Considered with dispassionate detachment, Stardew Valley is, frankly, an entirely adequate video game.
Reading that back, it sounds harsher than I intended. The point I’m trying to make is that Stardew Valley is worthy of acclaim for reasons other than just its gameplay.
The real impressive thing about the game is that it was created by one man basically working out his basement. Yes, Stardew Valley may only be a “good” game, but that one lone man was able to achieve what he did is mind-boggling.
If Stardew Valley was no more than functional, it would still be a praise-worthy achievement.
But what is especially impressive is that one man has created, with minimal outside help, a game that not only functions technically, but manages to be engaging, engrossing, and interesting is a feat that will not often be repeated. Entire teams of professionals employed by billion-dollar companies have failed where Stardew Valley succeeds.
Stardew Valley is worth playing just for the sake of seeing what one driven person is able to achieve in a passion project.
Of course, Stardew Valley is also worth playing because it’s good. The shortest version is that it’s Harvest Moon (the series itself is now called Story of Seasons due to some complicated legal and licensing issues) for the 21st Century. This is entirely deliberate.
Though, worth noting, it actually plays more like the Rune Factory games (which are great; play them), including dungeon-crawling and combat, and having some mild Fantasy elements — one of the villagers is a wizard (named, of all things, “Wizard“) and the game’s main story arc, such as it is, involves helping a race of tiny, circular forest spirits restore the fortunes of the town.
While the game does ostensibly have a goal to work towards (fix the town’s community centre) and a time limit or sorts (you’re evaluated after three in-game years), you can’t lose, you can’t die (if you run out of health in one of the dungeons, you just lose some items and wake up in the town hospital), and that time limit isn’t absolute (after the initial evaluation, you can still play indefinitely and use a few items to get re-evaluated to increase your score).
All in all, it’s a very low-pressure, low-stakes game that is conducive to playing both in small spurts (“I’ll just pop in and water my crops.”) and long hauls (“I will play through the indisputable best character’s entire romance arc.”). It’s also incredibly open-ended. Sure, the game points you towards farming as your main source of income, but you could also focusing on mining, or fishing, or exploration. You can get married. Or not. You can work on completing the main story, or any number of side quests. Or not.
After you play for long enough, the game world starts feeling pretty small. On the other, there’s still a lot of stuff to do. And to be fair, that inevitably happens to any game after you play it enough — after eleven years, even a game like Skyrim starts to feel small. And once, again, it’s hugely impressive that one man wokring by himself still did a better at this than some big budget games from major studios.
Stardew Valley is a relaxing, lighthearted (yet also very emotional and insightful at times) game that offers a lot of freedom with basically no pressure to the players. It’s also a very nice change of pace from the fast-paced, in-your-face violence and unrelenting bleakness that seems so fashionable in video games these days. Despite the lack of obvious stars or dew. Though to the game’s credit, it does indeed take place in a valley.