This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Stardew Valley & Superhot.
Stardew Valley is a retro-style farming simulator recently released on Steam that's somewhat reminiscent of Harvest Moon. Oh, sorry, I read that wrong. Stardew Valley is Harvest Moon. It murdered Harvest Moon, stole Harvest Moon's skin and befriended Harvest Moon's parents under the guise of consoling them in their hour of grief. Same visual style, same tile-based crop growing, same animal rearing, same day-night-four-season-three-year-cycle, same relationship mechanic where you seduce the local hotties by sprinting up and shoving berries in their face twice a week. It is one of the 16-bit Harvest Moon games, if it were quite a bit bigger in scope and had a crafting element. And you know what that means: time to smelt some fucking iron! If I gathered up all the iron I've ever smelted in crafting games, I could build a giant statue to the god of wasting my fucking time.
Also, Harvest Moon never had pixel art that blended multiple sizes of pixel resolution, which never fails to look like a packet of fried bum holes. Maybe I'm a little bit bitter because I somehow clocked up 50 hours on this game in the course of one week, and I could have used some of that time to do chores or eat food. You see, Harvest Moon was always good at hitting my addiction receptors. It's probably something to do with following a daily routine in the service of gradually building up to bigger and better things. Or maybe it's the way little hearts appear above a cow's head as we stand behind it making very suspect gestures until white liquid squirts out.
The scope of Stardew Valley is a bit intimidating. At first you're given a field full of weeds and sticks and told that your first job is to introduce yourself to all 28 residents of this maze-like town who are all in different locations and constantly moving. But think of it as a game world that you grow into. Don't worry about making friends with all 28 of them straight away. For one thing, only ten of them are on your knobbing radar, calm thy trousers Don Juan. Just clear a little space and try to grow some parsnips and the next thing you know, fifty hours have passed and the missing persons bureau have written you off for dead.
If you are a 100% completion nutter, then you're going to need a spreadsheet and a lobotomy. But I just took things as they came, did enough to make progress, and concentrated on seducing the one girl in the next field over who was happy with being given flowers I found in the dirt outside her house. Mind you, I was only doing it to tick marriage off the checklist, there's not much that differentiates the town's eligible spunk receptacles besides hairdos and what two line dialogue they quote day after fucking day. Why do people only like us more if we give them material goods? What is this, village of the ultra-capitalists? Can't there be characters who grow to admire us from afar for our firm outdoorsman's physique and faint smell of cow plops?
Stardew Valley got me temporarily hooked, but then, so did crystal meth, and I'm not entirely sure I'd recommend either. The gamepad support is for absolute shit (In Stardew Valley I mean. Gamepad support for crystal meth was perfectly alright after the day 1 update). And the controls are overall kinda wonky. Keep something handy to bite down upon for the first time you accidentally plough a ten-day-old patch of eleven-day melons. It's frightening how a routine and the promise of eventual, almost certainly disappointing reward can condition one's mind. A duck feather probably doesn't sound like treasure, but when it's the only item I need to complete a special item collection and I've got a coop full of ducks staying stubbornly attached to their feathers for five fucking seasons, this is probably the environment in which duck religion starts.
So let's move on to the diametric opposite of Harvdew Moonvalley: it's an entirely new gameplay concept - you murder instead of befriending everyone and it was finished after about two hours: SUPERHOT, a first-person arena-type shooter in which time only moves when you move, which is an immediately intriguing idea, isn't it? So it's a shame I have to start qualifying it now: time does move a little bit. So even standing still, you're in trouble if bullets are crawling towards you in their bullet wheelchairs. Still, you don't want the pace to drop completely I suppose. SUPERHOT reminds me of Hotline Miami, and Hotline Miami would have lost something if you'd been able to stop dead in the middle of a frenzied death battle to have a quick sandwich and a poo. Where Hotline Miami compensated for its massively unfair combat with the ability to die and respawn approximately four times per second, SUPERHOT's slow time thing allows for taking a thoughtful pseudo-turn-based approach.
A touch I particularly like is at the end of each level you see a replay of how your performance looked in real time. Shame that they felt the need to cover the screen in garbage and mute the sound with a computer voice reading out the name of the game over and over again, like they programmed a robot with Paris Hilton's entire vocabulary. I wonder if the sheer spectacle of things is inherently lessened when, as with all first-person games, it feels like we're controlling a tall cardboard box balancing on a Roomba. But on the whole, it's a neat gameplay concept, I wouldn't say the game as a whole does it justice. You exclusively fight uniform, untextured red mannequins white rooms, it's like being in an advert for a stain remover that specializes in menstrual fluid. And what passes for a story is over in under two hours. There are challenge modes after that, but I've established to my satisfaction what a dying red figurine looks like, thanks.
The aesthetic deliberately goes for the retro computer look, so the menus are all in ASCII and there is added scan lines, bloom and curving at the edges to look like it's on a CRT monitor, a style that is just now veering over into being prevalent enough in indie games to start trying my patience. I didn't buy a flatscreen TV to be constantly reminded of the obsolete shit it's supposed to have replaced, indie gaming, that's what we elect new presidents for. The story is told partly through a fake instant messenger during which we are expected to pretend to type in order to make the protagonist's dialogue appear. There's something faintly pathetic about that. It's like the audience participation at the Christmas panto. We all know damn well the forthcoming events will not change whether we yell, "he's behind you", or not! But you're going to hold everything up until we say it, aren't you, you fucking cross-dressing bitch?
The plot is: we play a big nerd sitting in front of a computer playing games- Whoa, slow down, SUPERHOT, give me a chance to get into character!- who gets sent the hot new game by their online friend and the barriers between game and reality start to break down as a mysterious force within the game begins to mess with you in a rather weaksauce and desperate manner. "Hahaha, we're in control now, you cannot escape. Press ESC and see what happens." Could I just play the next combat mission please? "Hit ESC you prick!" Alright, fine. "Hahaha, it didn't work! As cat with mouse, I toy with thee! Now I'm going to make you quit the game and restart it again! What now, bitch?" I don't know, maybe I'll get some work done. "Wait, come back!"
You're not as clever as you think you are, SUPERHOT! Undertale pulled off the quit-and-restart gag 'cause it had earned it. Without that, it's just annoying. Metanarrative-style fuckabouts is like the backstroke: if you start doing it before we're immersed, you just look like a twat.
- Ee eye ee eye oh: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- And do those Christmas panto shysters really expect us to believe that two blokes under a rug can pass for a real horse
- Hello ladies check out my big parsnip