Sunday, 28 April 2013

Review: Don't Starve (PC)

Finding a box thing
Discovering a rather forbidding camp
Well, it looks like I've found another game that will deprive me of countless hours of sleep over the coming weeks, and it's called Don't Starve. It's a game where your character magically gets whisked away into the middle of the wilderness by some jerk, and players have to do their best to survive, gathering basic resources to build stuff, and food to eat so that their character doesn't starve, as the game's title hints at. There's a lot to do, and players need to find a logical way of going about it. Don't Starve is one of those games that will have players thinking, "Well, I'll just do this, this, and this, and you know what, while I'm at it I might as well do this too..." Then it just keeps going like this until suddenly it's 4AM, and you have to get up for work in a couple of hours. It's just that much fun, and absorbing.

A big part of the game is a sandbox. Start a new game, get plunked down in the middle of nowhere, then scramble around gathering sticks, grass, flint, and the like to build basic tools like axes for chopping down trees, or pick axes for breaking down stone. Then use these logs, rocks, and so forth as material to make fancier contraptions, like the all important science machine, or alchemy engine. All the while, players still need to make sure that their character is reasonably fed. One has to constantly keep track of all sorts of different variables. How far away is winter? Do I gather materials to make warm clothing, or stock up on berries and prairie dogs for food? There's no one right answer for the sort of dilemmas that Don't Starve throws at players, and a big part of the fun is hatching a plan to overcome them.

dead trees and tentacles
Seeing dead trees like this usually means a tentacle attack
is right around the corner
I've spent a lot of time obsessing over where to set up a base of operations in an ideal spot during various play sessions. Since games' environments are randomly generated, each playthrough is different, so this will always be a concern. First players need to wander around for a little while, and get a lay of the land. Where are the forests? Find some good hunting grounds. Keep tabs on where there is a lot of stone for mining. After that it's finally time to set up a camp. Build a nice fire pit, then slap together a science machine so that you can start making all of the high-end equipment and components that will be vital for surviving long term. The initial process of figuring out where everything is, and what the game world is like can be surprisingly harrowing. While it may look like a player is wandering around loading up on berries, flint, sticks, and logs, they're probably wondering where the stone is, and how long it'll be until they find some spiders for harvesting webbing. Even if the game seems like it's throwing a whole lot of certain resources at me, I constant find myself worrying more about what I haven't found yet, and am running low on, and I very much like how they game makes me think in such a way.

After finding a decent amount of supplies, and getting a handle on prioritizing foraging, a large part of one's time in Don't Starve will be spent trying out different things to build. There are some absolute necessities like the science machine and alchemy engine, as they are needed to make several core components in other devices, then there are the things that are nice to have like a crock pot, or a tent. Trying out making these things, and seeing how they work in a camp is a lot of fun. Things like the crock pot are especially interesting because they allow for an added level of experimentation, as that device is used for cooking, so combining different ingredients will yield different results. This experimentation makes it tough to even talk about some of the things that players can make in the game, because the process of discovery is a very big part of Don't Starve, and the satisfaction that comes from it is fantastic. So, I'm not going to go into more detail than that. Just try building stuff and see what happens. It's a lot of fun.

Forest fire
Some spiders were giving me a hard time, so burning down the entire
forest in which they lived seemed like a logical course of action
While the game suggests that starvation is something to be avoided at all costs, there are several other things that players need to remain aware of. An obvious one is potential enemies and predators, and even wildlife. There are aggressive enemies to avoid such as pig men. Sometimes they will attack on sight, others aren't keen on fighting and will run away. Then there are things like spiders that will attack if players get too close, or bees that can also be dangers. There are other creatures that are just wildlife, like large bison. If players leave them alone, nothing will happen. If one were to start attacking them, the creatures will fight back, often in herds, inflicting tremendous damage. So, one needs to be aware of a number of different creatures and how they act in the world. There isn't a huge variation in creatures at the moment, which is a bit disappointing, but I'm hoping we'll see more as content updates roll out in the coming months.

Another interesting thing that players will need to keep an eye on is their character's sanity. Being tossed out in a forest with nothing, then having to fend for one's self can be a terrifying experience, then the night comes and it's pitch black. The darkness is the scariest time of the game, and players need to keep a fire going to keep the things that bump in the night away. As a fire slowly goes out, strange sounds emerge from the darkness. This more than anything else will impact a character's sanity. So, players need to keep a fire going, or they can make a tent, and have their character just sleep through the night. The latter option will restore some sanity, but it will cause the person to wake up a bit hungry, so there is a trade off to keep in mind. If a character's sanity is depleted enough, they will start to hallucinate, and these creatures that they imagine can be very dangerous. While it's challenging enough to try and keep from starving, staying sane adds another element to the game that is pretty interesting. Trying to strike a balance in managing the two can be fun, and if you're bored you can always just let your character go crazy and deal with the consequences.

Starting challenge mode in the winter time
Surviving the winter is very
challenging
Death itself is an interesting function of the game that players shouldn't be afraid of. After each death (assuming you haven't activated a resurrection stone) the game ends, and experience points are rewarded based on how well players were able to survive. These points help to unlock more playable characters, each with their own quirks. So, while trying to survive is fun, sometimes death has its benefits here.

If players get tired of playing in the sandbox, there is a more structured form of play to be had in Don't Starve via its adventure mode. Starting this mode isn't as simple as clicking a button on the title screen. Instead, players start a game in sandbox mode, and have to explore until they find a rather ominous looking portal. Travelling through it will take you to adventure mode. Here players must hunt down Maxwell, the aforementioned jerk who teleports your character to the wilderness. This is done by gathering "Things" which are components for making more portals to continue to chase Maxwell. There are all sorts of conditions one will have to deal will, often times random, like being plunked down in a frozen tundra where players have to find a way to keep from freezing to death while hunting down that bastard. This is made all the more difficult, because players have everything that they gathered in sandbox mode taken away when beginning adventure mode, forcing them to start from scratch. However, if you fail in adventure mode, you just get sent back to the portal in sandbox mode with all the items that you had before entering the portal, and can try again if you like. When traveling through portals between chapters in adventure mode, however, players can then carry a maximum of four items with them including stacked items. It's an interesting change of pace when you want a break from the more open-ended main game. I just wish that there was actually an option on the title screen to enter this mode, because it feels like a large, unnecessary first step to have to wander around for a while in-game before actually beginning this mode of play.

Willow at night
Willow likes to burn things
In terms of aesthetics, Don't Starve looks and sounds great. The art style is quite charming in the type of cartoon-y look that it has. As I said, there are a bunch of different characters that can be unlocked, and they are all quite different. You start with Wilson, the gentleman scientist, then all sorts of other characters come along like the death obsessed Wendy, Wolfgang the strongman, Wickerbottom the grumpy old school teacher, and Wes the mime. There are others as well, and all of them are so unique, while adhering to a late 19th / early 20th century style. The developers also have plans to add more in the future. Music in the game is sparse, but when it plays the tunes feel like something out of a Tim Burton movie, and when characters talk, various musical instruments represent their voice. All of this works together to make a rather pleasing environment to explore.

Players looking for a game that will consume them for the next while should consider Don't Starve. The whole process of gathering supplies, and making a go of surviving in the wild while fending off starvation, madness, and predators is quite entertaining. There is a constant need to hammer out a logical way of going about things in order to survive, all the while experimenting and exploring so to discover better ways of staying alive, with hunger and sanity a constant force to keep driving forward, making for a very satisfying experience.

Pro:
- Process of discovery is very satisfying
- The potential to go insane adds an interesting element to the game
- Very nice aesthetic

Cons:
- Could use more types of creatures in the world
- Being able to start adventure mode from the title screen would be nice

Score: 8.5 / 10

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