By Tom Hooper aka Atomp
Today I’m returning to my somewhat recurring unforgiving-survival-games theme with Klei Entertainment’s Don’t Starve. This is a currently in beta 2.5D wilderness survival game with liberal sprinklings of science, magic and a hefty dose of character. As is your standard for survival games it’s necessary to explore, collect and craft your way into reasonable comfort and then fight to maintain the very same. On top of this is the rogue-like/survival hardcore brutality of significant progress loss on death.
The core to your survival is the satisfaction of three meters; health, hunger and sanity. Different items and foodstuffs prepared in different ways will all affect these three in some manner, be it skipping through the wilderness picking flowers to improve sanity, eating a grilled rabbit to satiate hunger or using a healing salve for your health. This is pretty normal stuff in survival games, even the sanity meter has analogues in other games (Project Zomboid for example, a game that I still need to write about), however Don’t Starve does the whole thing very well. The lack of a manual or hand-holding or warnings means that eating something unknown could very well be the end of you on that particular attempt. There is also a large variety of different consumables which can be gathered, acquired and processed through a variety of different techniques and equipment. For example roasted berries are the possibly the simplest, created using just a handful of berries and a campfire. However to survive on roasted berries would take considerable effort as the regrowth rate on the bushes is slow, the bushes themselves spread thin and the eventual cooked product being inefficient. The game world provides solutions to these problems in some form or the other, although you may starve before finding them the first time.
The main threat to your precious health meter probably won’t be the happenstance accidental poisoning, the main threat at least early on will be the dark. Don’t Starve doesn’t like darkness and when playing it neither will you. Darkness is the unknown, it could contain countless horrors that could have teeth and claws or even more vile things or mean sharpness and when playing Don’t Starve just assume that it does. You are quite welcome to ignore that advice but be ready for a fresh attempt following a gruesome death that it’s too dark to see. My early Minecraft play managed to instill a sense of foreboding over the night. This was back in the early beta releases and I clearly remember hiding in a tiny hovel from the monsters outside and I’d expect that many others got this feeling too, well Don’t Starve ramps this up massively. Once night falls the light from your fire is the only safe haven in the world, a tiny island in a sea of black or a flimsy proverbial wall against the owners of those glowing eyes, watching and waiting. That’s not to say that the day time is a frolic through the park with friendly cows and chickens, far from it. A variety of creatures are to be found dotted throughout the world, with many being neutral initially yet still potentially deadly. Some creatures are somewhat less neutral, let’s just say if you hear a snarling sound then grab your spear, heal up and be ready for a fight.
An in-game extension of the player’s eventual displeasure and cautiousness towards the night is the implementation of the (in)sanity system. This a surprisingly dynamic system with a variety of different effects stemming from different actions and situations. I am reluctant to give too much away, but it’s best to assume that the natural emotional response to something is what will happen in-game. Attempting to live on raw meat and berries whilst sitting curled up next to a small insignificant campfire at night to hide from the monsters of the unknown will probably have some small effect on the sanity meter, let’s just leave it at that.
The style of the game is absolutely worth noting, with its 2.5D perspective combining with a unique cartoony look making it immediately distinguishable. The sketch-like drawn style of the art is an interesting choice for a game as brutal as this and yet it manages to portray the grimness of the scenario extraordinarily well. The style of the survival with its warped mix of steampunk-like science and ritualistic magic is represented nicely by the art style with everything portrayed clearly yet still attractively. There isn’t much chance that Don’t Starve is going to get mistaken for any game other than Don’t Starve, which in a game market marked by its wealth of choice but lack of uniqueness is certainly a deciding factor. The entire aesthetic shows a significant degree of quality and polish and whilst your average CoD or Battlefield player might assess with a critique that draws on their entire intellect (“looks shit”), to a more discerning taste the cartoony style is an attractive interface to a game of significant depth.
The sound and music of the game are as much an extension of the visual aesthetic as I believe could be plausible. From the very start a style is set in place with accordion voices working so well in the place of the potentially volatile option of voice acting. The ambient sounds of the game world work to immerse the player into said world and importantly the sounds of creatures are distinctive and clear. The music works to provide a background whilst changing in context to the scenario, although that process is not always perfect.
The platform for the game is an interesting point as the primary platform actually being the Chromium engine (Google Chrome). This is an interesting choice and it offers an undeniably cross-platform experience from the get go whilst also ensuring prompt updates, a secure payment and a secure ownership. Not a huge amount of attention has been given to the Chromium engine in terms of serious game consumption, perhaps not helped by the flagship title being Angry Birds. Don’t Starve is also available through Steam’s new Early Access catalogue and will play independently of Chromium on Windows at least, although I’d quite like to see them be fully integrated into Steam for Linux as well.
The game is available for purchase through the Steam Early Access system which will provide two Steam copies (yes two) for £9.59 (approx $14.68) however my recommendation as ever would be to buy from the game website which not only uses the fantastic Humble Store but also provides two Steam copies and two Chrome Store copies for a sale price of £7.83 (approx $11.99).
In conclusion Don’t Starve is a great game which is only going to get better as the beta continues to improve, for the current sale price and the frankly astounding two-for-one beta offer it makes a lot of sense to give it a shot.