2020 has been a stressful year so far. With an ongoing pandemic and more horrible news in the headlines each day, it’s no wonder that Animal Crossing: New Horizons has become the perfect escape. With adorable anthropomorphic animals, pretty sunsets, and relaxed gameplay, New Horizons couldn’t have come at a better time.
However, part of what makes the game feel so relaxed is that it’s a game that makes you wait. New Horizons is played in real time, and things like changing the island layout or ordering furniture from the catalogue takes a day. Unless the player “time travels” by changing the date on their Switch, this means there comes a point when they may need to turn it off and find something else to do. Luckily, there are games out there with a similarly calm feeling to them that offer mechanics that Animal Crossing fans will be familiar with, while also having additional layers and a deeper story. Put simply, Animal Crossing fans should give Stardew Valley a try.
Stardew Valley was released in 2016 and published by Chucklefish, but developed alone by Eric Barone, who did everything from the programming to the art and music. It was influenced and intended to expand upon the Harvest Moon games, but also drew inspiration from Animal Crossing, Terraria, and Minecraft. In the game, the player decides to leave the stress of office work in the city behind and move to a farm in Pelican Town, Stardew Valley, left to them by their Grandfather.
This initial event sets the tone for the game. From the beginning, this is about rediscovering a connection to nature and community, something that should also resonate with Animal Crossing fans. This isn’t where the similarities stop either, as there are lots of activities within the game that Animal Crossing fans will be familiar with. The player can go fishing, upgrade their house, find artifacts for the museum, and collect resources for crafting. There are lots of added layers to the game as well, and since it’s not in real time the player can go through as many in-game days, weeks, and seasons as they like.
The biggest difference to the simple life of Animal Crossing islands is running the farm. The farm area is the place the player has the most control over, and can be used to plant crops and house farm animals, which in turn make products that can be sold or crafted into something else. The other new mechanic for Animal Crossing fans will be combat. When venturing into the town’s mines for resources, the player will have to make sure they’ve taken a weapon with them since all manner of creatures are waiting to attack. Although this may sound like it’s veering away from the relaxed theme promised, it’s by no means stressful. The combat is simple, and like all other aspects of the game, there’s nothing forcing the player to go into the mines if they don’t want to. In fact, there’s no deadline for completing most things in the game, so the player can take their time to complete tasks and explore as they wish.
When it comes to exploring and really becoming part of the community, the player is given the chance to restore areas of the town that are broken or out of use. Not only does this mean there are new places to unlock, but it’s also one of the things that gives a sense of story to the game. The player is offered two different routes to do this: one is by paying for the developments with a Joja membership, and the other is by completing bundles in the community centre. Both offer different challenges and give the town a different feel—Joja is generally disliked since it ruins sales for the local store, and by choosing to complete the bundles, the game gets an added sense of magic and mystery since there’s something strange going on in the community centre to make this possible.
The second route also encourages the player to explore, collect, and make different items in the game, which steeps the game in wonder and discovery and ties back into that message of connection to nature. Being able to make these decisions about the town also adds a layer of moral complexity and character to the game that Animal Crossing doesn’t have.
What draws the player in most of all in terms of story, however, is the presence of NPCs. Much like Animal Crossing, the town is populated with characters you can interact with and build relationships with. Animal Crossing lets the player have up to ten islanders at any point, whereas Stardew Valley has over 30 permanent residents (a handful of which show up later in the game). Most of these characters also have their own story and struggles; as the player builds their relationships, these stories are revealed through cutscenes.
This is what makes the town feel alive and drives the player’s sense of story. Since many of the stories are deeply personal, there’s bound to be one that resonates with the player; some are struggling with mental health, others are wanting to move away, and others are questioning the choices made in their life. Even the more outlandish elements, like accidentally creating a sentient robot, are grounded with something relatable, like wanting to make sure the family will be okay in the future. Since the player will likely be drawn to certain characters, this gives everyone their own personal journey in the game.
However, if the player isn’t as worried about the story as they are having a large amount of aesthetic control and design options, Stardew doesn’t quite match up to Animal Crossing. Although the layout of the farm is up to the player and they can upgrade their house, buy new furniture, and craft new clothes, it’s not the same extent that Animal Crossing offers. But it would be boring if the games offered exactly the same experience, and this is why they make a great pair for players to switch between.
Since an escape from the real world isn’t going to stop being appealing for a long time, these little in-game communities where pandemics are a million miles away and the biggest worry is forgetting to give a character a gift on their birthday are a welcome distraction. Hopping on the Stardew bus line after a day of terraforming an island feels like a natural journey to make.
The games aren’t the same, and both offer things that the other doesn’t, but they both tap into the same instinct where the player can take their time, where they can explore and create. So players that have loved Animal Crossing this year and would like to try something new, Stardew Valley is available on most platforms, including the Switch.
And don’t forget to look at the notes scattered around the valley—they might be hiding some valuable secrets!