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Don't Starve review: Tim Burton meets Minecraft

Why yes, Christmas trees WILL terrorize you.
Why yes, Christmas trees WILL terrorize you.

Don't Starve


Good presentation is the best hook for an indie title, but solid gameplay is the key to a memorable title. A game you play for several hours will sit heavier in your mind than a game you got a quick chuckle out of then sent to the pile of games you technically "played". Don't Starve has enough amusing presentation to hook you and gameplay just frustrating enough to keep you hooked, assuming you can overcome the learning curve.

You start the game asleep and a tall skinny man appears and speaks to you, telling you to find some food quick. The striking fact of this man is not that he appeared out of nowhere in a dapper suit smoking a cigar, but the fact that he appears to be speaking to you like an adult from a Charlie Brown cartoon. His voice is represented by the tune of a harmonium, and you soon realize that your character's voice is one of a musical instrument as well. While seemingly silly, it gives the character a sort of dissonance and disconnect that is fitting for the macabre style of the game. This game is stylized to look like an old style play, even having the water look like layers of paper drawn like sawtooth "waves" moving back and forth. The style is amusing and well done, making it memorable and engaging. From the moment you hear the slightly demented carnival organ during the opening, you know that this game will go into gloomy territory with a certain amount of levity.

Don't Starve is a wilderness survival game with randomly generated maps and a complex crafting system. You start the game with nothing and have to immediately scrounge for items, eventually making yourself some of the necessary gear and constructions you need to stay alive. Much like other survival games you require the use of certain buildings in order to craft items, but in a twist you don't need them once they are "prototyped". Once you have created an item, you no longer need the associated building to create them again. This certainly is a welcome convenience, leaving you far less tied to your home base than some games. You are encouraged to wander the area looking for possible sources of food and items that you will need for extended survival. While initially it does not seem so bad, the game will consistently throw different problems at you left and right. During the night you need light or you die to some mysterious thing eating you. During winter, food won't grow and you will freeze to death if too long away from heat. Sometimes lightning will strike and if you don't have a lightning rod it can set half your home base on fire. Sometimes you think you are set and suddenly the ground shakes and a 30 foot tall giant one-eyed bipedal deer shows up in the middle of your home base and starts swinging at you. Bet you weren't expecting that.

The gameplay is open enough for some exploration, and challenging enough to make you not feel constantly waiting for something to happen. While this would seem to be a winning formula, the game has quite a few major flaws in its interface and execution. First, the interface is not entirely transparent and intuitive (I played and died at least 3 times before I discovered there was a map button). Also, while you are encouraged to explore and try new things, you are also hobbled by the difficulty of survival. You only have a few in game weeks until the winter starts, and if you don't have a great deal of preparation you simply won't survive your first winter. There are plenty of aspects that are not readily apparent which, much like Minecraft, leads you to reading up on a wiki. This required time and learning can be interesting to some, but it takes out a real feeling of discovery. Also, unlike Minecraft, the survival is so unforgiving that you don't have nearly as much time for projects and ideas, so there is a lot less potential for creativity. Still, the added challenge makes it feel more like a game than a crafting tool.

The biggest hurdle in the gameplay though is the shade of the random number generator. Specifically, the world you land in can either be something of a breeze to survive in early on, or near impossible, all depending on the location of valuable and necessary resources. Gold, for example, is needed to create the first tier crafting station, and you can easily end up looking for some for over half the time before winter arrives, at which point you are pretty much dead in the water. The lack of alternative or creative options around this sort of shortage (and there are other bottlenecks) leaves you in situations where you can play a world for an hour or two and just give up. This is frustrating since there was nothing you could have done about it.

Worst of all, the Adventure Mode of the game is only accessible through the Survival mode of the game. You have to find a portal in survival mode and then you can enter it over and over to play in the Adventure Mode. While losing does not affect your Survival Mode game, you still have to be very lucky to find the entrance since that, like all things, is generated by random number generators. It is recommended that you just make a few games over and over until one is made with easy access to the portal. You can also customize some of the world rules, so in this case you may as well make a custom world on easy mode until you find the portal. This adds nothing but inconvenience to the game.

While these hurdles prevent me from marking this game as legendary, the style and fun of the game is sufficient enough to keep me running back to it for another round of survival, trying to last long enough to accomplish some sort of goal. I can recommend the game if you are interested in survival horror with macabre humor and wit. The game is available on Steam for $15 normally and is likely to periodically go on sale. The game is also available on the Playstation 4, (free to Playstation Plus users) but the controls are clearly made for a PC. While I have not played it myself, others have assured me that the controls are much harder, which makes an already difficult game harder.

4 out of 5 stars. Worth the time, worth the money, but not a necessity.