Genre: Action/Adventure, Survival
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Publisher: Klei Entertainment
Systems: XOne, iOS, Wii U, PS3, PS4, PSVita, PC, Linux, Mac OS
To me, Don’t Starve is the perfect Halloween game. It’s not scary per se; when playing, you won’t be expecting the jolt of a forthcoming jumpscare. Nor will you encounter ghosties or ghoulies, at least none that are so readily apparent.
What Don’t Starve does capture, however, is the spiritual essence of Halloween as an event; an archaic festival shrouded in superstition. Don’t Starve’s Mother Nature is harsh and distrustful, and as you strive to cobble together supplies to last the night, you’re all the while reminded of the inevitable darkness looming, and the threat of the unknown encloaked within it. So I wanted to do a review. A spooky review.
Usually with survival sims, you get what you pay for. And Klei’s Don’t Starve, on the face of it, looks conspicuously conformative in this regard. But as the ashen wilderness fills in around me, it becomes frightfully apparent that starving will often be the very last thing on my mind. How could I have been so naive.
Incidentally, that is a question that surfaces time and time again in Don’t Starve. As much as I’d like to scream profanity at the cruelty at each of my timely deaths in this game, I’m simultaneously reminded that the entire experience was resultant of my decisions, and my decisions alone. The world of Don’t Starve is deliberately elusive; veined with paths to places unknown that beckon with duplicitous reassurance.
In this distinctively hand-drawn realm, even the trees are out to get you. As Wilson, the gentleman scientist, you tumble forth into a volatile dimension that you’re left to figure out alone. Chop too much wood and the stoic evergreens will fight back. Leave your camp for too long and risk it being taken over by beligerent flora. Fail to arm yourself correctly and you’ll be torn limb-from-limb by packs of scratchy hellhounds. This isn’t a world that takes too kindly to visitors, and whilst one mistake won’t necessarily kill you, it’ll leave you weak at the cold hard mercy of the impending seasons, which greatly motivates a less-than-brazen approach to the game’s exploration elements.
The fleeting daylight makes each objective huge, often requiring entire in-game days to complete and (more often than not) undue bloodshed. As such, every quest you embark on could catch you far from home as dusk descends, an experience that is terrifying, but certainly never dull. Such are the frailties of many a simulator title.
But hidden within its perpetual gloom, Don’t Starve maintains a charming sense of character, making your bedraggled fight for survival as amusing as it is challenging. Characters are exaggerated, grotesque; look and act like children playing dress-up, often resonating an eccentric sense of in-game logic. Chucking fish in a crock pot with some salvaged branches obviously makes fishsticks, whilst earmuffs during winter consist of merely two live rabbits. These details come as an unexpected laugh in Don’t Starve, offering a childlike sense of humour in an otherwise ominous enviroment.
Whilst trawling the wilderness for components and ingredients, you’ll inevitably have hunger and health bars to contend with; a piece de resistance of the survival genre. But after a few days of skulking for scraps you’re inevitably going to go a little loopy. As such, Don’t Starve‘s sanity meter is easily diminished by murdering passive creatures, being rained on and the all-encompassing nighttime. Allow yourself to go barmy and you’ll become prey to your own psyche, as blurred hallucinations zip in and out of awareness in attempt to do you in. While ominous, the notion of the player as their own worst enemy is a refreshing one.
Gameplay in Don’t Starve is orchestrated, rather than truly wild; a vital approach that allows its more whimsical elements to shine. The concept of a crafting system isn’t exactly unheard of by now, for Minecraft has made sure of that. But even amongst its pixellated siblings, Don’t Starve’s contents of craftables feels natural, purposeful and downright amusing. Most inventions are simple essentials needed for farming and combat, but the game’s imaginative flair peeks cheekily through some of the more optional accessories. From magical staffs to baseball bats made of ham, whether your allegiances lie with the practical or the daft, Don’t Starve will reward or punish you accordingly. And then probably punish you some more.
Craft and inventory systems are smartly organised to ensure speedy construction, and are superbly mapped to the PS4’s controller from the original PC layout. The mundanities of scrolling through supplies are choreless and comfortable thanks to the dual stick controls, and even minor fixes like holding down a command to auto-harvest stand out. There’s nothing particularly wrong with its PC controls, but the gamepad feels more precise; something that goes a long way when daylight’s running thin.
Although Don’t Starve‘s difficulty seems deliberate, its roguelike features have been criticised in the past for their crushing attitude towards the player. Whilst there are ways to cheat death once or twice, you’re more often sent back to the drawing board, with precious little to show for hours of encumbered toil.
On a further note, the game’s thrashing nature sometimes lacks justification. Upon my return from chipping away in a rock biome, I discovered my camp had been made undwellable by a carnivorous plant, as I spiralled into the winter months. Much of what happens in Don’t Starve is simultaneous, making it difficult to stave off luckless happenings to avoid biting the dust, which often induces more rage than reward.
But Don’t Starve‘s smart, innocent outlook and intriguing domain is what has me coming back for more. It’s still a delightful challenge that constantly forces you to adapt to your increasingly vicious surroundings, and success in the face of oblivion is intensely satisfying.
The harrowing world of Don’t Starve balances the charming with the precarious, offering a brutal challenge and inquisitive vibe that emanates Halloween spirit. Despite its heartwrenching permadeath and, at times, overwhelming sense of threat, it’s a meticulously designed survival title that mollycoddles you none. If, like myself, you consider yourself more Halloweenie than Halloweener, Don’t Starve will creep you out, without assaulting your amygdala, as it injects risk into every decision you make.
Don’t Starve, Halloweensfolk!