Stardew Valley's logo over a pixelated landscape background. Image from Stardew Valley's website.

Above and Beyond "Harvest Moon But Better," Stardew Valley is a Must-Play

by Jillian Caulfield, posted May 20, 2017

Stardew Valley has done incredibly well for a one-man indie game. Within two months of launch, the country-life RPG sold an estimated million copies, and earned more money on Steam than Call of Duty in 2016. It has "overwhelmingly positive" feedback on Steam, with 97% of its almost user 47,000 reviews recommending the title. Positive reception aside, it's also taken up a lot of people's time -- according to SteamSpy, the average amount of time players have put into Stardew seems to be around 48 hours (though the data may be skewed), and I myself have put in over 90 hours -- that's almost four days I've dedicated to a game I've owned less than five months.

Is it really that good? Is Stardew Valley really good enough to outsell massive franchises like Call of Duty, take up almost four days of my life, and earn all the loud, boisterous acclaim it's gotten since release? The answer to these questions is a resounding yes. Stardew is just plain excellent in every way.

A farmer looks over their Stardew Valley land. Image from the Stardew website.

The easiest way to understand Stardew's appeal is to understand that it taps into what makes Harvest Moon (now known as Story of Seasons) great: farm chores become fun and rewarding; players can enjoy friendship, romance, and the joys of starting a family; there's a laid-back atmosphere and quirky charm that make it about more than just making a profit. But Stardew learns from Harvest Moon, making it a smoother, deeper, and more relevant experience.As Jake Yamik puts it, "Stardew Valley is everything I had always wished Harvest Moon would be when I was growing up with it." Even Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada agrees that Stardew Valley carries on the Harvest Moon legacy, but "has become powered up and it has gotten even better."

Because it's improved upon the Harvest Moon formula so much, Stardew also appeals to and draws in players that previously had no interest in Harvest Moon or games of its ilk. This is apparent whether you're reading one-off tweets, Steam reviews, or even reviews written for big-name game journalism sites, like Dan Ryckert's review for Giant Bomb:

[Stardew Valley] was almost always mentioned in the same breath as [Harvest Moon]. As a result, I didn’t expect it to be up my alley ... I’d surely put a few hours into it at the office, record our Quick Look, and move on to the next game. That was weeks ago. Today, my in-game clock is nearing 70 hours and [Stardew Valley] is easily my favorite game of 2016 thus far. Even without tapping into any [Harvest Moon] nostalgia, it’s managed to pull me in and consume virtually all of my free time since I first installed it.

One of the biggest ways Stardew has improved upon the Harvest Moon formula and appealed to more players than any Harvest Moon game would is that it is consistently rewarding and doesn't find a way to become boring. It's certainly a challenge at first -- figuring out how to tame the wild plot of land that is your farm and settling into your new life in an unfamiliar area seems daunting. But even then it is rewarding, and the challenge of it all draws you in without becoming too overwhelming to continue. As you begin to streamline your farm life, you realize there are plenty of other elements of the game to turn to, allowing you to drop any aspects of the game you're not a huge fan of (including farming) and focus on whatever tickles your fancy, and your proficiency in these areas and the rewards of pursuing them increase the longer you're at it. The possibilities are endless, and you can pick your own pace! You can become a master gardener, raise and befriend dozens of animals, explore the countryside while foraging, do favors for the townsfolk, fish, delve into the local caves to mine and battle enemies, go to festivals, play minigames, maybe even get married...

On the topic of romance, it's true that relationships in Stardew are a huge step up from Harvest Moon, and help immerse you in the game's world even further. Characters start out flat, foreign strangers, but as you speak to them more, they warm up to you, show off their genuine and unique personalities, and can eventually become your best friend or even your spouse. Interactions and the way relationships progress feel organic and sincere.

The authentic small town feel of Pelican Town compounds this sincerity further. Stardew really encapsulates that pleasant almost-isolation, that sense of a vague wider world that doesn't quite reach in, that makes small towns so special. As a result, there's a focus on the community and preserving it, making relationships and fixing up the decrepit community center (the closest the game has to a main quest) feel even more important and rewarding.

A completed section of Stardew's community center.
A completed community center is worth the effort. Look at that happy little forest spirit! Image from Jillian Caulfield.

There's also none of the more notoriously bad aspects of small towns to pull you out of your comfort and enjoyment of the game -- there's no overbearing and judgmental church, no gossip, no racism, no homophobia. In fact, Pelican Town seems fairly progressive for a small town. Stardew could probably use a little more racial diversity, but it does feature a few characters of color and an interracial couple, and none of the other (white) townsfolk seem to treat them poorly. The PoC in Stardew are also all portrayed as kind and very intelligent, rather than mean, dangerous, or unintelligent as other media so often unfairly portrays PoC.

My personal favorite aspect of Stardew's progressive setting is the ability to marry someone of the same gender. All 12 marriage candidates can be married be the player regardless of the gender they select to play as, and the relationships are never met with hostility or awkward comments from straight characters trying to be good allies but not knowing how. There's only happiness for same-gender relationships in Pelican Town, and it's very blatantly an acceptable, comfortable, and available option in-game. While it feels like a minor detail in the game, same-gender marriage is a huge plus. It helps LGBT players enjoy and stay immersed in the game without being pulled out of the experience by homophobia, and brings some inclusivity into an industry not always welcoming to LGBT people.

Beyond how rewarding Stardew Valley is and how organic, comfortable and generally good its setting and community feel, there are a number of extra touches that make it that much more delightful. The controls are smooth, and can be changed to be made more accessible if needed. Menus are simple, clean, and usable. Everything in the game, even its characters, follow schedules and cycles. There are quirky, charming events and little silly secrets (reminiscent, once again, of its Harvest Moon roots) sprinkled across its world, the pleasant, curious expanses of which look stunning in its absolutely lovely art style. My favorite touch is the music and sound design; Stardew Valley is a delight to play with headphones, with its mix of perfect sound effects, wonderful tracks, and stretches of music-free peace and quiet. This blend of sound and lack thereof amplifies the pleasant countryside vibes of the game, setting the player at ease and drawing them into the game further.

Talking about everything that makes Stardew Valley good bit by bit doesn't really tell the whole story, though -- every little bit and piece works together to make Stardew a heart-warming, personal experience full of wonder that you can't fully capture when you break it down into paragraphs. There isn't anything I would change about this game -- the only real flaw is that you might stay up later playing it than you initially intended. It's only $15, too; if you can spare the cash, I wholeheartedly encourage you to pick up this charming indie. It's a game you have to play yourself to understand, and I guarantee you'll fall in love with it.

Characters from Stardew Valley standing together on the game's dock.
Stardew Valley is just so relaxing. Image by Jillian Caulfield.