Don’t Starve Review: Hungry For More

While most of the wildlife you encounter on these missions are undoubtedly hostile, Pigs are a different story. If you leave them alone, they do nothing to you. If you feed them veggies, they give you manure, which is vitally important for farms and large-scale agriculture. Most importantly, feeding a Pig a meat item will cause it to follow you around and attack any enemies that come near. Thus, the third stage of Don’t Starve is the army-gathering stage. The goal is to amass an army of Pigs willing to punch to death any enemy that dares to mess with you, such as spiders, tentacles, treeguards, or even the Krampus. This stage is great, if just because having an army of angry Pig men punching things to death is both funny and useful.

Combat – whether it is with your Pig army or alone – operates under the same fundamental rules: Characters must stand next to each other and swing in order to deal damage. If one character moves outside melee range during the swing time, the attack whiffs and the other character can use this chance to attack. This makes Wilson quite good at fighting a single opponent, but anything above that and he’ll need armor or an army. There are also weapons and magical gear to aid you in your fight, so make sure to prepare yourself for the inevitable: death.

Once you have your tools, food, and army, the final stage of the world begins. You set out to find all the pieces of the Wooden Thing, a teleporter that brings you to the next world. You generally want to start your search by the end of the first month and complete it by the end of the second, as enemies get more populous and more aggressive the longer you stay in a world. There are also changing seasons and weather patterns to deal with. Once you’ve found the parts to the Wooden Thing and climb in, you teleport to a new world with all the items in your inventory and all the knowledge in your noggin.

Sometimes, though, you’ll run into Maxwell’s Door instead of a piece of the Wooden Thing. This portal allows you to access Adventure Mode, which is a series of challenges intended to give the experienced Don’t Starve player a run for their money. My least favorite is the one that puts swamps everywhere, as tentacles are a massive pain to deal with thanks to how much damage they deal and how fast they swing. The reward for completing Adventure Mode is a playable version of Maxwell, who starts with the most powerful sword in the game. You can also find the playable character Wes the mime, whose perks are that his stats are all bad. Playing as Wes is the closest Don’t Starve has to a “hard” difficulty.

Don’t Starve is, at its core, a game about discovery. As a result, it is full of little interactions and secrets that – unless you cheat by looking at the wiki – add a mysterious air to your explorations. This is especially relevant as everything has some functional gameplay use, even if you haven’t figured it out yet. Why are there graves and skeletons scattered around, and what purpose do they serve in the larger picture? What reason would I have to lose all my sanity? What can I use rotten food for?

Once you pass on to a new world or die, you earn XP based on how long you survived. This XP is used to unlock new playable characters, with the exception of Wes and Maxwell. These characters range from a pyromaniac to a schoolteacher, and each has their own unique attributes and perks. Wilson is the only character you have at the start, though, so it’s worth beating the game with him at least once. Unfortunately, there is no purpose to XP besides unlocking new characters, and there are no achievements to use in bragging to your friends.

As Don’t Starve lacks the vast constructions of other survival titles like Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress, it also lacks an endgame. The whole of Don’t Starve is concentrated at the front of the player’s experience. After you reach mid-game, you’ll find yourself bored by the tedium of searching for new materials for days just to produce some new clothing item or sword. It also does not help that there is no way to truly fast travel; roads and teleporters are placed by the world generator and cannot be moved. Adventure Mode worlds are the best part of Don’t Starve, as they are generally short and quick compared to the standard survival mode completion.

There’s also the problem of no metagame. Games with permadeath require one of two specific mechanics: variety and quick game sessions. Don’t Starve has neither; there is a distinct lack of options for your actions, and game sessions last a long time. Permadeath titles like Nethack and Dwarf Fortress get away with killing off the player because there are many different actions to perform over the course of a typical title. Conversely, permadeath titles like Receiver or Spelunky get away with death because getting back into the fight at around the level you were at only takes a few minutes. Without variety and quick sessions, Don’t Starve goes from exciting survival sim to tedium very quickly.

If you look at screenshots and videos of Don’t Starve, you may find yourself thinking that it is the product of Tim Burton. While this isn’t the case, it definitely has the hallmarks of Burton’s visual and auditory style. Smooth, curving lines that end in points, sketchy and grimy textures, and characters that speak in haunting tones (in Don’t Starve’s case, actual tones; character speech is represented by the playing of a musical instrument) are all present in Don’t Starve. It’s an excellent visual style that lends the game the air of a haunted storybook, and while it’s not outright scary, sometimes it gets a bit unsettling.

Don’t Starve is good, but not fantastic. It has all the necessary starting elements for a good survival game – hunting and gathering, base-building, and even a final objective – but it lacks the end-game intricacies and interests of similar titles. It is, in essence, half-finished. Fortunately, the developers have committed to updating the game every month on the dot, which means that purchasing it will guarantee plenty of future updates. If you can stand the lack of purpose and simplified mechanics, you’ll enjoy Don’t Starve immensely. If you want something meatier and more absorbing, you’re best going somewhere else.

Pros

  • Complicated-yet-approachable survival sim
  • Interesting visual and auditory style
  • Polished and interesting Adventure Mode
  • Spooky without being scary

Cons

  • Shallow compared to other games in the genre
  • Lack of metagame tying together each session
  • Not much variety in potential actions
  • No end-game
  • Combat is awkward

Final Score: 75/100


Game Front employs a 100-point scale when reviewing games to be as accurate about the experience as possible. Read the full rundown of what our review scores mean.


James Murff’s other work can be seen here, and you can follow him on Twitter at @jamesmurff.

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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