Ahhh, the great outdoors. The fresh air, the picturesque sights; free of any noise and pollution, just me, myself and I, enjoying a singular moment with nature. Well, me and that pig in the house over there. Oh, and those bees that chased me off earlier… And… Did that tree just move? Oh dear.
Let me begin by saying that rather than hold your hand on a whimsical journey through the forest, Don’t Starve would rather rip said appendage off and leave you all alone, limbless, to fend for yourself. This game is brutal, and I mean brutal as in you’re dropped in the middle of a wood somewhere, with absolutely no equipment, no tutorial, no information as to what the hell is going on, and all you’re told is this: don’t starve.
If you like a tutorial with your games, something that tells you “push A to do this” or “mash Z to fire that”, I’m afraid Don’t Starve doesn’t really indulge in your desires. Outside of the small hints the game gives you with what components you need to build certain items, the game really does expect you to go at it on your own. This is absolutely fine if you’re the sort of person that is used to playing a game like this – I’m looking at you guys out there who start a game on the hardest difficulty with absolutely no assistance at all – but for the rest of us out there who like a little bit of a casual beginning, it can be a little bit daunting to find out you’re really not getting any help with this adventure of yours.
While we’re on the point of casual, maybe we should look at this in a little more detail. I don’t mind things being difficult (I can put my big boy pants on when I need to!) but sometimes a game gives you such little direction it verges on insanity. Let me share with you a moment from my first play-through – I had little clue what I was doing, but I figured I should probably gather some of the items from the nearby environment. This carried me so far – to my 3rd day, in fact. Surviving two nights, I felt relatively comfortable to stray a little further from what I had established as “base camp”. I stumbled upon a nest, with a rather pretty egg sitting inside it. The hoarder in me told me I must have it – and two minutes later I’d discovered why it sometimes wasn’t wise to take things that didn’t belong to me. Thus came my first in a long line of deaths, and in any given AAA title, picking up that egg may have resulted in you promptly to the “continue?” screen, but not so with Don’t Starve. You die, you lose everything. It is brutal. I feel I should keep reiterating that point.
One thing that Don’t Starve delivers in spades is subtlety. On my current play-through, I spent a good deal of time just wandering without any specific base, munching on anything I could find to stop myself from spiraling towards that inevitable fate of starvation. One of the things I had chosen to eat was a variety of mushrooms I’d found laying about – they were colorful, and they looked like they’d do my character a whole world of good. In fact, they healed me by an acceptable amount and helped to fend away the hunger that bit longer, plus it wasn’t like I could afford to be picky. It wasn’t until a few days in I realised my sanity was steeping towards the side of dire. It was only then I realised that the mushrooms, while restoring my HP, were slowly making me go crazy. In an absurdly intelligent manner, Don’t Starve teaches you a lot not only about the world Winston, the protagonist, inhabits, but also about the one we’re living in right now. Don’t always take things for face-value, it might wind up screwing you over at a later date.
For those unfamiliar with the premise of the game, while “don’t starve” is essentially the main goal of the game, you also have a HP bar and a sanity bar. Losing all of your health inevitably leads to your death, while your sanity bar draining means things begin to blur and you slowly steep further into insanity, to the point of hallucinating. Its a harrowing experience, but it makes the survival aspect of the game that much more brutal (you knew it was coming, folks).
One of the risks with a survival game like this is that fingers begin to get pointed – the comparisons to Minecraft, Terraria, and other games of a similar style begin to get thrown around ad nauseum. However, there’s something just that little bit special about Don’t Starve; its that special kind of strange and weird – the most beautiful kind. Pigs live in houses and you’re forced to live in the woods. There are nods to “people that have come before” dotted all around, such as skeletons, and regardless of how full the world actually is, you never really stop feeling helpless and abandoned. Its magical, really, in a twisted sort of way. Minecraft might have creepers and the occasional spider, but literally everything in this world is trying to kill you, and honestly, most of the time it doesn’t do a half bad job of it either.
Now I know at this stage you’re probably wondering if it really is as hard to survive in this game as everyone makes out – the answer is yes. One thousand times yes. The reason I’ve been using the word “brutal” religiously throughout this review is because it is the one word I can honestly think of that fits the world of Don’t Starve better than any other.
If you’ve gone into the game head first and don’t set up a basecamp soon? Well, you might last 5 days if you’re lucky. Got a little bit of knowledge after dying a few times, realised a fire pit is quite critical to survival? You might last 15. But the magnificent thing about Don’t Starve is that it doesn’t just throw one challenge at you and once you’ve overcome it, that’s endgame. Every time you think you’ve got it cracked, the game throws another curve ball your way. Its ruthless, but damn, is it fun. There’s a learning curve to the whole thing that just makes it an excellent experience, because dying doesn’t mean you’ve lost – it means you’ve learned more for the next time you play.
In a world of games that take you by the hand and lead you through every single tunnel-vision level they have in their repertoire, Don’t Starve is truly a breath of fresh air and isn’t afraid to push the boundaries. This is a game that exhumes so much ruthlessness and depth that it really is the first game I can say that dying is a learning process. You lose absolutely everything when you die, and although your physical possessions and progression are gone, the experience you’ve gained is not. In a word so desperate to end you, experience is really all you’ve got to keep you going, and y’know what? That’s beautiful, because the depth keeps you going with that experience constantly. Two hours into the game I managed to get my hands on the science machine, and really felt like I was beginning to get somewhere. Then the game dumps a set of new challenges on me, and I discover I’ve only really scratched the surface, even though it feels like I’ve been trying to survive forever.
I played Don’t Starve for a fair amount of time before dropping this review, and regardless of that I feel as though I’m doing it a disservice because I’m not really sure how much experience is really “enough”. The game rewards your efforts at survival with new characters, packed with their own traits that makes surviving that little bit more interesting, and every corner you turn around, there’s a new pitfall waiting for you.
In the end, I suppose everyone will have a different experience with Don’t Starve. Its a game that is relentless to the core, but rewards those who keep persevering regardless. From the first time I took an egg that didn’t belong to me, I realised this was a game that wasn’t going to take it easy on me – and that sometimes its rewarding to have your ass kicked.
Don’t Starve will eat you alive – and you’ll love every single minute of it.
Should I play this title?: Yes. Don’t Starve offers up a unique challenge and a depth I’ve not seen in video games in quite some time. Although if you’re not a fan of difficult games, it might not be for you.
Most appealing quality?: The feeling that you’re never anywhere close to finished. Nobody likes a game that’s over before its even begun. Don’t Starve will be rewarding time and time again.
My personal rating: 9/10. A cheeky 1 point knocked off because I feel the only thing that could make Don’t Starve potentially even more fun is co-op mode – two friends working together (or potentially fighting) for a stark lack of resources is an incredible opportunity that I unfortunately feel was missed here.
Price at time of writing: Don’t Starve is currently available at 20% off in the Steam sale for a reduced price of £9.59 – snatch it up while you can. Normal price is £11.99.
Don’t Starve is a survival adventure game by Klei Entertainment, available now on Windows, Linux and Mac.
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