Review: Don’t Starve
There’s a definite element of horror to survival games. It could be the fear of a wild animal tearing apart your fragile corner of civilization, or simply the sickening realization that you planned poorly and you’re going to starve to death. Don’t Starve capitalizes on both of these fears and more, pitting you against a stretch of nature that isn’t just inhospitable, but actively seeks your destruction. And if that sounds stressful and downright painful at times, you should have a good idea of what you’re getting into.
Don’t Starve starts you off with a spread of characters to choose from (with more to unlock) and world customization options, and then deposits you into an isometric wilderness. Just about every object in the world is interactable and will become important to your survival and prosperity, but the initial steps are simple enough. Flint and twigs make tools for chopping wood and mining stone, which can be refined further into building materials that unlock new equipment options. You’ll be setting up fully-featured camps but be aware that cabins and castles aren’t in the cards… the best you can do is walls and some simple flooring.
This feeling of permanent exposure is important to the atmosphere, because you are never fully safe in this cruel world. There’s a pervasive sense of ancient evil to everything, from the twisted trees to the dead-eyed spiders to the writhing tentacles beneath the marshes. One key to survival is light, because without it the pitch-black night is certain death. I’m not just waxing poetic here, if you get caught in the dark for more than about five seconds, you die. But even a roaring campfire is no guarantee that marauding wolves, angry frogs, or far larger things won’t end your life.
Death is where the real tension of the game is, because death is permanent. No do-overs, no checkpoints, no reloads. When you die, that character and that world are gone. Now, permadeath has proven to work for short roguelikes but a game where you spend hours exploring a world and building a settlement is a whole different ballgame, and it’s here that Don’t Starve threatens to lose most of its audience. Dying in this game really, really, reallysucks, because it’s always from something perfectly avoidable, comes so quick, and wipes out literal hours of progress.
So why beat your head against this game? Because as long as you DON’T die, it’s an excellent survival simulator. You’ll never reach a point where you’re fully comfortable in the world, and there are always greater beasts and scarier places to overcome. Even the most basic materials remain relevant as your mastery over the land grows, and while you gain new ways to make gathering resources quick and painless, you still have survival tasks to complete. Eventually you’ll be cultivating farms, researching artifacts, and preparing for harsh winters, all of which are involved and gratifying goals.
You’ll have to deal with some trial and error in finding the best ways to survive and use what you find, and that can mean some frustration as you learn to deal with food spoiling or beekeeping or other surprisingly lethal pastimes. But once you do there’s a big, strange world to explore, and that’s really only the beginning. There’s a story mode hidden out there in the wilds that you’ll only find once you master survival, and getting through THAT is its own grand adventure. Wrapped up as it is in charming hand-drawn graphics and rich sound design, there’s plenty to keep you invested in Don’t Starve. It’s a game that asks for a lot of patience and understanding, but it’s one of the few that really earn it, too.