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FIRST-LOOK GAME REVIEW: Don’t Starve

Last week Steam had a free game weekend where they opened up ten games for a free-play weekend. Don’t Starve, published by Klei Entertainment in 2013. You could install the game without buying it and play as much as you want for those few days. I’d had my eyes on Don’t Starve already before that, so I took a shot at the game and got a couple of hours of gameplay in.

Don’t Starve is a wilderness survival game with monsters and magic and all kinds of other stuff. Wilson is a gentleman scientist who is trapped by a demon and transported to mysterious wilderness and left to survive on his own. You have no supplies and no tools. You can forage for items–collecting berries to eat, collecting grass and twigs and flint. You can combine items, combine some flint and sticks to make an axe which you can use in turn to chop down trees. You have to find food to stave off starvation, fend off aggressive animals and monsters, and you need to sleep to keep from losing your mind.

I probably should’ve at least glanced at some instructions before I played because I was missing one very vital detail–the measure of sanity and how to stave it off. I figured out the stomach meant hunger and the heart meant damage, but I didn’t figure out what the brain meant. So, my character made it 7 days with only one half-night sleep (because I didn’t know how to make him sleep) as the nights got gradually creepier and creepier. The night before I got killed, a long shadow stretched INTO the circle light from the campfire–it wasn’t a monster itself, but a shadow of a monster whose glowing eyes I could see lurking just outside the fire. It didn’t occur to me right in that moment why that was so especially creepy–but shadows should always stretch away from a fire, not toward! Which was apparently my character slipping further and further down the slope to insanity. And if you go insane enough, your nightmares turn aggressive and attack you. I wasn’t sure if it would be worth playing the game again because I wasn’t sure how I could better prepare for an aggressive monster attack seeking me out within the first week of game days. But by the sound of it that wouldn’t happen if I had gotten some proper sleep along the way.

I found about two hours to play the game and I’d happily play more. I was having fun even when I got my butt kicked, it was fun to see what I could make from different materials and the different ways that I can fail miserably. Tough game for sure.

There’s also a multiplayer version of the game called Don’t Starve Together in beta testing, if that’s you’re cup of tea.

Visuals
Appealing, creepy kind of two-dimensional flash images.

Audio
I wasn’t playing with audio, can’t comment.

Challenge
Very challenging, at least judging from the time I played. It’s easy to die in various ways–and it’s easy to focus too much on one need to the exclusion of another–scrounge for food and forget to collect firewood for campfire. Or concentrate on building a science machine to research more complex items but don’t have a weapon in case monsters attack. And the game has permadeath so any failures are irrevocable. The game throws you in without a tutorial so you’ve gotta figure out how to do every little thing on your own.

Story
Not sure from the bit of play I did. I’m guessing not much story? Apart from an excuse for this guy to be dumped in wilderness, not much plotwise had happened yet, but maybe it will later.

Session Time
The game auto-saves after every night–I didn’t time how long each day-night cycle took, but I’d guess something like 10 minutes? Not too bad. I think you can save at other times too, but I’m not sure if it just saves at the transition to day or if it saves at that moment.

Playability
Easy to kind of get the gist of the gameplay, but it seems like it’s got a pretty tough learning curve trying to figure out how to balance the various objectives.

Replayability
Randomized level layouts, high challenge and permadeath, complex and unexplained game components, so there’s tons of replay value.

Originality
I’ve seen survival games before, but this one added some interesting components with the monsters and the science research machine and so on. So, it feels pretty original.

Playtime
So far it seems like one of those games that you can play and replay as much as you want, trying different areas of focus, different random maps to see how it goes.

Overall
The list price on Steam is $15. If you’re into this kind of game, I think that it’s a very reasonable price for what you’re getting. I haven’t decided if I’m going to get a full license for the game. I have a feeling it’s a kind of game I’ll never be very good at. But it’s been fun even being inexperienced and ineffective for the first two hours of play, so I might.

About David Steffen (64 Articles)
David Steffen is a writer and editor and software engineer and a voracious consumer of podcast fiction. The first piece of fiction he's edited is now available, "Taste the Whip" by Andy Dudak on Diabolical Plots(http://www.diabolicalplots.com/dp-fiction-1-taste-the-whip-by-andy-dudak/). David is also the co-founder and administrator of the The Submission Grinder(http://thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com/), a tool for writers.
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