Game Review: Don’t Starve (2012) PC
So, gentle readers, what do you get when you cross Survivor, Skyrim, and one of Tim Burton’s wet dreams?
No, not Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter stuck on an island with dragons, awesome as that might be. No, the answer I was looking for is a weird little game called “Don’t Starve”, brought to us by Klei Games, makers of “Mark of the Ninja”, “Eets”, and “Shank”.
“Don’t Starve” is still in the development stages, but by pre-ordering it you get immediate access to the beta, and for a beta, it’s pretty fucking complete. To set the stage, you wake up in the middle of the wilderness, no clue has to how you got there, and your ever-present goal is simply to survive. As the title implies, you must find food, but in addition you need to build fires at night, craft weapons and traps, and learn who’s who in this vast and varied new world if you’re to make it beyond the first day.
The artwork is quite striking, with a dark, Victorian style reminiscent of Gahan Wilson and Edward Gorey. I’m personally somewhat disappointed at the limited bestiary, but that may be expanded as updates continue. In the meantime, though, the monsters are all nicely rendered and animated, and each character has their own unique look and style. There’s a hint of steampunk about the game, considering the characters can build science and alchemy machines, but go in here expecting gears and dirigibles and I guarantee disappointment. Survival, not escape, and not dominion, is the name of the game here, and it’s where the game shines.
Survival can seem fairly simple at first glance. There are berry bushes, wild carrots, and edible flowers all for the taking. The enterprising can gather twigs and grass to construct animal traps and get a welcome taste of meat as well. But as the first day draws to a close, the first problem arises. With the cover of darkness comes unseen dangers your character is helpless to defend against. The only defense against the nocturnal terrors is fire, and that fire quickly becomes your best friend. Aside from keep the monsters at bay, fire enables you to cook your food, increasing both its healing properties and how filling it is. But fire also requires fuel, which comes in the form of grass, twigs, logs, flower petals, and animal dung, all of which must be gathered from the perilous world around you. And the further you explore, the more perilous the world becomes.
Giant spiders, killer bees, swamp tentacles, territorial cyclopian birds, and more will be quite happy to bring your exploration to an end. And while it may seem best to just hang in one area, the resources will quickly diminish the longer you stay, and in addition, at random intervals, black monsters known only as “Hounds” will appear, and unless you’re prepared for a fight, you must run a great distance before they cry off. And if you die, you must begin again right from day one, all of your items and structures lost. A lot of the frustration of this is lost, however, in the fact that you can generate a whole new map to explore rather than just reloading. The number of maps is infinite, and keeps the game fresh and interesting. In addition, the longer you stay alive, the more experience you accumulate, and this experience can be used to unlock new playable characters, each with their own look and abilities, from a circus strongman who’s an excellent warrior to a pyromaniac who lights fires automatically at the approach of dark. So far everyone I’ve spoken to has a different preferred character, and all for different reasons.
The game has an enjoyable, Elfman-esque soundtrack, but the real mastery shows in the use of ambient sound. From the birdsong in the forest to the crashing of the waves to the croaking of the frogs to the buzzing of the bees, the natural world around you comes alive with noises. But it’s not just for atmosphere; sound can play a vital part in your character’s survival. The diminishing crackles of your fire can warn that it needs replenishing, and once you’ve heard it, you will never forget the heavy breathing that heralds the arrival of the Hounds.
As the days progress, decisions become more and more nerve-wracking. Do you use your last flint to construct a pick to dig up more flints, or do you make an ax to chop down logs in preparation for nightfall? Do you roast those seeds for food, or use them for farming? Do you keep your last berries to stave off hunger, or do you use them as bait to catch animals and get more nourishing meat? Resources are finite, and a lot of choices have to be made. Any one of them could keep you alive for another day, or could lead to your demise. In addition, the game allows you to replant berry bushes and trees, domesticate some of the wildlife, till plots of land, and even rearrange sections of biome. It makes what could be a simple farming/gathering game surprisingly immersive and intense.
Are there flaws here? Damn straight. The difficulty curve is non-existent; your character retains the same capabilities and amount of health no matter how long you survive. You can construct weapons and armour, but you can’t equip your armour and your backpack at the same time. So it’s go without, or lose a third of your inventory. And it is intensely frustrating to have your whole camp set up, including farm plots, cooking pots, fire pits, etc., only to be stung to death by a fucking bee before you can regain your health.
In addition, the game still is in beta, and any beta has its glitches, particularly if you use the experimental map generator. The game can also be frustratingly unforgiving, especially for an amateur; my first few times playing, I never made it past day three (Some lessons learned: Don’t poke spider nests, and don’t poke beehives. Also the slashing, spiked tentacle in the swamp is not your friend, not matter how many hentais say otherwise).
Finally, the game has no apparent resolution. After a certain amount of time, when you’ve constructed all the crafts, got a solid camp, have your own apiary, and are over 60 days in, you’re left wondering, “What’s next?” And as of yet, there’s no answer. This may change, however; you are woken on day one by a mysterious figure named Maxwell who then disappears for the rest of the game (and believe me, folks, by the third time you’ve heard him say, “Say pal, you don’t look so good,” you’ll want to put your fist through your monitor just so you can say you punched him). Since the game is still being updated, it’s entirely possible Maxwell will have a key role to play, but for now he just makes you wish for some of Judge Doom’s Dip.
Despite these flaws, however, “Don’t Starve” is a unique, intriguing, and immersive game. I’ve caught myself playing it for hours on end, thinking, “Just one more day, just one more day.” There’s enough variety in maps, terrain, and playable characters to make each game a unique experience, and the game features regular updates to gameplay, crafting items, monsters, and characters. What flaws it has will quite likely be removed as updates progress. In the meantime, though, “Don’t Starve” will make a welcome addition to the library of anyone who enjoys sandbox and survival games.