Stardew Valley is a country-life RPG, released in February 2016 by developer ConcernedApe (Eric Barone).
A quick warning – this review is not spoiler-free – I’m going to go in-depth with the plot, and various characters’ storylines.
Stardew Valley is the mature, invigorated descendent of the Harvest Moon series, adding to the genre’s tranquil rural life with humour and better storytelling.
The game truly gets going as the PC becomes fed-up with life stuck in a cubicle with Joja Corporation, and leaves city life for a quieter time in Pelican Town, a small rural community that is threatened by Joja Corp’s cut-throat prices. Your PC starts to farm and becomes slowly integrated with the community.
The end-goal of the game is to repair Pelican Town, a place that has become decrepit essentially because nobody was there to fix it. The few businesses in town are struggling to stay afloat, and this isn’t helped by JojaMart’s ruthless business tactics that will soon squeeze out the few stores in town.
You then have a choice – either rebuild the broken community with the help of Juminos – little forest sprites that promise to help you in return for ‘bundles’ of farm goods, and foraged plants.
On the other hand…you can basically kowtow to the company that made you leave the city in the first place. This route requires a money-driven route that goes against your PC’s purpose in the first place.
This confusing route goes against everything the player character wanted to escape, but may be interesting for the completionist. (see if this can be added to point on mudded purpose)
As I noted above, expect gameplay to echo that of Harvest Moon.You can still mine, fight monsters, chop lumber, farm, forage, care for your animals, and fish. One personal quibble was the difficulty of the fishing mini-game – luckily there’s a mod for that.
The friendship system is also fairly similar, using points, and colour-coded numbers of hearts. Raising your friendship level may trigger a cut-scene, unlock new dialogue, or encourage that villager to start sending you mail. You can unlock a love interest’s cut-scene every 2 hearts. The love interests may be romanced and married by both of the game’s two available genders – did I already tell you about my beautiful wife?
Unlike in many RPGs, character customisability is robustly diverse, featuring 24 skintones. You get to choose your favourite thing, whether you prefer cats or dogs, your clothes, and most interestingly your farm map. Each map favours a different skill – farming, fishing, foraging, or combat.
It is possible to customise your character in game, as long as you jump through some Wizard-style friendship hoops.
The game’s pixel art is beautiful and detailed – a fact which often shines through with character portraits with some notable exceptions – looking at you, Sam!
In some cases the pixel art is heavily oversaturated, as in the bright yellow soil. While this does contribute to Pelican Town’s warm, welcoming atmosphere, it’s also a bit of an eyesore.
The game’s anti-corporate, environmentalist message gets muddied by some aspects of the game that stay the same after the Community Centre ending. If your PC passes out, the Joja Corporation will still collect you, and deposit their hefty check despite having been kicked out of Pelican Town. JojaCorp’s waste continues polluting the rivers. Although Shane loses his job as the Mart shuts down, we don’t find out how this affects him.
As a result, the game’s goal feels somehow cheapened and pointless. While in theory Pelican Town is free from JojaCorps, ConcernedApe doesn’t demonstrate how life has changed beyond the nominal rebuilding of the Community Centre. While this may be realistic (one town resisting a major corporation won’t end its economic power), it also feels disappointing.
For me, what set this game apart from its predecessors was Pelican Town’s lively population.
The NPCs largely have enough depth and variety to keep me interested in the game as I explore their storylines. Even amongst the non-romanceable characters, there is drama and intrigue. Truffle oil, anyone?
Stardew Valley succeeds in making real-world issues salient in a genre that has typically been geared towards children. For example, ConcernedApe makes a point to demonstrate the effect of Pam’s alcohol abuse on herself and the people around her. Penny’s sadness about her mother’s alcoholism, and worse, her mother’s denial of the fact, explains her subdued character. We rarely see her inside her home, a small trailer strewn with Pam’s mess and surrounded by her bottles. Penny becomes her mother’s caretaker, and tries to keep their home in neat condition – a Sisyphean task thanks to Pam.
Penny and Pam are also notable for being the two characters in the Town that live in relative poverty. While Penny tutors the town’s two children, it’s not clear whether she earns much money for this task. Ironically, she seems to be dependent upon her mother’s job driving the bus to Calico Desert. In spite of Penny’s hopes that Pam getting her old job back will allow her to save some money, the majority of Pam’s paycheck goes towards the local bar, where she runs a large tab.
Another aspect of the game I don’t enjoy, but is realistic, is that there is no real way to help Penny or a storyline that indicates Pam is going to start dealing with her alcoholism. The only way to decrease Penny’s dependency upon her mother is to marry her, which allows her to move out of her childhood home and leads to her new job at the museum. Perhaps other children of alcoholic parents may relate to Penny’s situation.
However, it is disappointing to see that only the love interests receive this much backstory. As noted above, these are the only NPCs that get a cut-scene every 2 hearts, as well as significant insight into their characters and backgrounds.
Leah deals with a controlling ex, Shane grapples with depression, Alex attempts to heal from an abusive father and the death of his mother, and Maru and Sebastian deal with their growing divide.
These are just some of the key points that make these characters real. ConcernedApe dissects the ideal of a peaceful countrylife, and the player gets drawn in by the concerns of these villagers.
But I think the game sorely misses this attention to detail that the majority of characters just don’t have.
Some characters become quite flat by comparison – Evelyn, Marnie, Gus, Clint, Pierre, Caroline, Willy, Jodi, Vincent…these are just some of the few that are easy to look over thanks to their shallow storylines.
Other townsfolk have absolutely no character development at all. Indeed, their very reason for being in Pelican Town is unclear asides from the function that they serve. Gil, Gunther, the Dwarf, Kronos and Marlon come to mind. While you could argue that some of these characters are absolute outsiders to townlife, with others I cannot see the reason for making them so devoid of any personality or interaction with other villagers.
A final point is Pelican Town’s whiteness – there are only two people of colour in the entire area. In a fictional world, would it have been such a stretch to include more Black, Asian, Latinx, and indigenous characters? I’ve seen some mods on Nexus mods that will make various characters Black, or Latinx, but it is disappointing that ConcernedApe didn’t go all the way with the diversity shown in character creation.
I don’t want to completely knock the characters, and will freely admit that they are all interesting, and unique. But there is no reward to getting to know these NPCs better asides from the recipes they might send you in the post.
My last major sticking point with Stardew Valley is the feeling of incompleteness. While day-in-day-out monotony is part of the countrylife genre, I can’t enjoy playing the game as I once did after exhausting the available character arcs. Even after completing them, there isn’t a significant amount of concrete change.
For example, Lewis and Marnie’s covert relationship is never resolved in any significant way. Sebastian’s antagonistic relationship with his step-father remains tense. Clint never builds up the courage to confess his feelings to Emily. Haley and Emily’s parents continue globetrotting. Linus continues to be shunned by other townsfolk. We never even see Gil get out of his damn rocking chair.
But how much more?
After finishing the main story and character arcs, there really isn’t much left to the game asides from grinding. This would be fine if I was a completionist, but I can’t stand the idea of spending all my time rooting around in the mines just to get a monster slayer achievement.
Stardew Valley is stuck in rural purgatory, and this lack of resolution fails to do justice to the characters’ arcs.
Personally, I would recommend Stardew Valley. It gave me several hours of fun and I definitely got really into the game. However, it does peter out by the first few years (perhaps a new DLC could help with this).