April 23 2013
PC, Mac, Linux
Don’t Starve has you explore an expansive world as you die again and again and still come back for more.
Don’t Starve is a roguelike-like that has a lot to offer, including a steep learning curve. Unlike most games, you will almost never feel as though you can get strong enough to survive your environment. Instead, you’ll be constantly looking over your shoulder, hoping desperately to have enough time to make it back to camp before dark.
Despite the difficulty curve in Don’t Starve, it’s a very rewarding game. If you can master the day-night cycle and the constant fear of being torn apart by monsters that lurk in the dark, you’ll find hours and hours of solid gameplay here.
The game starts you out with nothing but the shirt on your back. In fact, the only goal you really have is implicitly stated in the title of the game: don’t starve. You’ll quickly learn that, even though starving is one way to lose the game, you can also die from losing all your health or losing your mind. Keeping your stomach, your health, and your mind healthy are really the three main objectives you’re presented with from the get-go.
The game has you collect resources in order to survive, whether that’s as simple as collecting berries to fill your tummy with or as complicated as convincing pig-men to help you take down an angry tallbird in order to steal its eggs. To add to the complexity, the game’s crafting system is deep and requires the construction of multiple special machines in order to unlock the next level of crafting possibilities.
“If you’re not prepared to deal with dying over and over again, each time learning new and creative ways to die, this may not be the game for you.”
Let’s break down what a typical early game experience is like. First, you need to find something to build a fire because when darkness comes, well let’s just say you’ll need some light to keep you safe. Next, you’re going to want to find some food. That might be as innocuous as pulling a carrot out of the ground or it might involve a bit more effort like taking down a colony of bees to harvest their honey.
Once you have the staples necessary to survive the first night, you’ll want to find a safe spot to settle down and think through your game plan. Are you going to horde food in your camp so you can always have a safe haven to return to? But what if the food goes bad? Maybe it’s time to collect the materials you’ll need to make an ice box.
While you’re out looking for those materials, you might find that you’re going to need a weapon in order to get some fur off some beast that lives in the middle of swamp filled with dangerous hidden creatures and traps. Guess you’ll have to craft some armor too.
The game continues on like this for who knows how long. I typically try to beat a game before reviewing it but Don’t Starve seems to go on forever. In fact, it’s so long and difficult that pushing through the difficulty curve might not even be worth it to some people. If you’re not prepared to deal with dying over and over again, each time learning new and creative ways to die, this may not be the game for you.
Thankfully, if you do have the prowess to establish a base camp for your character, there is more to explore, including an elaborate cave system with grotesque new monsters and a series of challenges that might help you uncover a bit of the story behind the mysterious Maxwell character that greets you at the beginning of each playthrough.
Like I said above, there isn’t much here in terms of story, but that doesn’t mean the presentation falls flat. The graphics are great, creating an intricate, procedurally-generated world with 2D art pieces in a 3D environment. Each piece of the world is designed with lots of detail, not to mention the beasties you’ll encounter are always a strange mix of at least two different animals. Whether it’s rabbits with antennae or bees with six eyes, every living creature has some twist to it’s DNA.
Another visual treat is the change that happens when your sanity drops too low. Expect to see rabbits turn black and shadows come to life and attack you (they might even drop something useful if you fight back). Add that to the psychadelic vision blur and the whole thing is fittingly panic-inducing.
One complaint I do have about the visual design is that, in the crafting menu, many of the objects that you need to make new things look largely like indistinguishable blobs. I played this game on the Vita and on a desktop and, even with a larger monitor, some of the things the game expects you to collect are simply impossible to understand. While certain materials make sense (pig tails come from pigs, feathers come from birds), others are a little harder to interpret (black chunks are actually charcoal made from burning down trees).
Understandably, part of the game’s allure is exploring the world and learning what things do as you go along, but some of the early game frustration could have easily been mitigated by making the crafting menu a little more transparent.
“The game may make it hard as hell to get anywhere but at least you can tweak it to suit your needs.”
Although the game doesn’t offer you anything permanent that you can take from playthrough to playthrough, you will unlock new characters by earning experience points (each time you die, the number of days you survived will grant you some experience points). The alternate characters include a robot that gets hurt in the rain and a girl whose dead sister lives in a flower that she carries around with her.
These extras are a nice addition but they tend to detract from the game. Each one has a particular strength as well as a weakness such as being afraid of the dark or starting fires by accident. The default character, Wilson, has no weaknesses or strengths, making him a nice baseline for exploring the world. There are already so many dangers that playing as a flawed character on top of everything makes the game too frustrating.
One of the greatest achievements of this game’s extra features, however, is the ability to mess with the difficulty settings. You can adjust so many different aspects of the world, from the length of seasons to the number of rabbits that appear on the map. The game may make it hard as hell to get anywhere but at least you can tweak it to suit your needs.
Don’t Starve is a tricky game to review simply because it doesn’t seem to end. As much as it requires you to get creative with how you survive, it also demands patience as you wait for crops to grow or snow to melt. If you have what it takes to sit through two months of scrambling to keep your heart beating only to die and start all over, you’ll find a home in Don’t Starve.
NOTE: I played this game on both a PC and a Playstation Vita. While the PC version ran fine, the Vita version showed noticeable lag when too many sprites were on the screen at once, especially once I had been playing for a while. The Vita version also crashed multiple times, failing to auto-save and returning me to the main menu.
+ MAJOR: huge amount of content to explore
+ MINOR: art style serves the atmosphere well
+ MINOR: experience is easy to tailor to your play style
– MAJOR: difficulty curve is extremely steep
– MINOR: lack of UI labeling makes it hard to explore options
– MINOR: unlockable characters don’t add much
Flipped Stomach is Mikael Raheem. He writes a lot of stuff, from fiction to game reviews to feature articles to bathroom stall phone numbers. You can find more of his work at flippedstomach.com or follow him on twitter: @flippedstomach.