50 Best Games Of 2016: #41 – Stardew Valley

Our 50 best games of the year countdown isn’t in any order, we’re just going through fifty of the finest the year has given us. Find out more here.

Everything’s going to be fine. Just relax and breathe in that country air. Why didn’t you do this sooner? Shake off the 9 to 5 and become your own boss? It was the best decision you ever made. Forget the constant emails and Facebook messages, because you have all the friends you need in Pelican Town. The local artisan seed shop. Long strolls along the beach. That one boy/girl you end up chatting with whenever you bump into them.

This is the world of Stardew Valley. It’s not a game about soldiers, assassins or super villains. The closest thing Stardew Valley has to villainy is the the local Joja Mart, and if the locals can band together to repair the Community Centre it might be enough to send those corporate shills packing. To do that though, you’re going to have to do a lot of farming.

Yes, you read that right. We’re putting a farming simulator in our top games of 2016. It’s not even as if Stardew Valley delivers top notch graphics either. Looking more like Final Fantasy VI than Far Cry Primal, it wouldn’t really look out of place on a Gameboy Colour. It sure does look pretty though, in a nostalgic kind of way.

Here’s the thing about Stardew Valley: it’s a farming simulator that’s very sneakily a sandbox game. Do you want to go into the cave with all the smashable rocks and scary creatures to see what’s at the bottom? How about fishing by the sea? What about getting to know some of the locals, like the wizard or the grouchy old man or the guy who runs an empty museum? What’s going on round town? Will the corporation take over? Are the creatures in the community centre gremlins or mogwai?

One thing that’s easy to miss in a game that’s nominally about planting yams, crafting artisanal mayonnaise machines and foraging for wild horseradish is how compelling its world is. Through the early stretch of the game you’re introduced to a whole Star’s Hollow worth of local characters. The moustached mayor will invite you to local events. Pierre will sell you seeds from his local store to get your farm started. Shane will be a dick to you, because Shane is a dick.

You may mock them. You may ignore them as you turn your derelict farmhouse and it’s overgrown wilderness into a modern farming machine. Then, out of nowhere you receive an invitation to the local dance. How twee, you think, as you approach the festivities. But what’s this? No one wants to dance with you? It’s not like you’ve been rude; you’ve just been busy. Now look at all these people having fun – why can’t you be part of the dance?

As you get to know the locals (or, like me, live out your personal version of Gilmore Girls) you might also notice a few peculiar happenings. What exactly is at the bottom of those caves? Why does your dead uncle claim he’s going to come back in three years? Are the weird blobby creatures in the old community centre real or the result of using the wrong mushroom in your stir fry? What’s the Twin Peaks of it all?

There’s a lot to dig into in such an unassuming 2D farming simulator. The key to its success however, is its leisurely pace. Sure, there’s an interesting town with richly drawn characters to explore and quests to complete, but you don’t have to do any of that right away. You can just grow Pumpkins. Before you know it though, you’ll be fifty days into the game trying to seduce one of the locals by gifting them that inflatable fish you finally caught.

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