Stardew Valley meets Crusader Kings.
Okay, maybe it’s a bit early for that. I’ve only played for about two hours, and have no particular idea what’s really going on yet. But there are a few notes I wanted to jot down.
First, I really like the premise, from a mechanical point of view. You are a orphaned peasant told to just grab some empty land and build whatever. The twist here though is that each season is only three game-days long. This acceleration is possible because, you know, dynasty, e.g. you are intended to produce an heir that’s carries on the family business of village-building.
This is both unique in the farming/crafting genre and also helps handwave some of the more traditional gamey bits. Like how one dude can chop down a dozen trees and build a house in an afternoon. I mean, it’s still handwavey due to how hunger/thirst works, but I still appreciated the thought.
Also, you can change the 3-day season to be longer if you want via settings. The devs “strongly suggest” leaving it at 3, and I can see their point even from the start: without the dynasty bit, it’s just a worse Stardew Valley.
Having said that… well… the 3-day season makes all the NPC and questing bits exceedingly silly. One of the starting quests is to find out why a rye shipment hasn’t arrived. To complete this quest, you have to walk 1200m or so to the next town, then halfway back, then back, then return all the way. It took 1.5 in-game days to complete. So, basically my entire Spring. The reward was 300g, for which I have no context whether it’s worth the time I lost. Some of the meals from vendors cost 270g for some porridge, so I’m guessing No.
It was nice to see that the quest had an 18-year time limit though. Especially since one part was locating the courier who was bleeding to death near a river. Would he have just been bones if I waited 5 “years?” I’m guessing No again.
Anyway, there’s that.
OK one more thing: I find it intimidating in these games when they say “build wherever.” I recognize the terror of analysis paralysis, so I end up creating a base camp within earshot of the beginning area. Somewhere along the way though, the base camp hits a tipping point where it would be too onerous to move everything somewhere else, so I keep it in a lame area and just deal with the dissonance.
In this game though? Shit is extra scary. I’m going to have to create and reload several Saves given how it might take in-game years to find a spot where I’m happy settling. Meanwhile, I don’t know which resources are more difficult to find/gather or any sort of late-game concerns.
Which is of course the smartest thing to worry about after playing something for 2 hours.
My typical gaming M.O. is to choose a different genre of game after focusing on one in particular. So after Forager, I should have picked something that was not another crafting/farming/grinding game. Following that ancient edict just left me with not wanting to play anything at all though. So, realizing that I am an Adult© with the means and opportunity to do Whatever the Hell I Want™ I decided to head right into My Time at Portia.
It’s good to be back.
My Time at Portia is a Harvest Moon/Stardew Valley game set in a bizarrely upbeat post-post-apocalypse future. There are ruins and collapsed buildings in the skybox, there are tales of the Age of Corruption, and even a period of darkness in which the skies were blackened for over 300 years. And yet the hero who cleared the skies is a man named Peach, the monsters you fight are things like Panbats (bats with panda faces) and sea urchins that float around with the help of balloons, and similar nonsense. It is all very cartoony and whimsical and doesn’t take itself especially seriously.
One element I do like that shakes the formula up a bit is how your character is a Builder and not a farmer. You can have farm plots and a stable and grow things if you want, but the primary mechanism of advancement is, well, building things. You can take one Commission a day from a posting board (“I need 3 Rubber Belts”), townspeople will occasionally ask you to build an irrigation system for them, some elevator needs repaired so investigations into water supply issues can be resolved, and so on. A lot more crafting than farming, in other words. This solves the sometimes awkward problem of having unlockable crafting tiers of items that you only ever make one of and never use the crafting table again.
While it has been an enjoyable game thus far, I do think I am over-optimizing the game a tiny bit. I am not even past the second season yet and have already unlocked and am using the highest-tier tools and Workbench. There are still longer-term items to purchase (expanded housing plot, etc) and upgrade, but I am primarily “done” in terms of exciting progression, e.g. needing a specific tool to gather a particular resource. We’ll see how the rest of the game pans out.
Having said all that, I am certainly doing what I enjoy. It is not ARK or 7 Days to Die or more freeform crafting-survival, but My Time at Portia scratches similar itches for the time being. It also feels more relaxing than even Stardew Valley, as you can tweak settings like Day Length to give yourself more time to explore/talk to townsfolk. If this is what you’re looking for, well, you found it.
If you ever need to know what my game type is, look at Forager.
Forager is distilled, crystallized, crafting/collecting. Everything is stripped down to their elemental components. You are on an island with constantly respawning resources… like every 20 seconds. You bash trees and rocks until you build a Furnace, which you use to smelt iron and gold into bars to craft more buildings. You get XP for everything, and on level-up you get Skill Points to unlock new buildings, buffs, and gear. Once you have acquired enough gold currency, you can “purchase” new islands, which you build bridges to reach. Said islands expand your access to resources, including new ones, along with enemies and item drops. Rinse and repeat, until you have unlocked half the world and you have automatic resource gathering (to an extent), banks minting gold for you, while you are off scraping the landscape clean with lightning wands and magic scrolls.
The first time I booted the game up, I played for three hours straight.
What is extra interesting to me is examining the components of Forager in terms of other games I play and enjoy. Stardew Valley, for example. You can technically farm in Forager: there is a shovel tool for digging plots, a Windmill building to create seeds from already-gathered plants, and even sprinklers to automatically water said plants. But plants in Forager bloom in like 30 seconds. And you’re just as likely to get a similar yield just blasting everything on the screen along with piles of other components. So not really like Stardew Valley at all.
Now that I think about it, Forager is kind of like a parody of survival/crafting games. Similar to Progress Quest back in the heavy JRPG days, or Cow Clicker during the rise of Facebook games. As it turns out, sometimes parody becomes more fun than the game it makes fun of.
I will reach a natural satiation point eventually. It may be very soon, as most of the progress I can make at this point is grinding currency for the remaining islands. There is no deeper meaning here, or even particular sense of lasting accomplishment. This is decidedly a wirehead experience. But until my tolerance level reaches its peak, I will continue mainlining this game with no regrets.
Sometimes you just need gratification, instantly. In which case Forager has you covered.
[Fake Edit] Oops, apparently I am done. There is no final boss, I have already completed all the dungeons, bought all the islands, and done all the easy upgrades. No sense grinding for more powerful gear to face non-existent threats. Those 16 hours were a blur.
In my still-limited free time, I have been playing Graveyard Keeper.
Even before I purchased the game – or got it through a bundle, I forget – Graveyard Keeper had been unfavorably compared to Stardew Valley. Specifically, how the game devolves into an inordinate grind. Having played the game now for about 25 hours, I have to agree. But it is not the grind that is the problem, but the overall disjointed experience.
As you might imagine from the name, the primary task is the maintenance of the graveyard and nearby chapel. Bodies will be delivered periodically, and interring them can not only improve the overall quality of the graveyard, but gives you a Burial Certificate which you can trade for coins. As things progress, you get the ability to perform autopsies to improve the “quality” of the bodies before burial – primarily by removing “sinful” organs – such that higher quality headstones and such can unlock the full potential of a buried corpse.
So, the gameplay loop starts relatively tight. You chop trees and mine stones/ore to build headstones and such to improve the graveyard. Improving the graveyard eventually allows you lead sermons that generate Faith resources, which allow you to research further technology.
Things fall apart in the mid to late game. The ultimate goal of the game is to collect six items from certain NPCs in town and spend 12g on a last item. 12g is 1200 silver and you get 1.5 silver for each buried/burned body. Thus, you need alternative means of making money. Which is fine, because the quests necessary to get the special items are long and involved and require you to do all sorts of tech-tree development, building dozens of workstations, and basically creating a little empire. However… you can’t specialize. The bartender will purchase the wine you make, for example, but each bottle sold will reduce the price of the next bottle, and prices only recover slowly over time. Which means you need to do all the things all the time, when there will never be enough of it to matter.
To me, that is not even the worst part. The worst part is that your time horizon is ever only seven in-game days. In Stardew Valley, you had seasons and yearly events to plan towards. Sometimes that was a massive pain and source of min-maxing, given that you could spend a lot of time on crops only to have them all die a day before harvesting because the calendar changed. But it also gave you a focus. Hell, you could focus on just a few things, e.g. fishing vs animals vs growing crops, depending on your mood. Graveyard Keeper requires a generalized approach of running around all day every day, never really getting a sense that you’re making progress on any particular thing.
I even have some zombies now to assist in automating resource collection, and I still never have time to do all the things I need to do to feel satisfied on my progress. At one point, I just abandoned the whole corpse part of the game for several in-game weeks because I couldn’t be bothered. I was trying to unlock the second-tier Alchemy Bench so that I could actually start using the Embalming techniques I had unlocked 10 hours beforehand, but the convoluted tech tree and components meant I couldn’t do much of anything. Even when there are interesting choices to make, such as removing more organs than necessary to turn them into alchemical ingredients at the cost of corpse quality, all it becomes is just another chore to do on the path to something else.
It is difficult to discern why I still like playing this game. Well, perhaps not too difficult: it’s a game that encourages planning and thinking even when not actively playing. Same with Fallout 76, really, in that even at work I am strategizing on what I plan to do in-game when I get home. But this chronic tension and sense of never making particular headway is also exhausting, and the last thing I need more of in my life.
While I still have a modicum of free time, let’s talk about Stardew Valley.
It’s awesome. /impression
Describing why it’s awesome is much more difficult. So I’m just going to try talking about its various interlocking systems.
Despite the game looking and sounding like a peaceful farming simulator, there is a rather large amount of tension to the gameplay. You start the day off at 6 AM with (usually) a full energy meter. Each time you till a farm tile, water a plant, chop a tree, etc, you use up a little bit of that energy. Starting out, the only real way to regain energy is to eat either foraged food or perhaps some of your crops. This, of course, will prevent you from selling said items though.
Meanwhile, the clock is always ticking in 10 minute increments. You can walk around and explore the town, but the game doesn’t care if you run out of daylight with a full energy meter or an empty one. People in town have schedules as well, so if you want to seduce/befriend them, you have to plan around their day. Forgot to pick up seeds and it’s 5:10 PM? Tough luck, the store is closed. If you’re not in bed by 2 AM, you collapse and are dragged home by someone, losing money and some of tomorrow’s energy along the way.
On top of that, you have longer-term considerations. Some crops will produce in 4 days of growing. Others take 12 days. Some you have to replant after harvesting, and others will continue producing. Each season in the game is 28 days long, and most crops only grow in one season. Ergo, it’s entirely possible for your 12-day crop to wither on the vine one day before harvest if the season changes.
Oh, and by the way, some of the super-important unlocks require items that can only be found/farmed/fished within certain seasons. If you miss a Spring item after the season changes, well… better luck next year.
All of that might sound intimidating. And complicated. And difficult to optimize. And it is all those things.
But it’s also weirdly liberating. Because it is not as though the game just ends if you miss some kind of deadline. Life keeps going. You can try and complete the most efficient path… or you can just keep doing what you are doing. Want a big farm? Focus on that. Want to raise livestock instead? Go do that. Fish all day erry’day? Probably viable. You may or may not get enough cash to upgrade your house before the first winter, but who cares? Only you.
The mutual exclusivity of tasks somehow doesn’t feel constricting. You can’t dig deeper into the mines and also plant new fields and forage for forest plants and also talk to everyone in town in the same day. But that doesn’t feel like an arbitrary restriction so much as a natural consequence. It makes intuitive sense that these things take time to accomplish. And it’s not as though swinging your ax makes time advance faster or anything – it takes precisely as long as it takes to get something done. This also makes you appreciate the tool upgrades a bit more, if they reduce the amount of swings it takes to finish a task.
I recently unlocked the Sprinkler item to craft. As you might expect, it automatically waters crops around itself. That said, the beginner version only waters four tiles in a cross shape around itself. “That’s dumb,” I thought. More advanced versions are available later that water all adjacent tiles, and eventually multiple rings of tiles. But once Summer hit, I went all-in on crops with the idea of earning enough coin by mid-season to finally upgrade my house. And now I’m spending 2+ in-game hours just watering plants each morning. So while the sprinklers are incredibly inefficient, I started thinking to myself that 4 less tiles to water * 10 is actually lot less time/energy used each morning.
That’s just one example of an interesting decision the game presented me without it coming across as an obvious Yes/No binary. The game is just full of them too, thus far. Instead of worrying about watering crops, I could have a different set of concerns if I had decided to build a chicken coop instead. I’m assuming it’d have something to do with feeding all those animals.
So, yeah. Stardew Valley is fantastic. It’s scratching all kinds of itches I didn’t even know I had. Short-term planning, long-term planning, optimization, experimentation, agency… all wrapped up in a pixel bow and all created by one dude. Can’t wait to see what else this designer has up his sleeve, and hopefully the sleeves of a few extra helpers, because I don’t want to have to wait another 4+ years for his next title.
Why did I think it was a good idea to start playing Stardew Valley for the first time this weekend? The Fallout 76 Beta is coming out like tomorrow, and I decided it was a good idea to boot up a game that has already consumed 10 hours of my time in two days? Good lord.
As a side note, it’s amusing experiencing the same synapses firing off when I farm and plant crops as I do when playing survival games. It’s starting to make me wonder whether I like survival games, or if I have been using survival games to scratch the itch for farming simulators.
Either way, it’s trouble. I gotta do stuff this week.