With winter winds slowly making their way across the United States, now more than ever, we hunger for the coziest experiences we can find. Sometimes there’s no better companion than a warm fire, a mug of hot chocolate, your favorite blanket, or better yet: a totally chill video game. If you have a Nintendo Switch, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a great choice, but did you know that as of December 2, Xbox Game Pass has an even better, and more relaxing, video game experience?
We are talking, of course, about Stardew Valley.
The setup for Stardew Valley is a simple one: Your grandfather has died (sad), but he’s left you a special gift to help you in the next chapter of your life (cool). Tucked away in Pelican Town is a small farm, fully available for you to cultivate and design as you wish. In the vein of its contemporaries like Animal Crossing or Harvest Moon, however, there’s no precise goal for how you’ll start your journey or progress within it. The plot you’ve been given is full of weeds and other gross environmental hazards, but once that nastiness has been swept or shoveled away, this charming pixelated town is yours to nurture and devour at your leisure.
Farming is the main mechanic, of course, but that’s just a stepping stone to a much larger roster of possible careers.
Given that most casual gamers will likely leverage games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons as a point of comparison for Stardew, it’s worth noting this game has several major improvements over Nintendo’s time-sensitive take on island simulation. Are you tired of having to use time travel tricks or waiting in real-time to progress through in-game days on your island? Stardew Valley doesn’t have any of that nonsense and instead lets you keep playing through as many days as you can stand. In-game days only last about 15 minutes, which means you can fly through each 28-day season with reckless abandon. There’s occasional work to be done on such a tight time limit, but at least the game never prevents you from playing it.
With this more freeform style under its hood, one of the key assets to Stardew Valley is its depth. Beyond farming and selling crops, players will also have the option to fish for food, forage for materials, mine for precious metals, or engage in combat with deadly monsters. By performing these central tasks you’ll earn resources that can be used to craft specialized tools or buff your effectiveness in any of these areas.
While other games may treat these mechanics as side hustles, Stardew lets you establish a lifestyle around any of them with full RPG trappings. There are ways to make substantial money down any route, which means you don’t have to engage with chores you don’t like. Bored of farming but still want the revenue? Just buy some sprinklers to water the crops automatically.
This same sense of depth can even be applied to in-game relationships too. Not only can you make friends with a dozen different NPCs around the town, but you can also marry and have kids with any of them without restriction. Feeling the allure of a more artsy waifu? Leah is an extremely popular choice. If you’d rather woo the town jock, maybe Alex is more your style. Just give these characters their favorite items, and they’ll let you into their world to any degree you want. Each character has a set routine too, which makes virtual stalking that much easier!
But your connections don’t have to stop there, especially with the ease of access offered by Game Pass in particular. The game also features four-player co-op multiplayer, with a chance for up to three farmhands to join you on your journey. With that setup in mind, Stardew Valley offers the perfect opportunity to be a great virtual chat room after a tough day of real-life work. With ownership freely transferable between a conjoined farm, farmhands never have to feel like they’ve lost control of their agenda.
In short, Stardew Valley is an in-depth simulation experience that works seamlessly around adult schedules, gameplay styles, and lifestyles. It's a game that rewards you for getting lost in its lovable world and its characters without restriction.
Some of that freedom might feel a bit overwhelming at first, but, crack open a decent wiki, and you’ll soon understand why more than 15 million players have fallen under its spell. The fact that Stardew is free with a Game Pass subscription just makes it that much harder to resist. Grab some cocoa and a blanket, because you’re going to need it.