Developed by Klei Entertainment, Don’t Starve is a sandbox-survival game similar to the likes of Minecraft minus the creative incentive. The game initially centers on the first available character, Wilson, who is thrown into a massive wilderness by Maxwell the demon. The map is full of the most basic resources to survive as well as dangerous mobs scattered throughout. The only instruction you get is what is suggested by the game’s title so how you want to go about surviving is up to you.
The most basic needs for survival in Don’t Starve are food and light which can easily be sustained through a number of sources. Different types of fires can be created which all vary in durability and sustainability. During the day, you must scour the wilderness for food and other resources to make tools with which is quite easy. However, once night comes, if a fire is not lit in your vicinity you are almost instantly killed by monsters in the darkness.
The great thing about Don’t Starve is that there are so many options to choose from in order to survive. For food, you can either opt to be a nomadic hunter-gatherer which works out better if you want to explore the map for resources. Either that or you can be self-sustaining and invest in building a bunch of farms for crops – both have their advantages and disadvantages. If you choose to be a nomad, it’ll be harder to invent new and better equipment with the Science Machine because of a lack of inventory space. Building a static farm, on the other hand, will help you develop better, more efficient equipment but make it harder for you to explore farther areas. The best way to go about this, though, is to balance it out.
Surviving isn’t just the matter of making sure you have an ample supply of food. You also have to keep track of your HP and Sanity bar. While the hunger and HP bars are quite straight forward, the Sanity bar can be affected by various factors. Certain types of food may greatly replenish hunger and HP but drastically lower your Sanity level. Harsh weather like rain and cold can also decrease your Sanity but can be solved by creating specific items that help you keep warm and dry like umbrellas and puffy jackets. There are also certain types of monsters that have an aura that will decrease your Sanity level just by being around them. I’m not quite sure exactly what would happen if you went insane because I haven’t actually gone past that threshold. However, at one point, Wilson was so starved and crazy that ordinary rabbits turned into Beardlings which acted the same as rabbits but just look like beards with feet.
Developing various tools isn’t necessarily essential in Don’t Starve. Technically, you can just camp out in one area and make yourself so self-sufficient that you can survive forever provided you don’t mind getting absolutely bored playing. Higher tier tools are usually made using resources that are not commonly found and cannot be grown. The game encourages exploration by rewarding your character with rare items that can lead to some really neat tools make surviving a lot easier.
The building menu poses a bit of a problem in Don’t Starve. It is highly inconvenient and does not provide specific information about any of the tools or how they are useful. While this encourages experimentation, most of the time you’ll just end up wasting resources on tools that won’t be of much use in your current situation. There is also no way of filtering or searching through the build menu and bringing it up doesn’t pause the game so you’ll end up wasting a lot of time just looking through it.
The lack of a proper tutorial makes the game incredibly time consuming and it is especially so due to the massive maps. There is actually an option to customize the map but even the smallest setting is absolutely massive. The issue of fast travelling is somewhat resolved by wormholes which allow you to travel from one point to another but decrease your Sanity at the same time. What I love about the massive maps, though, is that there are just so many different randomly generated encounters. Though seemingly sparse, the random encounters allow you to obtain otherwise unfound items that can be used to built new tools and items provided you know how to deal with the random encounter. The Pig King, for example, will reward you with 5 gold nuggets if you gift him a Gnome which randomly spawns around the map but, again, the game doesn’t tell you this so most of the time random encounters will seem utterly random and useless.
With the range of different tools you can build, you’d think there was at least one that can improve movement speed but there isn’t one. As a result, you’ll spend most of your time wandering aimlessly across a massive wasteland with nothing but beardlings to keep you company. I understand how Klei Entertainment wanted to convey a sense of insignificance compared to the massive open world but Don’t Starve isn’t a wilderness survival simulator. It is more of an overly sandbox-y exploration game that requires a certain amount of strategy. Its excessively open world becomes a detriment to the gameplay in the sense that progress feels incredibly slow to the point that it may become tedious and frustrating.
What I think Klei Entertainment should have added is a bit of an RPG aspect – something to reward players for playing like gaining XP for skills. Many days will go by with just you hoarding resources for tools you might never even build. There is no incentive to explore other than to come across those peculiar random encounters. Positive reinforcements are so seemingly few and sparse that many people will get bored before even advancing to a more developed stage.
Aside from the normal survival mode, there is also Adventure Mode which gives you the chance to unlock a new character. It can only be accessed by finding a randomly generated portal on the map that will take you there. You start out fresh with absolutely no items in one of several different maps that all have a special factor that will make things more difficult. In one of the maps, for example, it is always raining which makes it constantly rain frogs. Frogs are highly aggressive and will attack when you draw near making exploration more of a challenge but they also provide an unlimited supply of food provided you know how to kite them into traps.
While most minor enemies like spiders and frogs can be killed by some effective kiting, higher tier mobs require different sorts of strategies in order to be beaten. The Tree Guardian, for example, is a randomly spawned giant tree that sports a really high amount of HP and does an insane amount of damage. Unless you have advanced armor and weapons or magical spells, the only way to kill it without taking any damage is to run with a torch and light objects in its path. It’ll catch fire which deals damage over time and eventually, it’ll die.
As expected from the same creators of Shank and Mark of the Ninja, the art style is so gorgeously drawn. It also works well with the overall gothic theme of the game that feels almost like it was created by Tim Burton. There are so many types of creatures and monsters that are all so peculiarly designed, all varying in behaviour making map exploration a journey through Don’t Starve‘s art.
Don’t Starve is what a micro-transaction game would be without the micro-transactions. The entirety of the game is available but require you to actually invest time and play it. Its art style is superbly imagined with all the charm and mystery that comes with a Tim Burton film but without Johnny Depp. Though the slow progress of the gameplay might not appeal to some, I highly recommend it to those anyone who enjoys incredibly punishing and difficult survival games.