Stardew Valley is a happy game.
Coming from solo developer Eric Barone (aka ConcernedApe), Stardew Valley is a cute retro styled farm simulator game in the same vein as Harvest Moon. While the game stands as an homage to the popular Nintendo series, this game pulls together a wide array of systems and influences from a bunch of other games; comparisons can be made with Rune Factory, Minecraft, Animal Crossing and more. What results is a delightful, pleasant experience with an insane amount of content - all of which is a joy to engage with.
Having never been into any sort of farming game in my life, I came into Stardew Valley not entirely expecting to like the game - though, like many others, had my interest piqued by the constant buzz surrounding the little indie title. Two particular notions pushed me over the edge into buying this game: one, I was hearing a lot of talk from people who aren't typically into this genre loving it; and two, that pirates of the game would download it, start playing it, then immediately go buy it simply to support the developer (some even going so far as buying the game multiple times just to gift it to others so they could experience it). I figured this was a game I would at least want to understand fundamentally - plus, the US$15 price tag meant it wouldn't break the bank. I've definitely spent a lot more on worse.
I'll set the scene for you: it was Friday night, 9pm, and I'd spent the day not really doing much of significance. I was a little down on the changes that had been made to Pillars of Eternity in the 3.0 patch (a whole other story) so I was tossing up whether I would just call it a night and go to bed or sit up for a little while longer and play something else. Stardew Valley was sitting there, installed, ready to boot up.
By Monday night, my in game clock told me I had spent 47 hours playing Stardew Valley.
The game opens up with a short cut-scene featuring your grandpa handing you a letter on his deathbed, with the request that you only open it after the fast pace of city life has crushed your soul. As you sit at your desk job tearing your hair out, you finally open the letter to find that your grandpa has left you the deed to his farm in Stardew Valley, a place for you to escape to when you've simply had enough - something I think we all relate to.
Playing Stardew Valley is a comfortable and relaxing experience. The game follows a timer - you wake up at 6am with the rest of the day open to spend it however you wish. You have an energy meter that is slowly depleted as you take actions in the game, such as watering plants or chopping down trees. You initially start off with a few tools, a run-down shack, an overgrown farm and a small amount of money with which to start building your dream farm. A few townsfolk will be your major port of call for the initial days - Mayor Lewis will introduce you to important places; Robin will upgrade your house and build new buildings; Marnie can provide you with farm animals; and most importantly, Pierre will sell you seeds at his general store.
Aside from farming, Stardew Valley consists of a ton of other activities for you to engage in. The adventurers guild will send you spiraling down the depths of the local mine to fight monsters and gather ore; Gunther will hand you a fishing rod and teach you the art of Stardew Valley fishing; the townsfolk all have their own lives to lead, which you can engage with and who you can become friends with over time (or maybe even marry one day). All of these systems weave together to form the crux of the loose focus of the game: the community center.
The community center is the centerpiece of the major conflict in Stardew Valley. Without going to in depth on it, on one side the center is a place for you to package up bundles of items from the valley - from fruits to animal products to fish to ore - which reward you at various stages with items or even the opening up of a new area. On the other side, the big corporation in town - Joja Mart - wishes to purchase the community center to use as a warehouse, which will happen if you become a Joja Mart member. In the case that this happens, you can simply buy all the upgrades with cold hard cash.
The beauty of it all is that while the community center gives you a base set of goals to go after, you never need to do any of it. Stardew Valley gives you the freedom to play the game in any capacity you wish. Don't like the fishing minigame? That's fine. Just want to sit back, relax and build your own little farm with chickens and corn? That's cool. Want to go whole hog and dig into every facet of the game, discovering it's insanely in depth secrets over the course of 100+ hours? Sure! You don't even have to farm if you really don't want to.
As I dug deeper and deeper into Stardew Valley, I came to love every aspect of the game for what it was offering. After my first in game year came to an end, it hit me that I'd actually been playing the game in a reflection of how I am in real life - focusing much more on enjoying my own time to myself without really spending much time with the residents of the valley, with my only real in game friends being a homeless man, a wizard and a lady artist who lived by the river. This prompted me to want to interact a bit more with the various inhabitants of the town, which in turn lead to discovering a surprising depth and nuance to every single character in this humble little town. This, combined with the events held in town sprinkled throughout each season, caused me to grow more attached to this lovable cast than I was expecting to.
As I come up on my 90th hour in game, having restored the community center, gotten married and created the farm of my dreams, I realize I'm not even close to actually being finished with Stardew Valley. Though I have "finished" the game, it has a simple, relaxing and intriguing draw to it that compels me to want to keep playing, trying out new things, exploring the limits of what is possible within the playground that has been presented to me - which is more than I can say for a lot of other games. Stardew Valley manages to catch that magic of imagination for me that I used to have with old school N64 titles - a drive to dive deeper, to learn every intricate system thoroughly, to see how I can toy with it's systems. Not since playing Runescape in my teens have I had a this kind of desire to learn by heart the crafting recipes, the fishing spots, the drop tables of enemies.
If you are looking for a game to just sit back and enjoy - or if you're looking for something hardcore to sink your teeth into - Stardew Valley comes with everything you could possibly want, and much, much more.