Last week when a buddy of mine sent me a free copy of Don’t Starve via Steam, my first question was “What the hell is this?” It sat in my library for a day or two, but after a couple dozen messages from my friend asking “DID YOU TRY IT YET?” I got around to installing it. I didn’t read anything about it, research it, or look at any gameplay before loading it up. I just booted it up so I could tell my buddy I tried it. How silly I was.
Two days later it was ME bugging HIM, spamming him, for hints about the game and how things work. This game I’d never heard of had captured my attention, and my time, so quickly I was very surprised I hadn’t heard about it before. Ten hours into the game I’ve barely scratched the surface, yet I really couldn’t tell you what genre it’s in. I’ve also witnessed a robust content patch, adding a bunch of new and important features to the game, for free. “What the hell is this?” I had asked, and Don’t Starve answered – a crisp and creepy survival game that is sure to be a hit.
What exactly is Don’t Starve? Well, it’s kind of a mix of a few things actually. On the surface it’s purely a survival game, forcing the player to continuously scavenge for food before starving to death. Beyond that, however, it’s an in-depth adventure strategy game with exploration, loot, and crafting. Thematically it looks a bit like Farmville directed by Tim Burton, with a dash of Minecraft thrown in.
Players navigate a spooky 2D world littered with all sorts of lootable objects. They can collects sticks and flint to make tools, gather grass to make rope or start fires, and even make rudimentary traps to catch rabbits. At first, players live very much off of the land, making campfires at night for protection and eating berries to stay alive. Beginners will die, often, and they’re supposed to. While death is permanent, all technology researched in the tech tree stays, meaning forward progress is made even when players die.
To eat the carrot or use it as bait?
In fact dying is important early on. All research is made through what’s called the Science Machine. While most of what the player loots can be used for something tangible like a trap or a chest, some of it can be put into the Science Machine for research points. These research points are used to unlock schematics in the tech tree. But if a player collects 200 research points and then dies to a spider or due to starvation, those 200 research points will be waiting for them once they start over. They may lose their infrastructure, but players will keep their hard earned research points even through death.
The research is pretty much all survival oriented. There are better tools, traps for birds, better campfires, tents, chests, and a whole bunch of other items that will make life alone in the wilderness a whole lot easier. In the beginning, without any tech tree upgrades, players will most likely die in a day or two but once they begin to unlock them, players will begin to live longer and longer, and that’s the point. The game is balanced to show players a little bit more of the game in each life.
Unlock characters with some interesting perks, the first being the ability to grow a beard.
Those first few games are pretty difficult; players are given the choice between actually using their supplies and simply tossing them into the Science Machine for research points. After that though, the game really gets rolling. Technology unlocks for the player include the ability for the player to store items, sleep in a tent, build more efficient fires and tools, armor, weapons, and of course becoming a beekeeper. In the beginning players are hunter gatherers, but as the game moves forward players will change the shape of the land, moving most of the game’s resources wherever they like.
There’s also a cautionary tale for Industrialization, built right the gameplay of Don’t Starve. Roaming the map, placing traps, and eating berries is actually a pretty viable strategy for survival. In fact, I found the game easier when I didn’t try to tame the land and just lived off of it. But the tech tree pushes players to do more than that, industrializing the game as they move forward. Eventually simply living off the land won’t be enough and players will find themselves surrounded with gadgets and clad in log armor.
I was lucky enough to begin playing the game right as a content patch was released. It was a pretty seamless transition with no downtime and no balance problems, at least none that I could find. They added some new mobs, a hammer to allow players to breakdown gadgets and move them around, and a handful of other subtle changes to give players more survival options. There’s even a ticker at the bottom of the login screen advising players when the next update will be – 13 days until the next one.
Their simple menu system shows off their Tim Burton-like theme.
The game won’t break the bank either, it’s only about $12 through Steam and a playable demo is available through the Chrome Store – yes, the Chrome Store – in case you want to give it a try. Again, I received a copy for free so my opinion of the game is free of any monetary bias I might have had. The game was made by Klei Entertainment the makers of the Shank series and Mark of the Ninja. If you’ve played either of those titles you can probably get an idea for game’s flavor.
I’ve played about 10 hours of Don’t Starve and I don’t really plan on stopping any time soon. I’m finally learning how to stay alive long enough to explore what’s turning out to be a pleasant surprise. It’s not often a title is released without some sort of hype or fanfare, but in this case I’m really glad it was, and it’s still in Alpha. I’m happy that this time I could be surprised by a really immersive title out of nowhere.