Indie Game Review: Don’t Starve (Steam/PC)

If you zoom in, you can see the pride in his eyes.

Wilson was once a Gentleman Scientist. Just look at him now.

“Don’t Starve,” independently developed by Klei Entertainment, is a quirky and surprising addition to the survival / horror genre. Eye-catching visuals and memorable atmosphere combine to turn “Don’t Starve” into a notable cult hit with a few surprises in store for curious gamers.

The game opens with Wilson, a Gentleman Scientist, waking to find himself transported to a strange parallel world by a “demon” named Maxwell. Later you can unlock other characters with unique perks and abilities. Whichever character you choose, you must survive using nothing but your wits and the materials you harvest from the eerie landscape around you.

I was initially drawn to this game by its immediately arresting art style, which draws obvious inspiration from Edward Gorey and Tim Burton. The world is sketched-in, the colors are muted, and characters speak as musical instruments – Wilson, your starting character, is a muted trumpet; later you unlock Wolfgang the strong man, voiced by a tuba, and Willow, a small girl with a penchant for playing with matches, voiced by a lilting piccolo. Its playfully dark aesthetic is charming, even cute at first blush; but after night falls, beware. There’s something uniquely disturbing about being mauled by a swarm of wall-eyed cartoon frogs.

And that's when the attack comes. Not from the front, but from the side, from the other two Beefalos you didn't even know were there...

Wilson’s home, where the Beefalos roam

The actual gameplay is fun, if fairly straightforward. You balance your time between exploring, gathering resources, and crafting items to aid you while you try to keep your health and sanity high, and your hunger low. There is a day/night cycle that encourages you to build camp(s) around the map so you have a refuge from the dangers of the night. The game’s challenge increases day by day – monsters begin to spawn and (if you survive long enough), winter is coming.

There is a deeper layer of horror lurking at the edges of this game, one far more disturbing than the creepy-cute wildlife and playfully gruesome deaths that await you. The borders of the landscape are abrupt, and water is represented by two-dimensional paper-like waves moving against each other. Unidentified sounds follow you through the night, and when your sanity drops too low, nightmarish silhouettes appear at the edges of your vision. These details create an atmosphere of hidden danger that will keep you on edge even as you waltz through a field plucking flowers.

The increasing difficulty may be enough to hold players’ interest if they enjoy the challenge of finding rare resources and crafting advanced items while finding time for routine upkeep, but I found the process of gathering food and firewood every day to be a trifle tiresome. I was much more captivated by the unfolding mystery behind this world: what is this place? Who is your tormentor Maxwell? Clues are scattered throughout the game and if you explore enough of the map you may stumble onto a portal to ‘adventure mode,’ which is the closest thing to a story that this game has.

In adventure mode you search the map for four unique items which, when combined, open the way to another map. After five maps you play through the epilogue: endgame content added just before “Don’t Starve” left beta. Without spoilers, the game’s epilogue is a satisfying and appropriate wrap-up to a title whose dark and intriguing atmosphere is its strongest asset. Rather than a boss fight or a final challenge, you instead confront the depressing answer to the existential questions posed by the game.

Pseudoscience tells us we are never more than three feet away from a spider. Sweet dreams!

A bearded Wilson, fleeing from a clutter of spiders

It is no surprise that Don’t Starve became a viral hit on Steam with over 12,000 recommendations and a vocal cult following shortly after it left its beta phase in April. “Don’t Starve” is wonderfully atmospheric and suspenseful, and I come back to it again and again. There’s a lot to explore and discover; the smallest details really make this game special. But despite my yearning to spend time in the world of the game, I don’t always have fun while I’m there. Some aspects of gameplay feel repetitive and tedious, and the game only has time to creatively imply story, character, and plot; these elements take a backseat to the memorable tone and immersive aesthetic design.

 

Final Rating: 8/10

CBR Break Down:
Console Played On
: PC (available for Mac and Linux)
Time to completion: 10 – 20 hours (varies widely)
Gamer Score Earned: N/A
Price Bought at: $22.49 for a two-pack (yours + a gift copy)
Current Price: $14.99, or $22.49 for a two-pack (Steam)
Recommend Purchase Price: $22.49 (For less than $8, hook a friend up. See who can survive longer!)
Why you should buy it: Incredible atmosphere and art direction, provocative existential questions, main protagonist grows a magnificent beard.
Why you shouldn’t buy it: Found a glitch where sanity effects bleed over into real life after extended play. Players should be OH FRAK WHAT WAS THAT NOISE?


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About Clayton Faits

Clayton lives and works in Chicago. By day, he is a museum professional who creates science- and history-based educational programs. By night, he is a writer and the creator of the web-based audio drama Our Fair City (www.ourfaircity.com). As a born nerd and avid gamer, his interests range from console and PC titles to board and card games. His other hobbies include music, cycling, and cooking things over fire.