There’s something oddly addictive about farming games. From the massive success of Farmville, through the realism of the Farming Simulator series, to the classic Harvest Moon series, we all know someone who’s been slightly obsessed with farming. For me, it was the Harvest Moon series that first got me into farming sims. Something about setting out to clear out your farm, setting up your crops the way you want, and the ability to befriend townsfolk is strangely calming. There’s a good amount of time and stamina management involved in these games, but the great thing is that there’s no wrong way of playing. If you don’t plant heaps of crops and make heaps of money, it doesn’t really matter; there’s always other ways of making money, and progression is purely at your own pace. When I saw Stardew Valley hit the Steam store, there was something very familiar about it. It appeared to be a tribute to the Harvest Moon series, with all the things fans from the series have come to know and love intact.
If you’ve never played a Harvest Moon game before, then Stardew Valley is going to seem kind of weird. There is a loose story – you’ve inherited a farm and it’s up to you to get it up and running. The farm is overgrown with trees, shrubs, and rocks everywhere. You’re given a basic set of tools and some basic instructions, and it’s up to you to figure it out from there. For my first few in-game weeks, I just set about clearing my farm and growing crops, which was fine, but I was missing out on so much. For example, if you watch TV every morning you can learn some recipes, which come in helpful a bit later on. From another channel, you can also get some tips about what else you could be doing. I also did a bit of wandering around and ran into a nice man who gave me a fishing pole, a giant rock that was blocking the way, and a few areas that looked like they had broken bridges. Some of these areas still remain a mystery after a year (in game, of course), but other mysteries reveal themselves as time goes by.
Stardew Valley is one of those rare games that does little-to-no hand holding. There is a quest system that typically consists of people asking you to bring them things for monetary rewards. I must admit that I haven’t really looked into the quest system too much as it hasn’t interested me, and as far as I can tell, it hasn’t had much of an effect on my game so far. One thing that does have an effect, however, which I totally glazed over and got into it a little late, is the community centre. From what I can tell, there are two ways to tackle the community centre. One is to take the town’s side and help fix it up, the other is to take the side of the giant corporation (Joja Corporation) and turn it into a warehouse. It would appear that the community centre is at the centre of the story, and I’m around halfway through restoring it. Each section usually has 5 steps to restoring it and each step gives you a small reward (usually an item), and each section gives a larger reward, like repairing a bridge to a new area. I find this system great, as it gives me reason to keep at it – I feel like most things I do are contributing somehow to restoring the community centre, and some of the rewards have been really useful.
One thing that sets Stardew Valley from the Harvest Moon series is an RPG-like sense of progression. Nearly every action counts towards one of five sections; Farming, Foraging, Fishing, Mining, and Combat. Every level you gain in a skill will increase your proficiency with the associated tools and give you access to different crafting recipes. These recipes are your key to successful farming, and opens up things like scarecrows that keep the birds away from your crops, and sprinklers that do your watering for you. If you’re lazy like me, then sprinklers are a must!
If I had my time again, I would do things slightly different. I went pretty hard on mining early on and while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it takes a lot of time and energy away from other tasks. When I eventually got around to winter, I thought it was the perfect time for mining, but by that stage, I’d already reached the bottom and I ended up spending much of my winter being unproductive. Having said that, the mechanics of the mine are a good balance of risk versus reward. You spend a lot of time smashing rocks while looking for the ladder to the floor below. Every 5 levels, there’s an elevator that acts as a checkpoint, and every 10 levels has a chest with a reward. The catch is that if you die, you lose not only money and some of the items you’re carrying, but you also get set back 10 floors. This means that you have to balance pressing on to get to a checkpoint floor against hightailing it out of there to fight another day. I spent too much time regaining levels in the mines, as I got greedy – pushing to get to the bottom floor.
Overall, I’m finding that I’m immensely enjoying my time in Stardew Valley – from figuring out what the most efficient farm layout is, to trying to fulfil the bundles in the community centre. There’s something addictive and charming about the way the game makes you go about what would normally be mundane tasks. Every time I think I’ll just log in for half an hour or so, I find myself totally losing track of time and spending hours tending to my farm. This is by far the greatest hidden gem of 2016, and the developer is constantly updating Stardew Valley with tweaks and new features. Do yourself a favour and give this title a chance. Odds are you might enjoy it more than you think.