Over the last decade or so, we have seen a sharp increase of ‘soulslike’ games that attempt (and not always successfully) to capture the same gameplay style and difficulty of Fromsoft’s Dark Souls series. The term ‘soulslike’ has been sort of watered down to the point where it simply means “RPG with ‘hard’ combat in a dark fantasy world”. The Steam store is so saturated with souls-like games that Youtuber Iron Pineapple has made 11 separate videos covering soulslikes “you've never heard of”, each video featuring anywhere from 6 to 9 games. For the most part, this is a good thing: you get several great games such as Dead Cells, Hollow Knight, or even Remnant: From the Ashes. The list quickly starts to taper off into games that aren’t really like Fromsoft games at all, for better or for worse, as developers try to capitalise on the spillover of Souls fans wanting more.
I’m not here to drone on about Dark Souls though, even if it is one of my favourite games that still crushes me like an ant underneath a very, very large steel-toed boot. Instead, I want to focus on another phenomenon I’ve noticed over the last 5 years in gaming — the rise of the Stardew-like. Hear me out: Stardew Valley is the massively successful spiritual successor to the charming quirky farming ‘simulator’ Story of Seasons and Harvest Moon. Despite having frequent releases nearly every year on practically every major system since its initial launch in 1996, Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons never had the same amount of widespread success that Stardew Valley enjoys. I’d go as far as to say that Stardew Valley has eclipsed the very games that inspired it, and is now the excellent gold standard of what we now expect from a farming and life simulator.
This widespread success has of course spawned in several other games that try to capitalize on similar gameplay or a similar core loop to Stardew Valley — grow crops, hang out with the townspeople, live the dreamy agrarian countryside life we’ve all secretly desired after rage-quitting our day jobs — with mixed results. Although it hasn’t had quite the same amount of saturation as soulslikes have had, we are increasingly seeing games that are trying to be like Stardew Valley. Even Story of Seasons itself is trying to be more like its cooler, more hip offspring. Several games such as My Time at Portia, Graveyard Keeper, Staxel, or Forager are some of the better stardewlikes, but they would all still be stronger if they went more in their own directions. Oftentimes, this stardewlike-ness suffocates what would be a stronger game otherwise.
Take Graveyard Keeper, for instance: a game I enjoy far more than Stardew Valley where you embalm, cremate, and oftentimes godlessly defile corpses to bury in a graveyard you are anciently bound to run. The game takes after Stardew Valley in a lot of ways, and is absolutely packed with things to do. The glaring flaw of Graveyard Keeper is that a lot of these activities and mechanics often don’t go as far in-depth as they do in Stardew Valley. For example, there is a fishing minigame in Graveyard Keeper, but I can’t think of a single time I’ve actually used it — why is it there? Or the dungeon levels (Graveyard Keeper's answer to Stardew’s mines): sure, it adds combat, but is it really needed? Or is it just another layer of gameplay to the overall grind?
Another example is how you interact with NPCs within the game. The ‘known NPCs tab’ in your directory lists every important NPC in the game and has a corresponding ‘reputation meter’ to each NPC. This initially implies that there are ways you can interact with the various characters like in Stardew Valley: giving gifts, hanging out, ruthlessly stalking them across the region in order to increase your friendship meters. However, the reputation meters in Graveyard Keeper only serves as a way of measuring your progress throughout the progression of the game, essentially making it a glorified quests menu, and it doesn’t really add anything to the overall characters or game. You don't get that building of meaningful connections players would expect to be building with the characters in the game like you would in Stardew Valley. Horadric, the innkeeper NPC in Graveyard Keeper, is always just the guy you sell “meat” to, and he never really becomes anyone else. Even Gerry, one of the main characters in the game, is just the guy who shows up to explain things or throw in the odd quippy dialogue.
The core gameplay loops of games such as Graveyard Keeper are quite strong, and I often find myself grinding away at various tasks in games like that for hours and hours without realising. However, when the game throws a new activity ripped straight from the Stardew playbook that I am required to complete in order to advance is when I stop playing. The magic of Stardew Valley is that there is a lot of freedom to the game, and many of the Stardewlikes often make you do all of the things that were influenced by Stardew Valley.
Much like several soulslike games, many of these stardewlikes aren’t necessarily adding anything new and that tends to congeal into a grey goop of the same mediocre, grindy games that you play to occupy your hands. While games like Graveyard Keeper are different enough, the influence is definitely still there, and makes for a weaker game at times because of it. Several of these Stardewlikes would be a lot stronger if they went more in their own direction, rather than adhering to certain mechanics just because that’s what Stardew Valley did. While it’s not a novel observation to note that wildly successful games spawn copycats, it’s rare for games like Dark Souls, or now Stardew Valley, to spawn whole genres of games, and that is something very special.