*Contains minor spoilers.

Stardew Valley: the sleeper hit of 2016. Before this indie darling hit the shelves, the only two farming RPGs popular enough to be household names were the long running franchises Harvest Moon and Rune Factory. I remember playing one or two Harvest Moon games on my Gameboy advance, but they never held my attention for long.

Rune Factory, on the other hand, I greatly enjoyed. My first entry into this series was Rune Factory 4, which was, unfortunately, the final installment of the franchise. It’s a marvelous game. I love the balance between dungeon crawling and farming and, coupled with an enjoyable story, it set the bar for similar games for me. But, unfortunately, the studio that made it had since shuttered. My dreams of a sequel were crushed.

However, with the mega success of Stardew Valley, I’ve begun to hope again. As of 2018, this one-man developed game has sold a whopping 3.5 million copies. Wowzers.

The Steam store shows a surge of similar games trying to ride the coattails of Stardew Valley’s success. None have even come close, because everyone’s busy playing Stardew Valley. I’ve recently joined the ranks of my fellow farmers, finishing up my first year in-game with a save file clocking a little under forty hours.

I would have jumped on the bandwagon sooner, but I admit I was apprehensive about the game. When Stardew Valley exploded in popularity, I checked it out and was floored. It had everything I wanted in a farming simulator and sounded like a wet dream come to life. Ironically, this had ultimately put me off. Things sounded too good to be true. We’ve all bought a game that we were hyped up for and found ourselves disappointed, at some time or another.

Finally, after two years of self-imposed celibacy, I bought the darn game and played it. All I can say now is, why in the world did I not play this sooner?

If you’re on the fence about purchasing the game, I understand why you might be. It’s not the price tag that’s holding you back, but something else. Nerves, or maybe even paranoia, that you might be buying a dud. My brief reflection on my time in Stardew might help, or it might not. But stick around, and maybe I’ll give you something to think about.

In Stardew Valley, you play as someone who’s gotten tired of slaving away for your corporate masters. Disillusioned and looking for reprieve, it comes in the form of a letter from your recently deceased grandfather. He’s left you the deed to his old farm and you make the life changing decision to pull out of the rat race to begin anew as a farmer.

Stardew Valley begins like any other farming simulator worth its salt and eases you into the game. The town mayor gets you settled in, and over the next few days you’re taught the basic gist of things – how to start planting your crop, where to buy seeds, introducing yourself to the varied bunch of townspeople. It isn’t the most fascinating of prologues, but it does its job remarkably well.

I like the laid back, casual feeling the game gives off. Compared to Rune Factory 4, where you play a special snowflake who had a big, bad antagonist to slay, the lack of an overarching plot in Stardew Valley plays in its favor. I do things at my own pace, when I want to, whenever I feel like it. The freedom to choose – even if it’s in a video game – does wonders for stress relief. I’ve come to think of the game as a giant, squishy stress ball.

Don’t mistake the lack of a plot to mean you have nothing to do. The game does have quests. You’re tasked with exploring a cave and fulfilling requests for your fellow townsfolk, but there are no ramifications for ignoring or cancelling them, as far as I’m aware. Even if there are, the impact is barely negligible. This aspect is something I’m immensely grateful for. I don’t feel the need to complete every task thrown to me, a pitfall I usually fail to avoid in other games.

The real meat of Stardew Valley, in my opinion, is farming and growing relationships. Farming is simple, but mastery takes time. Each season has its own batch of crops, and you slowly learn which are the most profitable and whether you should keep or sell them. A rule of thumb is to have at least one of each on hand, because you’d never know when something is needed for a delivery quest. Storing them for winter is also ideal, as you can’t grow anything during that season.

Tools help you tend to the land and gather resources and they can be upgraded once you have the right items. Energy for menial tasks like tilling the soil and watering crops is significantly reduced with better tools, and in Stardew Valley, energy is as precious a commodity as time. Activities like fishing, mining, and chopping also use energy. You get a fixed number of hours per day, and learning how to maximize it is part of the fun.

Like traditional farming simulators, the characters that populate it change alongside you, to a certain extent. But in Stardew Valley, the progression feels natural and less like the end result of constant gift-giving. As friendships and romances grow deeper, the interactions between my character and the townsfolk changed.

Characters I once found standoffish, generally uncaring towards my existence, became friendlier. Talking yielded more than just generic one liners about the weather. Even more than thirty hours later, when I’ve maxed out their affection meter in the form of hearts, I find myself stopping by to chat.

Logically, I know they’re a combination of sprites, code, and pre-written dialogue, but they feel more than that. I think part of this can be attributed to how the developer, ConcernedApe, has written them. Their struggles are relatable, their worries, fears, and dreams are not unlike what any of us would have. I can’t count how many times a character says something and I nod my head and think, Oh, I know exactly what you mean. It’s strange, but awesome all the same.

One of the characters who drove this point home was Haley. In the first few seasons, Haley was unapproachable. She wasn’t nasty, but she wasn’t nice, either. Giving her something she disliked got me a blunt “ew” and when I’d neglected to gift her anything on her birthday, she ignored me for the entire duration of summer. Talking to her was akin to standing in front of a ball machine and getting hit by a constant barrage of insults and self-compliments.

I quickly got frustrated. I stopped pummelling her with gifts and focused my attention on other characters who were easily satisfied. I didn’t outright ignore her, but she was pushed to the bottom of my characters-to-befriend list.

Fast forward to the last days of the fall season. Haley’s affection meter was reasonably high, and I’d already experienced two of her “Heart Events.” Heart Events are cut scenes unique to each character, and Haley’s events, while decently interesting, had not completely wiped out the annoyance I harboured from her early hostilities.

The third event, though, was different. I arrived on the beach, and found Haley looking for a precious item she’d lost. She was distressed, showing a side totally unlike her usual shallow persona. I scoured the beach, found what she was looking for, and handed it back to her. The event was clichéd, but it worked. I stopped thinking of her as the rude-ass blonde who lives in town and hates vegetables. It changed my perception of her, which is surprising, considering how stubborn I am.

Haley is not the only character who surprised me in the course of my playthrough. There is more than meets the eye to the characters who populate Stardew Valley.

In the end, Stardew Valley was everything I ever wanted, and more. Fans of farming RPGs would likely love the game, but others might find the farming aspect repetitive and boring.

If you’ve tried similar games and disliked them, Stardew Valley probably won’t change your mind. But for the price and amount of content it offers, I think the game deserves a chance. If you have a PC, a Nintendo Switch, or even a PS Vita (a port is expected to come later this year) I’d heartily recommend you give the game a whirl. I might have taken two years to jump in, but I’m glad I eventually did.