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‘Stardew Valley’ for iPhone Hands-On Preview

Stardew Valley was originally released back in early 2016, and quickly exploded in popularity as ConcernedApe basically took the foundations of casual farming simulators like Harvest Moon but cranked the whole thing up to 11. When it’s released on the 24th, I’ll own Stardew Valley on three different platforms. Between the original PC game, the Switch port, and now the mobile port I’ve got over 500 hours clocked in and I still find myself discovering new things.

If you’ve never played it before, you’re in for an absolute treat as Stardew Valley is nothing short of a delight. The game begins with you taking over your grandpa’s derelict farm with a loosely structured tutorial through a quest system that has you first clear a bit of your farm to plant a patch of parsnips. After watering them for a few days, you’ve got your first crop to sell at the market in town, where you then buy more seeds, and expand your fields a bit more to turn an even greater profit.

At its most basic, this is the loop that powers the whole game, but aside from tending your farm there’s a silly amount of other things to do ranging from fishing, meeting all the people in the town and discovering their stories, form romantic relationships with them, go adventuring down in a mine filled with monsters, collect artifacts for a museum, and so much more. In fact, if you want to power game it, all the things you can do are fully cataloged in a wiki, but I really think you’re better off playing without ever looking at these sorts of things.

The goal of Stardew Valley is to … really just do whatever you want. It’s wild how open ended the game turns out to be, and how much flexibility there is in not only how you build your farm but also which goals you choose to focus on or ignore entirely. Additionally, unlike games like Animal Crossing with a real time clock where you run out of things to do on a given day, you advance time in Stardew Valley by going to bed, and starting the next day. I’ve lost entire weekends to Stardew Valley, as there’s always something to be doing or working towards.

Anyway, I’ve spent this whole weekend playing the mobile port, and it’s … about as good as you’d expect. Stardew Valley was originally designed to be played with a keyboard and mouse, and I still think that’s the best way to play it. The console ports map these controls to buttons and joysticks, which is fine and still totally playable but it feels far less than ideal. The touch-based controls feel like another step away from the best way to play the game.

However, prior to the mobile release, the version of Stardew Valley I played the most was the Switch port. You know the saying about how the best camera is the one you have with you? Well, Stardew Valley is the same way. I played tons on the Switch because it was super easy to bring with me, and that vastly outweighed the slightly less than ideal controls. This applies even more to the mobile port, as being able to have Stardew Valley in my pocket is worth dealing with any control scheme.

This time around, movement is handled via a tap to move system where your character will pathfind to wherever you touch. Alternatively, you can hold your finger on the screen and your character will constantly walk in that direction. Tool selection is actually a little better than it was on the Switch, with a bar on the left side of the screen that you can tap to change what you currently have equipped and for tasks around your farm your character will intelligently equip whatever tool is required for the thing you want to do.

For instance, when you’re first clearing your farm, tapping on a rock hits it with your pick axe, tapping a tree hits it with your axe, and so on. When you go down into the mines, you can either have your character attack automatically whenever there’s an enemy in range, or use an on-screen virtual button to attack. Auto attack works decent enough in the early game, although I’m really curious how the deeper levels will be.

My primary complaint I have with the mobile controls is pretty similar to that of Old School RuneScape in that in Stardew Valley there’s a ton of stuff going on and tapping on the tiny grid squares that make up the Stardew Valley world requires a lot of precision. Fat-fingering now and again is more or less inevitable. When you play on the iPad, this problem is completely negated as the touch points on the larger screen are also obviously larger as well. It would be really cool if there was some kind of pinch to zoom functionality so you could zoom way in when you’re trying to be precise about what seeds go where, or which square of soil you’re trying to hit with your hoe to blend the size of the iPad UI with the portability of the iPhone.

The biggest disappointment is lack of any kind of iCloud save game syncing, as this is definitely the kind of game I’d want to play on multiple devices. You can manage your game saves through iTunes, which is an unexpected bonus, but hooking my iPhone up to my computer, downloading my save, plugging in my iPad, and transferring it over is a process I shouldn’t need to go through in 2018 to move my progress around. I’d really love to see a system similar to the one that Square Enix uses in their Final Fantasy ports in that there’s a online save slot that you can upload your game to, then download it on another device.

I imagine my super minor gripes about the controls and save game syncing will make almost no difference to most people who are just curious about Stardew Valley and are only now checking it out for the first time because they can get it on their phones. (If that’s the camp you’re in, you need to immediately grab this game when it’s available on the 24th.) One other thing that’s surprisingly cool about this port is that the save games you download from iTunes also work on the PC version (and vice versa), so if 100 hours into the game your farm is complicated enough that you’re capping out on what you can comfortably do with the mobile controls, you can just keep playing on the PC. It’s super rad to have that flexibility.

Even after two and a half days of playing Stardew Valley on my phone, it’s still hard to believe this is a thing that exists. I remember when the Switch port was released thinking how amazing it would be to have this game on the App Store, but ultimately just figured it’s way too complicated to work on a touchscreen. The only thing that’s even “missing" from the mobile port is the multiplayer modes, although I’m curious if that will eventually make its way to mobile as well as when I asked the developers I got the very diplomatic and noncommittal, “It’s not something we’re able to discuss yet."

Stay tuned for a full review on the 24th, which will probably just be a few thousand words of me gushing about how Stardew Valley is pretty close to the perfect video game.