Reviews
Don’t Starve
Console Edition

By Seán O'Sullivan - January 31st, 2014

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This guy kinda looks like Sully…

Don’t Starve may not sound like a tall order, but developer Klei’s unique survival game is a challenging, clever title that deftly navigates the delicate balance between tension and tedium.

The title for this game is pretty much the only tutorial you’ll receive, for better and for ill. Players are thrust into an inhospitable world without any real direction, and must set about foraging for supplies to keep their avatar alive. There’s a hunger meter that rapidly ticks down as the player goes unfed, a sanity meter that’s affected in various expected and unexpected ways, and a health bar that will be whittled down at every opportunity by the aggressive wildlife.

Don’t Starve may well owe its existence to Minecraft, but it has enough going on to separate it from anything else on the market right now. For one, it’s got a unique aesthetic: the game is presented entirely through the use of 2D sprites that look like promo art for a 1920s gothic carnival. The heroes each have deathly appearances, with minimal colour used on their artwork, and design staples such as curly-Q moustaches and thick-striped undergarments hark to bygone eras, further underscored by the jaunty silent-film style score accompanying everything.

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“Oh fu…”

The game opens up with the protagonist waking up in a hostile world with empty pockets and a rumbling stomach, and the initial player experience is funnelled nicely by the basic mechanics. Twigs and flint are among the few items that can be gathered, and some basic noodling through the menus will reveal the crafting interface through which they can be fashioned into tools to acquire better resources. Players will progress from picking berries, to trapping animals, to farming, and eventually to supernatural ways of conjuring nourishment.

Until some viable strategies are figured out, this part of the game can be quite punishing. The game’s Rogue-like structure means that death is final, and the random worlds mean that the only knowledge that can be carried forward is the game’s systems. Once the game rules have been internalized, the core loop of moving the bar from surviving to thriving is a satisfying arc; but the actual work involved can feel quite tedious. Fortunately, there are a number of complications to this simple formula. Most notably, being exposed to pitch-black results in instant-death, necessitating the need to keep flammable materials within reach at all times. Exploration will reveal specific biomes with indigenous flora and fauna, each with varying levels of risk/reward, or special supplies that assist in advanced crafting.

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“Oh, give me a home, where the buffalo roam…”

The best moments happen when systems converge in unexpected ways: one time I hadn’t factored in the shorter daylight hours as the seasons changed, and with night approaching and my only torch burning out, I got desperate. I set fire to a tree in the hopes it would burn long enough to keep me sheltered in illumination. Within seconds an entire thicket was going up in smoke, so I ran along the path of rapidly immolating trees to see that a hive of giant spiders had been roused, as was a village of pigmen. In the midst of this inferno, the neighbours were having an epic battle as their world turned to ash around them. I was able to pick off the survivors for enjoy their supply drops. An apt metaphor for man’s impact on nature?

Part of the fun is trying out different strategies, but when death is permanent (and with no reloads to fall back on), there’s a real tension to deviating from what works. In my most successful campaign, I ravaged the earth around my base until I was desperate for supplies, and wound up going on increasingly desperate expeditions until I became nomadic. The reward for a good run is basically a high score, but after that? You’re back to square one. In-game experience goes towards unlocking new characters with their own quirks that affect the game-play, which should be enough to give some sense of progression at first, but it’s a slow burn back to the point where you’re on a good-enough run to want to keep death at bay as long as possible.

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She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched.

Over the course of my many hours with the game, I never quite managed to wrap my head around the controls. The basic movement controls generally get the job done, but the 2D presentation can make taking specific actions more difficult than necessary. Also, the inventory can be quickly manipulated with the right stick, or the game can be paused to peruse it with more options, but no similar option exists to browse through the crafting menu. Demanding a certain amount of preparation on the player’s part is an understandable goal, but there were many moments when the fiddly navigation through the crafting menu resulted in death, and when the punishment is so harsh, it’s hard not to harbour resentment for sub-optimal input.

Don’t Starve isn’t exactly a showpiece for the PS4’s raw horsepower; but it is certainly a show of intent from Sony that these are the kind of novel, engaging experiences that we can expect on the console between tentpole releases. Those who don’t like the prospect of having a Wiki open while playing ought to steer clear, but for those with the constitution to persevere, Don’t Starve has impressive depths of content to be plumbed, and a knack for causing physiological stress responses if you invest enough time into its fraught world.

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