Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Stardew Valley - Thoughts

Throughout gaming's turbulent times, an important outlook to keep is that things don't necessarily get worse as much as they simply change. Old franchises die while new ones flourish, and whenever big-budget games grow stale there's always a new idea found just around the corner. The market evolves as its consumers shift, learn, and grow; though the future of the medium may not resemble the past, it learns from its bygone lessons in order to survive. It's undoubtedly tragic and heartbreaking to say goodbye to an era of gaming you greatly enjoyed, but as long as you know where to look you can spot the fulgent rays of another great title in the making, glittering with the greatness you once knew... well, assuming you're not a stubborn fuddy-duddy.

This ostentatious intro may seem like an odd way to introduce Stardew Valley, but it's part of an ongoing trend of Japanese-inspired, Western-made indie games that prove my point. Out of Mega Man's ashes rose Shovel Knight, from the tomb of Earthbound emerged Undertale, and now from the shell of Harvest Moon hatches Stardew Valley. I suppose the catch here is that Harvest Moon isn't necessarily dead yet, but its once cherished presence has now shrunken into obscurity (did you know there was a mobile game of it released this year?), so ConcernedApe rightfully deserves praise for resurrecting the passion for pixelated farming. It's a warm and fuzzy game that caters to obsessive min-maxers and young minds alike, offering you the chance to become a local resident in a fantastic (and mysterious!) land.

Those familiar with Victor Interactive's farming sim will feel right at home in the rolling hills of Stardew Valley. There's a farm to be cleaned and cultivated, livestock to be housed and groomed, and townspeople to chat with and marry. Thankfully ConcernedApe implements some "newer" systems into the game—crafting, combat, and a fishing minigame—so that it doesn't feel like it's shamelessly retreading the same ground. No matter how you set out to go about your day, there's a trove of options that await you on the horizon.

And I feel that this is the most important aspect Stardew Valley gets right: it keeps you busy. Maybe you'll start off by chopping down some encroaching trees but then! you should use this wood to make a keg oh! you need to smelt an iron ingot to build it but! you're one ore away so you decide to get it from Clint. Since you're in town now, you may as well give a gift to the girl you like oh look! there's a bubbling fishing spot by Clint's house so it's a good time to fish although! you're so close to the mine that you should really see if you can make it down 5 more floors or! you could go forage through the woods or! you could just head inside and rearrange your furniture (you really should talk to Robin about getting a new table [and check by Pierre's for some better wallpaper]). And hey, that's just one day!

If that might seem complicated to you, it really isn't—each of your options come naturally. The game has a simple set of tasks it asks you to complete at first, but for the most part you can proceed at your own pace. So you can stress over utilizing your time efficiently (like me), or simply relax and tackle one set goal per day. One of the most engrossing parts for me was planning out and sectioning off how my field would be utilized come my second Spring. What's great is that a lot of different people can find their own thing to get passionate about in the game, since there's a wide net of activities you can do (and you have to do them all if you want to complete those bundles!)

I enjoyed my time with Stardew Valley, but it's not going to be a favorite of mine this year. True—I did play it compulsively, farming all the way up to the beginning of my 3rd Spring before stopping—but the game filled a particular role for me that I think had been missing for a while: a pleasant time companion ("diversion" also works, but sounds a bit more cold than I intend). Once you've experienced most of the townsfolk's standard dialogue, it's a great game to put on a podcast to or marathon a TV series while playing. It still requires some attention and thought, but there's a lot of dead time where you're walking around, farming in the mine, organizing your boxes, etc. that you can fill with harmless background chatter. Of course, you should still keep the game audible, as the delightful intro tunes that kick-off each day are a joy to hear (my personal favorite is The Sun Can Bend An Orange Sky).

Boiled down, I suppose you can look at Stardew Valley as an elaborate checklist of fun things to do. It's more structured than Minecraft but promotes the same kind of open-ended exploration and freedom of expression with your farm, which honestly feels like the direction Harvest Moon was meant to head in. There's a slight sadness when you realize you've nearly ticked off all the boxes on the checklist, but while in the midst of the game, it certainly is enthralling. You'll find yourself constantly saying "I'll play just one more day" hours before you'll actually stop, and for good reason—Stardew Valley is a lovely plot of land.

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