The night is dark and full of terrors, the day bright and beautiful and full of hope.
-George R.R. Martin
“The following is a contributor post by the Mail Order Ninja Mage.”
Don’t Starve is not a new game by far, it is playable on pretty much every platform you can play games on currently and has been for a good while. Somehow though, I’ve never managed to play the game and experience what a somewhat cult following seems to love about it so much. When the chance to review the game on Switch came up, I jumped at the chance. After all, what better way to experience the game then on the Switch? And who better to review the game than someone with a completely fresh set of eyes?
How had I endeavored to avoid a game that has been practically everywhere for five years now, and seemed to be well accepted? Simply put, I’m not the biggest fan of the rogue-like experience, and have never been a great fan of randomly generated gaming content either.
If you aren’t familiar with the term “rogue-like”, it is a relatively new term in the gaming scene that has grown rather popular within the last couple of generations of hardware. It originates from a game released during the year 1980 centered around retrieving an amulet from a dungeon, the catch being that permadeath was a feature of the game, meaning that if you died you could not reload any sort of save state. Instead, you had to start the game over from beginning each time, making your way through a procedurally generated dungeon that changed every time you played. Though the premise of being dropped into an alien world and asked to survive was immediately intriguing to me, the idea of constantly starting over was not quite as appealing.
Nevertheless, my interest was such that I was determined to dig into Don’t Starve and find out what so many people seemed to love about it. Did I find that love as well you ask? First off, how rude of you to want me to spoil my review so soon, but the answer is also quite more complex than a simple yes or no.
After a few hours with the game, I was struck with something of a conundrum: how was I to review this experience? Though I’ve experienced the best that rogue-like games have to offer, such as Spelunky or the rogue-lite Rogue Legacy, I’ve never sat down and attempted to review one before. I’ve stated previously that I’m not overly fond of this type of game, but I can certainly see what is there that would appeal to a great many people; that wasn’t the issue.
However, there is an underlying question of how do you review a randomly generated game filled with so much content that you may never see it all? Typically, in order to review a game, you must experience at least a small piece of everything it has to offer in order to judge it as a broader whole, regardless of whether you finish the game. In this case, I could play for hundreds of hours and, based on the randomness of the game, never see everything there is in any permutation it might happen.
I settled on the idea that I would play a certain number of hours of the game, sufficient to understand what is at play within the game, and then boost my knowledge by reading up on the game outside of that knowledge to see what I might not have gotten to experience otherwise. After all, what I would experience would be entirely decided upon by my understanding of the game, but mostly by the RnG gods (forever do I curse their names). I endeavored, planned, plotted, studied, and ultimately stood as triumphant as I could with the game, surviving what I thought was an impressive 24 days. I’ve since found that this amount of time is absolutely elementary in its achievement but considering my standard survival rate was usually between five and ten days previously, I took it as a complete and utter victory.
Ultimately thwarted by shadow beasts, I fell yet again to the game’s overarching machinations and was asked to start all over again using the skills I had just used. I loaded into a brand new world, surrounded by a lot of the things I might need, but finding one important resource utterly missing from my immediate area. Even though I had the knowledge and ability to survive previously for 24 days, that made no difference, I again died in simply four days.
It is this cycle that is both the game’s greatest strength as well as its overarching weakness.
The 8-bit Review
Don’t Starve’s greatest strength is perhaps its strikingly quirky visual style. It is immediately appealing and draws the eye with artwork that mimics sharp cardboard cutouts. The artwork ends up looking like it possesses the whimsy of a children’s book, partnered with a more macabre theme that would be at home within a Tim Burton production. A lot of the creatures and characters appear to be at once both cartoony as well as slightly frightening, an odd combination that is difficult to pull off. The end result is a fantastically unique sense of style that adds an immense amount of charm to the game.
In true Klei fashion, the animations are fluid as well and match their individual characters and creatures well. The careful walk of Wilson as he makes his way through the night, clutching his torch tightly, is incredibly different from the loping gait of a pig man charging for the attack. Everything is clear and crisp, making it incredibly recognizable at a glance, which is extremely important to a game about resource gathering. The menu, map, and icons are all extremely well done, both vibrant and easy to read.
Overall its art style elevates Don’t Starve above the crowd by choosing a visually unique theme and then nailing absolutely everything about it.
Typically, when I think about the audio of a game, I tend to think soundtracks. Like a decent cinema theme, the music for Don’t Starve is there to complement the game, and goes well with the feel of it, without ever really standing out. However, the audio design of the game is absolutely spectacular. Whether it is the ambient crackle of the fire or the nasty hiss of a giant spider, the design of the audio fits the artwork so spectacularly that it would be hard to believe this game sounded any other way. Eerie, bodiless voices will often assault you when you lose your sanity, dark whispers sounding in the background, and sometimes outside your fire you can hear the brief scuttle of something no doubt dangerous. True to the thematic feel of the game, the main character talks in discordant blasts from a horned instrument, slightly off-key for his individual speech.
All of the audio design of the game combines alone with the stellar visuals to give it a one, two punch of absolute charm.
As I’ve previously stated Don’t Starve simply oozes charm from every pore, and is instantly recognizable from a screenshot by anyone who even remotely knows the game. Regardless of my feelings of its randomized nature, I think that the game is wholly unique in survival games, as it knows exactly what it wants to be, and every art asset, audio cue, and clever line of dialogue seeks to build it into the quirky and wholly unique experience it is.
Don’t Starve is a game about survival. The framing of the narrative means little and is barely explored at the beginning of the game. Instead, you’ll be dropped into a hostile world and asked to survive. Surviving means balancing a list of attributes and making sure none of them drop too low, namely hunger, sanity, and health. Each day begins a cycle anew, daylight bleeding into dusk, which blends into a night that will instantly kill you if you let darkness fall without starting a fire of some sort.
There are no tutorials or guidance whatsoever from the game when you first start. On my first excursion, I saw a patch of grass clearly standing out from the environment. Nearing the grass I saw a few buttons pop up, I could press X to inspect the item, or A to pick it up. This begins a long journey of resource collection, trying to get enough items to, well, not starve. You’ll craft axes to chop down trees, use grass to craft traps to catch rabbits, harvest berries to cook at night, and most importantly gather materials for the life-saving fire. As you do this you’ll run into nefarious creatures that will seek to kill you just as soon as look at you, proving that the world is harsh and unforgiving, as any good rogue-like probably should be.
The goal then is to balance those different aforementioned meters and survive for as many days as you can. Once you die—and you will die—the game will give you experience points based on how long you lived, which allows you to move towards the rewards of new characters who often have special abilities and drawbacks. Whereas Wilson is your standard middle of the road character with no defining features outside of the ability to grow a beard, your first female unlock is impervious to fire damage but will also randomly set fires at inconvenient times. This adds ever more variety to the game, as each character provides slightly different play experiences for you.
Each time you spawn, a map will be randomly generated for you, consisting of a number of different biomes stitched together across an overarching map. The biomes will have types of resources and enemies more likely to be found in that area, though it leaves no guarantee. In what is the greatest strength of rogue-like games, each map is completely different, which means replayability is near limitless. However, this also leads to a host of issues I feel are inherent in a lot of rogue-like titles, but are especially felt here in Don’t Starve.
Your survival in the game often hinges entirely on luck, which is extremely problematic. The first couple of days of the game it is absolutely essential you get off to a good start, and depending on what biomes are around you and what spawns within them, this can completely alter your playthrough in the worst way. Once I loaded into a map and got extremely lucky, finding a dead skeleton with some gear I typically hadn’t found till later in the game. I collected twigs, grass, and was surrounded by an abundance of berries I could cook over the fire in the night. After that I found several graves I could dig up, quickly procuring some gems that would greatly help in my future crafting endeavors, I knew I was off to a fantastic start.
Except for the fact that, in the surrounding 4 biomes, there wasn’t a single flint or rock. Without those, I couldn’t build an axe, and without the axe I couldn’t build a fire pit, making my chances of surviving plummet. I managed to scrape together a torch while my insanity slowly went down because I wasn’t near a larger fire. Torches burn out very quickly and they only let you see a very small area. I found myself attacked by an enemy, unable to defend myself without dropping the torch, which led to my instant death.
This was incredibly frustrating because my loss had nothing to do with my skills or knowledge of the game, but entirely on the fact that the game randomly didn’t spawn any flint close to me. This happens more than you might like; one playthrough you might find an abundance of items and survive for three or four days, but eventually a science machine is necessary to open new levels of crafting. However, if you simply can’t find any gold nuggets you can’t build one, making you hit a brick wall in your progress. The more time passes, the easier it seems to lose sanity, health, and hunger, leading to an untimely end. In this way I felt like maybe one in every four playthroughs I would find a good deal of the things I needed to survive, but felt like the one time I did survive for 24 days was based almost entirely on the map I spawned and how lucky I got finding materials I needed early on for the science machine.
The goal for the developer, of course, is to create a game that you can play over and over again, but in my opinion, there is something inherent in that approach that fails when your game randomly generates itself. Instead of being a handcrafted experience, with your environment and thus the difficulty tweaked to lead you through the game while slowly increasing the challenge, you find an uneven experience that is based more on the luck of the draw than your skill or the game’s pace.
That is incredibly frustrating when the core loop is as satisfying as it is in Don’t Starve. I’ve not gone into a lot of the mechanics because it is a true joy to run into a new enemy you’ve not met and figure out how to defeat them or puzzle through a way to retain your sanity. Those pieces of the random generation make each game fun and exciting, creating unique stories for every individual who plays them. However, they also create problematic situations like the one I’ve mentioned above and the depth of the game can create accessibility issues that I’ll cover more thoroughly later in the review.
Ultimately this leads to an incredibly polished experience that can be very exciting to play by leaning on randomly generated areas and events, however, it also is a double-edged sword that leads to frustrating deaths where you could instantly lose hours of gameplay because of the luck of the draw. This creates an uneven gaming experience, one in which I never know what I’m going to get every time I turn it on, whether it’ll be the fun and engaging survival sim, or the randomly generated slog that will suck hours of my time before unceremoniously killing me and wiping my hard-earned progress.
In addition there were some bugs with rabbit holes not appearing, or the Beefaloo (yes that is an amazing name) only showing up via a shadow on the game. The developer is aware of this and is working on a patch for the Switch version, but in the meantime, their workaround is to start a game by enabling Realm of Giants, one of two included expansions.
At the beginning of each game, you can start a vanilla default game or you can enable either Realm of Giants or Shipwrecked. Realm of Giants drops you into the same types of maps you’ve previously experienced, but adds a host of new enemies and challenges to your survival, making the entire experience have more depth. Unfortunately for the workaround suggestion, I don’t think anyone new to the game should choose Realm of Giants because it adds a significant amount of difficulty to a game that can already be overwhelming for newer players. That means for new players buying the game on the Switch for the first time, you will have to simply deal with the bugs until such a time as they are patched.
The other expansion changes the settings drastically by stranding Wilson on a set of islands and altering the challenges he might face. You’ll have new crafting sets available to you, one of them being a boat so you can sail the seas, avoiding a new host of challenges. Of the three, Shipwrecked is by far my favored setting and I’m actually nearing beating my record of 24 days on my newest challenge. I don’t know if it is just the few games I’ve played thus far, but the random generator seems to be more balanced, though I might have just gotten lucky.
The game performs exceptionally on the Switch though, and the type of experience it is benefits enormously from being able to take it on the go. By my understanding, there are some features that aren’t quite in this version yet, and the co-op from Don’t Starve Together is absent, but the portability is something that can’t be understated. If you want to constantly try to survive the world of Don’t Starve, this is the essential version for you.
Don’t Starve can’t help but shine in the replayability category; you can literally play this game as much as your heart desires. Each new experience you have will be random and though you might see certain enemies or events that repeat, they’ll never happen quite the same way. Veterans of the game will no doubt see everything there is to see eventually, but I would imagine that would take an incredibly long time and is ultimately negated by the fact that everything happens so differently.
Once you add in two expansions which add a whole new level of depth that drastically increases the number of things to see and do in the game, then you have a game that will go on as long as you want it to. Regardless of the frustration, you’ll often be drawn into starting a new run as soon as the previous one is over, if only to prove that you can do slightly better this time around. As a major draw to the rogue-like type of game, this category is the game’s specialty, nearly by default.
Don’t Starve can be an incredibly hard game that doesn’t mind kicking your teeth in from time to time, and as seasons move on in Realm of Giants and you find yourself beset by huge monsters, you’ll wonder how others manage to survive months on end in the game. However, this is another area hurt by the rogue-like and randomly generated nature of the game.
The game doesn’t really require a lot of skill, so it isn’t challenging in the way something like Super Mario can be. It also doesn’t require rote memorization and caution the way something like Dark Souls does, which provides a challenge that once beat makes you feel powerful. Instead, the game’s difficulty relies entirely upon how lucky you get on generation of the map, how quickly you can gather resources, and how conveniently your map is laid out. Outside of that it is down to your memorization of a host of issues that can go wrong in the game, most that you’ll have no clue of without them killing you first, taking hours of your gameplay with them.
In this way, the only difficulty becomes whether or not you have the time to read the exhaustive wiki and a guide before diving in.
There are some games out there that are incredibly abstruse in their design and require a level of commitment from the player outside of what is provided in-game for you. These types of games usually end up with a niche community that is extremely hardcore about the game and will write and read a million guides in order to enjoy it.
Don’t Starve is one such game.
For a brand new player, the game is incredibly overwhelming, and there is so much within the game that won’t make any sense unless you read a host of information online. Otherwise, you’ll be doomed to constantly testing the boundaries and rules of the world, some of which make little sense outside of the fact that they are in the game. There is no tutorial, no pop up boxes explaining the world to you, and at times this can be refreshing. The rest of the time you’ll spend wondering why in the world those once peaceful pig men that lived in harmony with you suddenly began to attack you, killing you and wiping hours of progress.
I ran into problems early on with just figuring out what RoG and SW meant underneath the option to start the game. Knowing the expansions were involved I assumed they were that, but there was no indication of how it would change my gameplay or if I should turn them on or not.
Within the game on my first playthrough, I had a lot of trouble with the trap, something that is absolutely essential to your survival. In order to catch rabbits to eat, you’ll need to craft a trap but there is no indication on how to place it in the world. Typically when you approach an item there is certain button indicated to a use case for that item, but in the trap’s case it was only investigate or drop. I’ve been playing games a long time and even I had to search online to find that dropping the trap was the same as placing it, which ran counter to the rest of the game early on. Then, unless you walk up to it with a carrot, you’ll have no idea that you can bait that trap.
These sort of issues expound the more features are added to the game and you’ll sometimes find yourself dying without really understanding why or how. Sanity is one such feature that causes headaches early on in the game and you’ll quickly die from it in your fifth or sixth day unless you figure out how to stave off insanity. Unlike hunger and health, this is not self-explanatory and it’ll require your own outside research to find out how it works, unless you prefer to bash your head against the game until you figure it out.
Any game that has a required reading list outside of the game itself is brave in doing so because it posits that it is good enough that you’ll jump through those hoops. In this case, the game is good enough that you will find yourself wanting to put in that extra work, but in reality, you just shouldn’t have to.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
Playing Don’t Starve was educational in its ability to remind me how little I enjoy RnG and the rogue-lite genre in most cases. Here is an incredibly charming game that is absolutely full of polish but that is hampered for all but the most hardcore among us. The game asks a great deal of those who wish to play it and rewards a great deal in return, but the very nature of the game means there are many times you’ll sink an hour or better into a game that will end because you weren’t lucky enough to run into the resources you needed.
There were times I had a hard time putting Don’t Starve down, where I felt compelled to continue searching the map for its secrets, delighted when I ran into some new random event that I had the tools to survive. In these moments I couldn’t recommend the game more for what it is but I often felt them tempered by deaths that simply weren’t my fault. If you like rogue-lite elements and don’t mind doing a lot of research before playing the game proper, then this game is probably for you.
Otherwise, unless you are willing to sink hours into a game, learning it through constant failure, then dying because you pulled the wrong map, I would suggest searching elsewhere for your entertainment.
We’d like to thank Klei Entertainment for furnishing us with a copy of their game for this critique!
Aggregated Score: 7.4
The Mail Order Ninja Mage loves video games across every console: an assassin of fanboy nonsense. He also really loves martial arts and pizza, though that is of no consequence here. To read more of his random word soup, or to view daily(ish) photo mode screenshots from his favorite games, visit him at Home Button.
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