Imagine waking up in a forest. As you open your eyes, it’s immediately apparent that the scenery around you is as sinister as it is alien; everything, even objects as innocuous as trees and flowers look as if they want to hurt you. As you stand up, you notice the grumbling in your stomach and the quickly waning daylight and one thing becomes obvious; surviving here is not going to be easy.
Welcome to Don’t Starve, a brutally difficult game of exploration and survival from indie outfit Klei Entertainment. In some ways, Don’t Starve is an exercise in futility, but for players who love challenging themselves and setting their own goals it can be immensely rewarding.
Every time you start a new game you get thrown into a new randomly generated world. As you explore and gather the essential materials for survival, you slowly fill in the map, and you realize just how big the world is. Exploring the whole map is a daunting task, but each world is full of new things to discover. Crafting items is a big part of the game, and just about every object can be used for one thing or another. The crafting process is extensive – the recipes become increasingly complicated, and many of the higher level items require ingredients that you’ll probably die trying to retrieve. There’s always something new to find or build, and that constant positive feedback can become completely intoxicating.
The game looks great. The macabre hand-drawn graphics create an aesthetic that is at once familiar and fresh; the art of illustrator Gris Grimley comes to mind, as does the dark setting of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events; but Don’t Starve is anything but derivative. The playable characters – of which there are many to choose from, all unlocked gradually – and monsters are animated with care and personality. The result is a game that’s as fun to look at as it is to play.
There are three stats that you need to keep track of at all times in Don’t Starve. The first and most obvious is hunger, which empties at a constant pace. Finding, growing and capturing food ends up taking most of your time, and is a task which becomes increasingly more difficult the longer you play. Carrots and berries grow naturally, but you’ll have to compete with the wildlife for that naturally growing fauna. The more efficient route is to make traps and catch food, but that can also be risky. If you can’t manage to catch anything throughout the day, then you’re in for a long night.
The second stat is your health. Just about everything in Don’t Starve wants you dead, and you start out pathetically weak. Trees come to life and attack you while you attempt to cut them down, bees swarm you for getting too near their hives and wild hounds attack you try to eat you. You’re not the only one trying to survive on the desolate island. New items like weapon and armor can be crafted to help you survive, but you always seem to be overpowered by the the biggest monsters. Your health is also affected by your hunger; if your stomach hits empty, then your life starts to drain.
Combat in the game is serviceable, but it never feels great. There’s no real depth beyond clicking and holding; you essentially just hit an enemy the way you would a tree. The only difference is that the enemies hit back. Other than what armor that you wear and the weapon that you have equipped, you have almost no control over the outcome of the battle; fighting multiple enemies at once can be overly difficult. It’s easy to click on the wrong thing during combat while the camera and enemies move, and you’ll often find yourself attacking a bush while some monster damages you relentlessly. Considering that combat makes up such a large portion of the game, it’s disappointing that it feels so clumsy and awkward; often, it feels unfair.
The third, and in many cases the hardest need to attend to, is your sanity. The mental state of each character is affected differently; some are afraid of the dark and lose sanity precipitously throughout the night, one in particular is comforted by fire and gains sanity whenever standing next to a flame. The eventual effect for all characters is the same though, things start getting weird when their sanity gets low. Hallucinations start appearing at when you are down to half of your sanity, and as it drops lower the hallucinations become more invasive until finally when it is completely gone they become all too real.
To keep yourself sane and healthy, you need to make a home, build a place to sleep and plant crops for a renewable food source. You can also build basic structures, but unfortunately the process of building is shallow and frustrating. You can lay flooring and build walls that do not line up with each other properly, but beyond that you can really only construct a pre-designed tent and lay it next to your crafting machines. The building mechanic feels so underdeveloped that it seems out of place and somewhat superfluous.
If you don’t keep track of your vital stats, take on a monster that’s far too large, or make even a single unfortunate mistake, then you’ll die. Death is permanent in Don’t Starve, and though there are a few ways within the game to bring yourself back from the dead, they eventually run out and you have to face the music. Though it is becoming an increasingly popular design choice as of late, permanent death will be a real turn-off for some players. Perhaps the best feature of the game however is the extensive options that it gives you in world creation. If you ever find yourself frustrated, you can simply go into the settings and make it easier; more food, less monsters, longer days- even no nights whatsoever. on the other hand, if you desire more challenge you can fill the world with monsters and snow and attempt to survive in the most dire of circumstances.
Don’t Starve simply isn’t for everybody, but that’s okay; it is a game about setting your own goals and trying to get further and last longer than you ever have before, and while some players have no room in their gaming diet for a game like that, many will find themselves hopelessly addicted.