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Game Review: Stardew Valley

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I have a very long history with Harvest Moon – the quintessential farm rpg, so that at this point I pick up each iteration and make a study of how each entry in the series builds off previous games, and how the designer implements the different features that makes each of the games unique. I was intrigued when I saw this game had come out, my friend asked me if I had tried it yet and I knew I couldn’t pass on this game.

The game’s art style gives the first impression that it is modeled off the original SNES title, which while some people may feel that it is the best entry in the series it hasn’t aged well in terms of difficulty and gameplay length. Once the player begins the play experience they quickly learn that while it does feature many things present in the classic harvest moon titles it also takes heavy inspiration from the more modern entries, as well as games like Minecraft or Terraria.

Player feels like they have a lot of freedom — from day 1 I have a lot of choice over what crops to grow and where to spend my time. Harvest Moon utilizes heavy gating in their experiences which makes the game less fun if your playstyle has you trying to rush to unlock different portions of the game. If I want to fish all day that is acceptable, simply having the level up mechanic informs the player that they can build up their experience in a number of ways.

Narrative elements are very well designed the introduction creates a strong narrative for the player character’s beliefs while leaving it open ended enough. Almost each day in the early season the player hits a new bit of narrative which guides them on their way. The NPCs all have busy lives and their dialog changes based on a variety of things, as you get to know them they give additional hints on likes and dislikes. They feel like living people instead of objects I need to interact with to progress in the game.

The most important element that makes the game work well is the amount of tuning that went into the time and player energy systems. This is a core mechanic of farming games, how much can you do in a day, how long the different actions take, how soon until the next season. A typical day takes 10-15 minutes which is the perfect play session, time passes in 10 minute intervals, and pauses when the player brings up a menu, watches tv, or plays the fishing minigame. In Stardew Valley the player can tend a plot of 54 plants and then still has ample time and energy to go fishing, mining or woodcutting and by summer are able to earn enough to get upgrades fairly quickly.

The crafting system also is superior to even what is featured in Story of Seasons, players go to the crafting screen and the crafts they have currently available light up if they have all the appropriate supplies. Players unlock new crafts through leveling up or purchasing them, when they hover over these items they can see what ingredients are needed to build them. This provides the player with soft goals, if they want to build a particular item they need to find the necessary resources.

There are certainly things that could be improved upon, pets and animals are definitely the weakest elements of the game. The pets don’t serve a real purpose, you can click them to make them happy but otherwise they are simply a cosmetic addition to the farm. Animals are more akin to plants than NPCs, you can touch them same as the pets but they cannot be herded, picked up or fed treats. Some of the interfaces are not entirely clear, the construction interface, for example, is fairly different from every other menu so the fact that there are multiple options is a bit obscured.

If you’re someone looking at checking out this genre of game I would definitely recommend Stardew Valley over Story of Seasons (which is the latest version of Harvest Moon, they have lost the rights to the old title.) There is a larger variety of gameplay, the characters are charming and it’s much more affordable than a 3ds title.