"Don't Starve," or "How to Hunt Rabbits and Start Forest Fires"
Klei Entertainment's quirky survival game is unforgiving, tense, and deceptively welcoming. Featuring Wilson the "Gentleman Scientist" as the player's (first) avatar, the game drops players into an alternate universe where all is fine and well while the sun shines, but ominous, terrifying and even lethal at night. Don't Starve is a game that, like many others in the PC survival genre, drops players into a world with little to no explanation of how to begin.
You awaken in one of the many terrain types the game has to offer, and a mysterious figure tells you that you "don't look too good," and that you "should find some food before it gets dark." Without another word of advice or instruction, the figure disappears, and the player is left to figure out what to do next on their own.
When the sun does eventually set, strange sounds and deep, impenetrable shadows await those too unwise to set up a camp and build a strong fire. Leering eyes and guttural growls creep in from the dark, and unseen monsters threaten to devour the player at every turn. Surviving the first night in Don't Starve is hardly cause for celebration, however. After all, there will be many more nights to come, and each and every one is as dangerous as the last.
Developer/Publisher: Klei Entertainment
Released: April 23, 2012
Players' main goal is simply not to die. Whether by starvation, exposure or an encounter with beasts, death is the irreversible loss of any and all progress you've made; upon death, the player is forced to start all over again at Day 1 of their survival (and after sometimes dozens of days, that can be a crippling blow). Survival is accomplished by rapidly gathering the supplies necessary to make an axe, then some logs for the first night's campfire. The next day, food should be number one on Wilson's to-do list. After that? Well, that's when immediate needs become somewhat easier to control, provided enough wood and food have been stockpiled, and the player can begin to explore the game's vibrant, detailed, and complex world.
The story the game is founded on is somewhat thin, but provides a fun challenge for players. At any time, players can activate "Adventure Mode," taking them into another world where they start fresh, building the scientific contraption known only as the "Wooden Thing" in order to progress from level to level. Players get to carry only four items from level to level, so once again, inventory management and prior planning is key.
The story pits the player against evil mastermind Maxwell, who is responsible for trapping the avatar in this odd dimension. By building the "Wooden Thing," players are able to bring themselves repeatedly one layer closer to Maxwell's lair, with the hopes of eventually defeating him and securing their freedom.
In reality, the story is more of an excuse to build and explore under new and different constraints, and is somewhat like an amplified version of the sandbox mode, testing players' ability to plan and handle unexpected situations on the fly. While an interesting arc, it's not very complex, and is instead a nice way of seeing if you're up to the challenge of getting yourself all the way to Maxwell.
The game may not offer much in the way of tutorials, but it shows tooltips and interactions when you mouse-over anything in the world, and often you can infer what will happen or what you should do just from these tidbits. Saplings, for example, can be harvested into twigs, flowers into petals, berry bushes into edible berries, and so on. The interface is, as with the rest of the game, colorful, intuitive, and slowly but surely self-explanatory. Meters track Wilson's health, hunger, and sanity, and the inventory system is a simple row of boxes along the bottom of the screen. There's a convenient mini-map in the corner to let players know what resources are close by, and a larger map of the explored world (which shows where you've been, where resources are, and the locations of all of your constructions) is only a hotkey away.
Crafting utilities such as "Science Machines" can be constructed, and when in their proximity, the player can then make new and more advanced tools, structures or other implements. Eventually players can build walls and other fortifications, and perhaps, with enough diligence and planning, a whole house. Inventory and storage management slowly becomes key, and organization early will save headaches later on.
Don't Starve is a charming game, and it draws players in quickly with its easily navigable and oftentimes easy to interpret world and building blocks. Players progress at their own pace, which allows the length of playthroughs to grow along with the players' own skills. Often, survival is only one mistake away, and those mistakes will happen frequently in the beginning. Death, while heartbreaking, is only an invitation to try again and persevere, and the rewarding feelings of an extra night survived is well worth the effort. The challenges never stop coming, but advance with the player. Once you've learned to handle campfires that grow out of control or learn to harvest honey without being stung to death by bees, you'll need to learn how to catch new kinds of prey or handle rapidly dwindling sanity, and the hallucinations that come with it.
Score: 8/10 - Review Scale
Perhaps best described as a more grim, directed envisioning of building sims like Minecraft, Don't Starve makes for a very thrilling experience, surrounding players simultaneously with great challenges and even greater potential rewards. Developer updates are frequent and detailed, and in about 30 hours of gameplay, I encountered no bugs or glitches. The art direction is astounding, and the whimsical, sometimes unsettling music matches the atmosphere of Wilson's world perfectly.
I would recommend this game to anyone who enjoys a good nerve-wracking challenge, and give them these words of advice: Learn to catch rabbits, and try not to set the world on fire.
Originally published at Tomodom.com.