Gaming trends have fluctuated rapidly throughout the history of the medium, but some tend to stick around longer than others. Thanks to the continued success of Minecraft, we have seen a dramatic increase in survival games over the past few years, and it hasn’t let up. Some are directly inspired by Minecraft, but there have been a fair few games that buck the trend. Klei Entertainment’s take on the survival game, Don’t Starve, is one of those games, combining the basics of the genre with some exciting changes.
From the moment the game begins, you are left alone in an enormous world, ill-equipped to deal with the many dangers that surround you. Don’t Starve lacks a traditional tutorial, but like most games of its type you simply have to learn by doing. It’s an overwhelming experience at first, but with each death you will begin to learn more about your surroundings and the many ways to avoid dying in the future. Even with the steep learning curve, Don’t Starve is immediately rewarding, with every minute spent playing granting you a small piece of the game’s intricate puzzle.
You have to build everything from scratch, and doing so requires an understanding of the crafting system. Once you can create the most essential items with little to no effort, you will have overcome the game’s first big challenge and are on your way to learning some of the advanced mechanics. Crafting is easy to do, and almost always rewards you with new things to create once you better understand the basics. Soon enough, you’ll zoom through the early days and be ready to take on new challenges. Thankfully the unexpected is always ready to surprise you, quickly teaching you to never let your guard down, making every moment as rewarding as the last.
The three basic elements to your survival are your hunger, health and sanity meters. Each can be replenished in a number of ways, some more obvious than others, giving you plenty of opportunities to try new things in order to survive. Having an amazing run and want to do everything in your power to keep it going? Experimentation is the only way. Don’t Starve rewards experimentation, but can also punish you for diving too deep in places where you don’t belong. Half of the fun is in discovery, whether it’s finding something unfamiliar or crafting a new item with unknown benefits.
Exploration is also key, as the environment is a lot bigger than you might think and the world is generated from scratch every time you start a new game. You won’t survive long if you don’t have a good grasp of your surroundings. Each gigantic map is full of a variety of creatures both friendly and hostile, plenty of new materials for crafting and a number of other exciting surprises. I found myself eager to explore as much of the map as possible during the game’s early stages as I was almost always guaranteed to find something new.
As with any survival game, repetition is necessary in order to succeed. Unfortunately, I found the early game in Don’t Starve becoming needlessly tiresome after a while. The repetition is good in order to hammer home some of the game’s central mechanics, yet once you have a solid understanding of them getting past the basics during the beginning of every game you play will get old fast. I still felt compelled to keep going, but each death began to frustrate me as much as it taught me something new.
It doesn’t help that the game is brutally difficult. You will quickly learn that death could show up at any minute, but when some runs end just as you are discovering something new, it kills some of the momentum. It’s a tricky balance to maintain – you want to keep someone coming back for more, but you also want to preserve the challenge, allowing for a more rewarding experience. Don’t Starve is largely successful, but sometimes it lacks the necessary incentive to push you through the repetition.
Even if the incentive to learn more about the game’s intricacies isn’t enough, you gain experience based on how many days you survive. This unlocks new characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Just when I thought I was growing tired of the base mechanics, I tried out some different characters and found myself having completely new experiences, which in turn taught me more about the game itself. Don’t Starve finds new ways to rope you back in and gives you plenty of incentive to keep going, even if some tedium is involved.
If you can get past the initial learning curve, Don’t Starve will hook you almost immediately. It’s not a game for the impatient, as its sometimes-ruthless difficulty and repetitive nature will turn some away from it rather quickly, yet its addictive core mechanics managed to keep me coming back for more. If you’re in the mood for a different take on an emergent genre, Don’t Starve won’t disappoint.
Pros: Addictive and rewarding base mechanics, gigantic world to explore
Cons: Tends to get repetitive, merciless difficulty