TL; DR(eview) - Stardew Valley is unabashedly a love letter to the Harvest Moon games of yore. Excellently tapping into the simplicity of building up a farm from nothing, it's the best game I've played in the genre since Harvest Moon: Back to Nature.
From the games opening moments, Stardew Valley transported me back to a simpler time in gaming. A time when I found great joy and solace in the simple act of plowing fields, harvesting crops, caring for livestock, and befriending the citizens of the neighboring town. I've written before about Harvest Moon: Back to Nature being my favorite entry in the niche Harvest Moon franchise. But apart from the occasional handheld game like Rune Factory, Natsume was unable to recapture that magic.
Stardew Valley introduces your character as a corporate drone desperate for a change of pace and, much like the series that inspired it, you just happen to find that new life in the form of a rundown old farm that your grandfather left you. From there, you're left with a handful of cash and some tools to make a new life for yourself.
As someone who, in the past, has attempted to maximize how much money I was pulling in, how quickly I could upgrade everything, and how well I could befriend the entire town, I instead chose to play through Stardew Valley as my character intended: more relaxed and taking things one day at a time. Apart from the basic farming, money can also be earned foraging the random items that will appear daily, mining and fighting monsters in the caves, and fishing. Time is finite though. Each in-game day takes about 13-14 minutes so managing your time effectively can make the difference between getting that extra trip to the mine in or not.
The "story" of Stardew Valley is what you make of it. Personally, I was playing the game through a somewhat introverted lens so I wasn't overly eager to make friends of the townspeople. That said, if you read my Starkey Valley series, you caught me having fun and creating my own narrative outside of the one the game provides. The narrative component that I did enjoy involved the town versus the Joja Corporation (the company you worked at and the big, bad mega-mart store in town). Very early on, I discovered the Community Center in the town. In restoring the Community Center, you can side with the town by collecting and depositing assorted items to complete bundles, which will net you various rewards or you can side with Joja and use cold hard cash to turn the Community Center into a warehouse. As someone who worked for big, stupid mega-corporations in real life, I was all too happy to stick it to Joja and when the Community Center was finally restored, it was probably one of the most satisfying moments in the game.
Throughout my 80 hours with the game, I played through two years of farming, earned hundreds of thousands of dollars, restored the Community Center and united the town, and found love with a special lady and had a daughter with her. There's still plenty of friends to make and room to expand my farm, but I think it's time for me to move on from the folks of Stardew Valley.
I'll be very curious to see how the lone developer ConcernedApe builds on the game from here. Personally, I'd like to see a few more festivals scattered throughout the year: perhaps the occasional Chicken, Cow, Sheep, etc. competition or a Gladiator-style monster arena. Depending on where he takes the game, I might be inclined to revisit it but regardless, I had a great time with the game and I'm so excited to have discovered so many friends enjoyed the Harvest Moon games growing up like I did.