I’ve been trying without success to persuade my shooter-loving brethren to dabble in the gratifying soil of farming sims like Harvest Moon and Story of Seasons for years now. The pleasant routine of raising crops and tending to livestock is the perfect palate cleanser for all that action and violence, I’d say, but nobody ever takes me up on it. I mean, I get it; it’s tough to convince a hardcore gamer that cute cows and corn are worth their time, but now I have a secret weapon to win them over to my side: Stardew Valley.
On its surface, Stardew Valley is just like all the other farm-themed games: you leave your dreary life of corporate dronedom to reinvigorate a bucolic property left to you by your grandpa. Raise adorable livestock, plant crops, upgrade your house, chat up the locals, get married, have kids… same old, same old. Stardew Valley also shares another trait with Harvest Moon, which is a shockingly deep metagame. You perhaps didn’t know this, but Harvest Moon players are intense, and if you want to get to the really advanced parts of the game, you have to plan your days down to the last footstep. Sure, you can still play Harvest Moon casually, but all you’ll end up doing is going through a recurring cycle of milking and cooking and sleeping without much reason to keep going except whatever you bring to the table yourself.
Stardew Valley also has far more going on under the hood, but it’s much more accessible and open about it. Weird things happen right in front of you, inviting you to chase them up (or not, if you’re really into cultivating perfect parsnips). A meteor will land smack in the middle of your farm after an explosion in the middle of the night. A witch will transform one of the eggs in your chicken coop into a black and red Void Egg - which you can place in an incubator and hatch. There’s a mutant carp in the sewer. A mouse would like to sell you hats. A book in the library spells out a secret message. Mysteries abound in Stardew Valley, and while some are easier to solve than others, they all make life on the farm that much more interesting.
Because yes, ok, it’s very satisfying to make a ton of money by keeping your goats happy enough to produce the absolute best milk (which you then turn into cheese and age in your basement for Maximum Profits), but it does get to be a bit boringly rote by your second year on the farm. That’s where Harvest Moon typically loses anyone unwilling (or unable) to put in the effort to crack through its charming facade to get at the meaty innards, but Stardew Valley is happy to make that particular door very easy to step through. The game feeds you a steady diet of challenges and objectives, both secret and overt, to give you plenty of things to focus on while you’re waiting for your strawberries to sprout. Many, many things will have your attention at once in Stardew Valley, but none of them are absolutely necessary to chase down, making the experience immensely customizable.
And just when you think you’ve wrung every last drop out of Stardew Valley’s gentle oddness, you’ll befriend someone enough to unlock a cut-scene revealing a bit of their personal life. There is a shocking amount of realness in the Valley’s population; you wouldn’t see the town teacher being embarrassed by her drunk mother in Story of Seasons, that’s for sure. Sneaking deep life lessons into a game with mayonnaise-loving demon spirits would be a bit much for many players, so Stardew Valley wisely keeps the realistic undertones minimal. They’re there, but rather than club you over the head with their importance, they simply flavor the Valley as much as any other aspect of your life there.
I’ve spent about 90 hours in Stardew Valley so far. I’ve rebuilt the community center (with the help of some forest sprites who may also be interdimensional beings), danced with my wife at the Flower Dance, made jam from the fruit trees in my orchard, and bought the lava sword from the Adventurer’s Guild, and despite the many things I've done, I'm still discovering new aspects of the game. If you’ve dabbled in other farm sims and found them boring or believed that you’re too serious a gamer to find a farm sim entertaining, Stardew Valley is here to change your mind. It’s the farming sim for shooter fans, keeping you engaged, constantly giving you new (oftentimes weird) things to think about or do. So many games stuff themselves with activities or stuff to collect in the mistaken belief that more immediately equates to better (hey, hi, Assassin’s Creed, how you doin?), but in Stardew Valley, you’re spoiled for choice because let’s be honest - how many heads of cauliflower do you really feel like watering? Answer: it’s a trick question - learn how to build sprinklers so you don’t have to.
Stardew Valley is available on PS4, Xbox One and PC