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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (416)

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I Am Setsuna 2.5/5
Assassin's Creed Origins 4/5
Boot Hill Heroes 3.5/5
The Bard's Tale IV: Bar... 4.5/5
The Bard's Tale Trilogy 1.5/5
The Bard's Tale III: Th... 1.5/5
The Bard's Tale II: The... 0.5/5
The Bard's Tale: Tales ... 0.5/5
The Technomancer 2.5/5
Tyranny 3.5/5
Pine 2/5
Victor Vran 3/5
Front Mission Evolved 2/5
Greedfall 4.5/5
The Deep Paths: Labyrin... 3/5
The Vagrant 4/5
Avadon: The Black Fortr... 2/5
Mass Effect 3 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2.5/5
Knightin'+ 3.5/5
Indivisible 3/5
Final Fantasy XIV Onlin... 2/5
A Total War Saga: Troy 3/5
Stardew Valley 3/5

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Stardew Valley   PC (Steam) 

I’ve Been Culturally Appropriated    3/5 stars

Way back in 1997, Japanese publisher, Natsume, released the first game in what would become the long-running ‘Harvest Moon’ franchise. Over the course of the last 20+ years, ‘Harvest Moon’ has rarely been without a new release, though it has morphed from a console game to a dedicated handheld experience. Recently, Natsume and its former developers went their separate ways, and thanks to the idiosyncrasies if trademark and copyright law, Natsume was able to retain the rights to the ‘Harvest Moon’ title, while the developers, now Marvelous Entertainment and that company’s publishing arm Xseed Games, was able to re-localize the original Japanese title to ‘Song of Seasons,’ and begin churning out modern remakes of their old work.

‘Harvest Moon’ had a surprising amount of influence on gaming in general, inspiring copycat series such as ‘Rune Factory’ and even Nintendo’s ‘Animal Crossing,’ and spawning a new subgenre of ‘Rural Life Sim.’ However, in recent years, it’s not any of these Japanese Single-to-Triple-A studios who are leading the pack in Rural Farm Sims, but an Indie game that is largely the product of a single man, whose online handle and development studio share the same name: Concerned Ape. Concerned Ape’s game, “Stardew Valley,” has been a quantifiable commercial success in large part due to three considerations that make it stand out from every other Rural Life Sim: 1) It’s a budget-priced Indie title, 2) It’s available on every device with a CPU and a screen, and 3) While it’s lightweight on both the wallet and the system running it, it’s a heavyweight in the content department.

Even so, after playing “Harvest Moon” in 1997, and trying – but failing – to care about “Rune Factory Frontier” on the Wii in 2009, I decided that I was ‘done’ with the Rural Life Sim genre: After all, I live a rural life every single day, and I enjoy escaping into the world of videogames to get away from the drudgery, not to wallow in it. Unfortunately, when one of the MJ Crew had a chance to pick our next multi-player coop game, he delightedly chose “Stardew Valley,” which had recently had cooperative gameplay added in a major feature update. So, begrudgingly, I got roped into a videogame world that looks very much like a cartoon caricature of my actual life.

Presentation
“Stardew Valley” is a 2D, top-down, sprite-based, retro-styled game that tries to Ape (Concernedly) the stylings of the SNES. At this endeavor, the game greatly succeeds. The environments are packed with all kinds of small details, the numerous items the player can collect each have a unique appearance, and the townsfolk and creatures that inhabit the titular town and its environs have subtle animations that make them feel livelier than their chunky pixels would otherwise allow. That said, the ‘exploration’ aspect of the game, which I mainly engaged with, features a lot of lazy pallet swapping. Furthermore, a number of the crops have such small, picky visual details, it can be difficult to notice when they change to their ‘ripe’ sprite.

Audiowise, “Stardew Valley” features a solid soundtrack of quirky tunes and sound effects. I can’t say any of these tunes are terribly memorable, but the fact that none of them are as gratingly obnoxious as the original “Harvest Moon’s” ‘Summer’ theme makes the soundtrack ‘good enough’ in my book.

Technically, “Stardew Valley” is pretty solid. We only experienced one host-crash in a 60-hour game, though Chris and I both ran into an annoying glitch that causes double-inputs and requires a complete system reboot to fix. Other than those complaints, “Stardew Valley” does what it needs to, with native Xinput support, Peer2Peer networking that just works, and a functional – if not a bit busy – user interface.

Story
Our hero/heroine/heroes/heroines has just inherited a farm in the small rural village of Stardew Valley from their late grandfather.

The End.

No, really, that’s all there is to the game’s ‘plot,’ as it were. “Stardew Valley” is very much a ‘make-your-own-fun’ type of game, where the player is dumped into the world with no real objectives but to do whatever they want. They can talk to, learn about, and befriend the locals who live in town. Or not. They can become a recluse and spend all their time working the farm. Or not. They can set aside such absurdities as ‘hard work’ and instead spend all their time exploring the village’s abandoned mine. Or not. They can even choose to become a corporate sell-out and assist the game world’s Wal-Mart analog in destroying the local small-business economy with its big-box JoJo Mart. Or not.

However, in spite of its almost complete lack of substance and structure, “Stardew Valley” does the whole ‘sandbox’ and ‘choice’ thing that so many “AAA” games strive for (and fail at) and so many gamers feverishly desire (for whatever reasons) somewhat better than its bigger competitors, simply because there’s no real overarching plot that requires the narrative to railroad the player into making specific choices.

So, instead of an exciting narrative filled with twists, turns, and amazing character development, we just have the mundanity of real life. Meeting a love interest, dating, getting married, and having a kid or two (and thankfully NO MORE THAN TWO) is about the most earthshaking thing that happens in “Stardew Valley,” other than, maybe fixing the local bus and taking a daytrip to the desert.

Because “Stardew Valley” is so open-ended and filled with mundane repetition, there’s no hard-and-fast ‘End.’ We played for just about 60 hours and, in the process, completely restored the town to its full glory and completely satisfied Grandpa’s ghost when he returned to pass judgment upon us at the beginning of Year 3. A solo player would definitely find it more difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish all that in 60 hours. Likewise, a player who absolutely loves the mundane routine of simulated rural life might enjoy escaping into Stardew Valley for hundreds of hours, never even stopping to consider that they might want to set a goal. So, really, the amount of time a player will spend with the game is as wildly variable as how each player chooses to play it.

Gameplay
So, what, exactly, is a Rural Life Sim? Well, the basics core gameplay loop is ‘farming,’ and I use the term loosely. We’re not talking modern commercial or industrial farming; instead, Rural Life Sims typically take ‘gardening’ and, via that good old abstraction element that’s so important to RPGs, Strategy games, and Sims of all sorts, scales it up so that a single tomato might represent an entire crop of tomatoes, etc.

Clear the brush (been there), till the soil (done that), plant the seeds (old hat), and water every day (Why am I doing this for ‘fun,’ again?). When enough in-game days – which each last about 15 minutes of real time, depending on how early or late the player goes to bed – the crops are ready to harvest, and the player can place them in a shipping box to be sold overnight. The money brought in seems ridiculously inflated compared to the real world, but actually makes some sense if you think of the in game G(old) currency as Cents or Yen instead of dollars (likely a nostalgic holdover from the subgenre’s Japanese origins, since Concerned Ape is from Washington state).

Mercifully, though, “Stardew Valley” has spread out quite a bit from the subgenre’s most basic form, so there are things to do other than gardening and wasting precious gardening time in town chatting up the locals. There are livestock options, the ability to create artisanal goods from basic things produced by crops and animals, a forestry option to harvest wood or tap trees for their sap, a fishing option that employs either an annoying mini-game or crab pots that can be placed in any body of water overnight, and even a mining and exploration. When we learned that “Stardew Valley” was going to be our next coop game, I clearly declared my refusal to participate in any part of the game that was too much like my real life. That meant no farming, no chopping trees, and no fishing. Instead, I would dedicate myself to exploring the abandoned mine, searching for rare earths and artifacts, and battling sinister wildlife/monsters.

I stuck to my promise until about the last half of our second in-game year, when I had accomplished everything accomplishable in the mines, became bored with the routine, and decided to engage with the other parts of the game. The other three guys all found themselves at the same point in their career specializations (Chris was our fisherman, even though he HATES fishing in real life; Nick was our forester, who nearly wiped out the Valley’s habitat by chopping down all the trees and not replanting any until we yelled at him; and Matt was our dedicated farm grunt who, by the time he finished petting all the animals and watering all the plants each day, had just enough time and stamina remaining to go to bed).

As the expert on the game’s more ‘adventurous’ gameplay systems, I can’t say I’m overly impressed. The abandoned mine (and later the Skull Cave in the desert) are procedurally generated each game day, meaning that there’s no rhyme or reason to their layouts and that finding anything good inside is pure RNG. The monsters and the ore types get stronger/better the deeper in the mine the player goes, but I actually found exploring the deep mine levels (and the entire Skull Cave) to be wholly tedious because the combat isn’t very good, in a super-sloppy ‘Drunk Zelda’ type of way, and the enemy stats scale far more than the player’s, meaning that even with the ‘best’ equipment and a maxed out Combat level, the player will need to beat on ‘strong’ monsters for a good long time, but can only take a few hits from such monsters in return before getting K.O.’d. Even worse, while the mine, at least, has an elevator that allows the player to resume exploring from where they left off, so long as they reach a floor that is a multiple of 5, the Skull Cave is even more roguelike in that you start from floor 1 every time. In a single-player game, time slows down while in the Skull Cave to allow the player to delve deeper, but in coop, starting from floor 1 and dealing with the normal timeflow of a game day just didn’t make it worthwhile.

“Stardew Valley’s” main saving grace, however, is, indeed, the fact that it has four-player online coop. If I was playing this game by myself, I’d just throw my hands up in the air and say, “I’ve done this exact thing when I played “Harvest Moon” as a teen, and I live this scenario every day of my actual life!” then play something else. But with a full team, each specializing in a different aspect of rural life, the rules of ‘divide and conquer’ and ‘many hands make light work’ definitely hold true. The only downside to the game’s multi-player system is the fact that the host is the only ‘true’ hero in the game, while the other players are just ‘farmhands.’ While farmhands are able to unlock achievements and do everything the host can do, including upgrading their tiny shacks to be elaborate mansions inside (like Doctor Who’s TARDIS), they do NOT get a local copy of the game save, and, if the host player sends copies of the save to other players, they’ll all end up as the host, since the characters farmhands develop online only exist as online partners for that save.

Overall
It’s uncanny how much “Stardew Valley” resembles my day-to-day lived experience. And while, in a perfect world, everyone would have the opportunity to live my peaceful lifestyle, the sad fact is, for most folks, this game is a close as they’re going to get. While “Stardew Valley” is packed to the gills with caricatured representations of the tasks and activities I deal with every day, in spite of how much there is to do, these tasks do get repetitive pretty quickly, even more quickly for me, since they aren’t novel or ‘relaxing’ in any way. Still, having a funhouse mirror held up before me and seeing that I really DO have it good is somewhat edifying, and sharing the experience with my friends was worthwhile, though I’d never want to play this game again… well, maybe if Concerned Ape added guns, changed ‘Combat’ to ‘Hunting,’ and gave Foresters the opportunity to unlock a Bobcat skid loader…

Presentation: 4/5
Story: 3/5
Gameplay: 3/5 Solo, 3.5/5 Coop
Overall (not an average): 3/5

 

 


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