Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Now playing: Stardew Valley

Let's kick off 2017 with some heavy action...farming.

Stardew Valley is a spiritual follow-up to the classic Harvest Moon titles, where you play as a disgruntled corporate employee who throws that job away in order to take over your deceased grandfather's old farm in the titular village.

The gameplay is vintage Harvest Moon: grow crops, raise animals, and even go mining for metals. Like the Rune Factory spinoffs, you also have to contend with monsters, who drop things you can use. You also get to date, marry, and have kids with a number of NPCs, male and female alike (and yes, even if they are the same gender as you). Most of this is reasonably fun, with a lot of variety in what you can do.

The one problem? The gameplay is vintage Harvest Moon.

You see, the older games in that series had the issue of implicitly steering you into running your farm a certain way if you wanted to accomplish the main goals of the game. Want to run a chicken farm? Grow nothing but fruit trees? Sorry, but if you do that, you'll be locked out of a lot of what the game offers, including the overall main story (or the best endings thereof).

Stardew Valley, in many ways, is actually even worse about it. Your story options are to sign up with the exact same corporation you just left (and then pay them your money to fix up the town), or to undertake a tedious collectathon that requires you to run a farm with a bit of everything, instead of specializing in whatever you choose to. Neither option is exactly appealing, for different reasons.

I think the barn gating is another good example of the regression from Harvest Moon. You cannot raise sheep until you've upgraded your barn to the maximum level. If you want to specialize in sheep farming, you have to spend a ton of money and resources before you can even begin. Whereas in many Harvest Moon games, you just can build a basic barn and then buy whatever animal you want. There's no logical reason for this, other than to justify a "balance" where sheep are more valuable and profitable than cows. (Which is a bit ironic, given that at the time of this writing, real cows cost roughly three times as much as real sheep.)

I'm not saying Stardew Valley is bad; it has its moments, but it's definitely not what I'd call a great game that deserves to stand the test of time. I suspect nostalgia has blinded a lot of people to the flaws of the old Harvest Moon games (and they definitely had flaws), which led to this game being one of the top sellers of 2016. And keep in mind the only version I've played is post 1.1, and from what I've read...the game was even worse when it was released.

While I'm not done with the game (and it's still fun at points), I'm still waiting for the a game that captures the better aspects of the later Harvest Moon games, and their much more open mechanics. Stardew Valley is not that game, and without major revisions (here's my suggestion: why can't you manually rebuild the community center yourself?), it never will be.

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