Don’t Starve Review: Hungry For More

Don’t Starve‘s goal is right there in the title, and it couldn’t get simpler than that.

Well, actually, it could. Don’t Starve is a survival sim, and while it’s not quite on the level of Dwarf Fortress or Salem, it has plenty of complex, overlapping systems seeking to utterly destroy you. It’s a good stepping stone for those wanting to break into the complicated and punishing survival sim genre, but if you want more, you’ll have to dig a little deeper.

Don’t Starve
Platforms: PC (Reviewed)
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Publisher: Klei Entertainment
Released: April 23, 2013
MSRP: $14.99

Don’t Starve has no story to speak of – the story is made up of your actions more than any actual narrative – but there are a few key players. The most important are the starting character, Wilson, and the antagonist, Maxwell. Wilson is a scientist that has been trapped in alternate realities by Maxwell, a sorcerer (or maybe demon) of considerable strength. He must survive to find his way to the next world and perhaps even to challenge Maxwell’s gauntlet. If Wilson dies, Maxwell snatches him away, everything that was built and gathered is lost, and the world begins anew. Wilson doesn’t technically die, but by game standards, it’s a very permanent sort of loss; you must start over from scratch.

Wilson emerges into each procedurally-generated world as fresh as the day he was born, albeit with the ability to walk and use his hands. Wilson’s overall health is always maxed at the start of each new game, and is tracked by three stats: hunger, which depletes over time; sanity, which determines if hallucinations appear and is damaged by scary stuff like monsters; and health, which is the standard measure of HP. That’s it, though.

Fortunately, Wilson’s starting location is usually a meadow with plenty of raw foods such as berries and carrots; flint and twigs, which are used to make tools; and trees, which are required for fires and building construction. Gathering enough materials to make tools is the first order of business in every game, with the eventual goal being to make a pickaxe to break apart rocks to get at the stones, flint, and (most importantly) gold inside. This stage doesn’t last particularly long, and is probably the most enjoyable part of Don’t Starve thanks to the clear objectives and simple execution.

Gold is used to create the Science Machine, which is the primary way of doing research. Wilson can prototype new items at the Science Machine, but only if he has the requisite components necessary to do so. Once he’s invented a shovel or chest, though, he can make it anywhere he likes as long as he’s got the stuff; the recipe is saved forever in his list. This pattern is repeated with the Alchemy Engine and Shadow Manipulator, albeit with “higher tier” items like magical staves and bird cages.

Buildings like bird cages, Science Machines, or treasure chests eventually tether the player – and by extension Wilson – to a particular spot on the landscape. After all, prototyping new things can only be done at the Science Machine and related structures. This begins the second stage of Wilson’s exploration: the creation of his town. Wilson has plenty of needs – food and protection being the most important – but is unable to completely sustain himself in such a way through wandering and gathering. Once your prototyping has begun in earnest, the wilderness starts to feel more like an “out there” sort of place and the fire pit next to the Science Machine begins to feel more like an “in here” sort of place. The result is a home base, a safe haven that you venture out of to gather materials and plan for future expansion.

This stage of the game isn’t much fun for two specific reasons. First, you are quite weak during this stage, and encountering anything tougher than a few spiders will likely result in your death. Despite this, you have to go kill those tougher enemies to get the resources you need to advance. Second, the resources you need – such as manure for farming – are scarce compared to the resources of the first stage, and fast travel around the map can only be done at predetermined points. This lack of player-built transportation makes every trip into the wilderness a massive grind to get to and from a resource location before night falls. You can set up fire pits as resting stops, of course, but that just adds to the massive time sink. On the bright side, this is the best time to experiment with different combinations of items, as reaching this point in a new game is quick and easy.

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4 Comments on Don’t Starve Review: Hungry For More

not to be that guy...

On May 3, 2013 at 3:51 pm

but deep in the game there’s a door that leads to “adventure mode.” it’s a tough as nails end game that fleshes out your capture’s story but not much else. Its very well hidden though.

Bloodygoodgames

On May 4, 2013 at 9:42 am

I just grabbed this this weekend from GOG and am only about three hours in. Have to say, though, it’s looking to be one of the best indie games I’ve played all year — soooo much fun so far. Love the art style as well. It really makes the game.

lesniks

On May 4, 2013 at 3:00 pm

but deep in the game there’s a door that leads to “adventure mode.” it’s a tough as nails end game that fleshes out your capture’s story but not much else. Its very well hidden though.

lee

On May 6, 2013 at 12:25 pm

I will be honest i hadnt even heard of Dont Starve. There are only a couple of comments at the moment but they seem pretty positive so i think i will see if i know anybody that has played it and see what they say. I love Salem and i do not want to take a backward step.

lee