Does Don’t Starve Satisfy My Appetite?
When I heard that to play PS4 games online I would need to pay for a monthly subscription I wasn’t that surprised as Xbox have made millions from charging for their online service (which has a better performance reputation), but I have to say I was a little disappointed. As a PS3 owner PS+ seemed like an average deal because I would find the discounted items as appealing as waking up to a cold grease filled pizza after a heavy night out; it sparks your interest for a moment until you realise you are still wasted and that this isn’t really the option for you. Also I found myself asking why should I risk paying for a service that famously crashed for what seemed like an age when hackers shut down PSN, leaving many gamers out of the action and frustrated. What redeemed the PS+ service for the PS4 is it’s offer of free games which are not just given freely because they are the rubbish that ended up selling poorly, but in actual fact are games worth spending your time on and playing. In keeping with the pro indie game philosophy of Sony’s PS4 marketing all 3 games that PS+ have offered for free have been indie titles. So now it was time to sink my teeth in to some indie action for the third time this console generation after having just recovered from the seizures Resogun brought on.
“What the hell was that?” – The Brief
Don’t Starve is an open world action-adventure game mixed with elements of survival horror. The player takes control of Wilson, a gentleman scientist who is tricked by Maxwell the magician into building a machine that imprisons him in a sinister world of monsters and darkness. The game’s objective is to survive as long as possible by collecting and using resources found in the dangerous depths of the surrounding environment. Your survival skills are tested further as you outlast the days and new challenges present themselves, such as, the arrival of winter that brings with it a climate that changes the more familiar world into an uncompromising wasteland. Eventually, as with all mortals, death comes crawling up to the player in an all to realistic manner with the use of Permadeath, a mode in which the player will not be able use a new life or magic, but actually die never to return, ending the world the player had experienced along with them. The only consolation prize as you grieve for your lost character is that the days you survive are calculated into XP that are automatically used towards unlocking new characters each with their won special ability.
From my synopsis I would forgive anyone who instantly thought of the game as an incredibly depressing and strange experience, much like realising the tooth fairy isn’t real, but being comforted by the fact a fairy is not stealing the bones of human children for its pleasure (I was a troubled child).To avoid complete feelings of despair while playing Don’t Starve developer Klei Entertainment, of Eets and Shank fame, has managed to add enough dark humour to give the game a lighter atmosphere without compromising the overall ominous tone inherent with survival horror games. In other words it is time for a cup of man-up and to laugh at the misery of computer-generated lives. In case you get a little too tipsy from excess man-up juice just remember to things, pack plenty of food and never ever let your light go out in the dark…
“How did you do that?” – The Gameplay
For the main part Don’t Starve is about the exploration of the strange world around you. To be successful in the fight for survival you will need to explore the wild looking for valuable resources that keep you one step ahead of the enemy. This sense of urgency gives the exploration side of the game a much needed purpose that keeps the adventure from becoming stale. Similarly while exploring, the player may encounter unique areas that afford opportunities that standing in the same area awaiting death will not, keeping the journey invigorating; such as the chance to play adventure mode when the player discovers Maxwell’s door in the standard survival mode. Eventually once you have found your feet you may also find yourself keen to explore new areas until you use the map (nicely accessed using the touch pad) and realise you are in an extremely vast landscape that will take hours to fully discover. Please welcome that sinking feeling and the possibility of the more casual gamer reeling away.
Once you have explored enough to set up a basic camp in your chosen region your focus switches to the many items that can be collect or crafted in the game. Each item has its own purpose and value, but most important are the items that can be used to build a fire or be consumed to avoid starvation. Here is where the game can be fairly unforgiving during the first couple playthroughs. There is no in game guide and you are totally reliant on your own ability to understand what items you will need to survive. For instance, in one of my games I found myself collecting large quantities of rocks to build stone walls only to discover I had neglected to collect anything that could be crafted into warm clothing ready for the winter that rapidly turned me into a human ice cube. Crafting tends to be a lot simpler with the ingredients required listed for you in the item menu and there a no mini games to contend with as Wilson (or your desired character) will instantly craft the item hassle free.
One of the more important gameplay mechanics in Don’t Starve is the heavy use of looping cycles that change the way in which the player has to approach the game. The day and night cycle is the most noticeable of all the mechanics at play due to the danger that nightfall brings. Players must craft items able of yielding light, such as a campfire, before darkness engulfs them and the haunting sounds of ‘Charlie’ come slithering closer to extinguish the life you are trying to preserve so dearly. Other more subtle cycles have different effects, including, the change in a creature’s normal behaviour (e.g. Beefalo mating season). These constant cycles provide the player with a more immersive experience by creating, what feels like, a living world full of new events that are unique to each playthrough.
Underpinning the overall gameplay is the relentless difficulty level that swallows the under prepared player without hesitation. Inevitably such difficulty can be hard to over come as a new player, but with a little perseverance you can improve dramatically as you learn from each cruelly punished mistake. The difficulty can be changed somewhat through the use of customising options, accessible only before the sandbox mode is started, this way the player can choose to have large quantities of food across the land as well as less enemies (useful if you just want to find Maxwell’s door to start adventure mode). While a certain level of ease can be varied through the options method for the sandbox version of the game, the adventure mode does not tolerate any reduction in difficulty and presents the player with a host of new challenges. Some chapters of adventure mode start the player in winter causing mayhem when the player expects to have time to prepare for the frozen hardships ahead. The reward for completing adventure mode is to unlock Maxwell as a playable character and a massively deserved sense of self-satisfaction.
“What was that sound?!” – The Soundtrack
The background music (BGM) in Don’t Starve is an uneasy melody that changes dependent on the player’s location or events that occur like engaging enemies. The music is cleverly interlaced with what is happening on screen in order not to become intrusive, but rather a superb addition to the game such as when the BGM will fade out leaving only the ambient sounds of the objects close to the player. The downside to the soundtrack is that the music can become repetitive especially when you survive and play through longer stints of the game at once.
Other than music the game offers a basic amount of sounds with creature noise and the disharmonious chords of nature providing the majority of what a player will hear. The interesting touch is that there are no vocals and character voices are represented on screen through text and the sound of what seems to be a violin or other stringed instrument played backwards. It is an unusual manner in which to build a bond with your chosen character when we actually care about their lives (because, of course, the point of the game is to keep them alive). Whether you can build a true relationship with a video game character without speech is up for debate but Klei Entertainment must be doing something right because I can’t believe I honestly like a character that sounds like an orchestra with no fingers and worships the occult.
“Did you see that?!” – Graphics
When you play Don’t Starve for the first time you will probably pick up on the distinct artistic style immediately. Everything looks like it came straight from a Tim Burton film but in a more cartoon themed form. This choice in graphical style seems to detract from the horror side of the game in the more traditional sense (visually there is nothing truly terrifying), but the aesthetics give an atmospheric feeling that is not common place in the majority of other games. The best example of this is when your sanity levels lower and during the night all you can see are the ever-watching eyes that lurk in the dark void beyond your fire. These eyes do nothing in terms of gameplay and are solely for the visual torment of the player who will feel and overwhelming sense of fear when they are first encountered.
The colour pallet is very important in Don’t Starve and is shown off to its full splendour when the player experiences the change between seasons. The Winter colours epitomize the predicament the player faces with pale blue and grey white covering the otherwise colourful world smothering any feelings of safety and joy. Having said that, the summer affords little warmth as most of the colours are in no danger of being classed vibrant and they add to the feeling of sadness within the game world. Chin up though – its only a game (that you will spend many frustrated hours on, slowly turning insane).
“So what does it all mean?” – Final Score
Don’t Starve introduces a difficulty, with the addition of permadeath, which is largely unseen on consoles, particularly since current-gen (PS3, Xbox 360). There are two sides to this in that a real test is presented to the player which can be thoroughly enjoyable or in the case of the more casual gamer fairly unappealing. A factor in this being that permadeath can be demoralising, especially in the early stages of the game when a new player is trying to learn the game mechanics. It can be even more soul crushing when the player makes a mistake after progressing hours into the game just to loose their life in a flash. However, the liking for harder difficulty depends on the player and what they want or, in some cases, how much money they have to buy new controllers after loosing their patience and sending their current one flying across the room into a solid wall.
Besides the solid game mechanics and controls the main positive feature of Don’t Starve is its replay value. Every time you start a new game a completely new world is generated ready for you to explore. Where the pig villages, beefalo, rocks, woods, and rabbits are located change so the next time you play you may have to move further afield to find valuable resources. The new map also provides more to explore which as I stated earlier is one of the best parts of the game and can be truly rewarding just like knifing someone who killed you five times on Battlefield (which is my personal point of view, I’m sure that you have more rewarding experiences that trolling Battlefield players).
Overall the game is a fun challenge that is well worth signing up to PS+ for as part of the free instant game collection. Just one piece of parting advice before the final score – starving is the least of your worries when something called a Deerclops stalks the land….
Thanks for reading,