Stardew Valley is borderline therapeutic, especially when you find your stride.
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