Klei Entertainment’s mantra of ‘’Survive! Collect! Attack!’’ goes a great length in showing the philosophy which underpins 2014’s first PlayStation 4 indie offering, ‘Don’t Starve’. Originally a breakaway success on PC last year, the title – free as part of this month’s PlayStation Plus subscription update – is certainly one of the more divisive games of recent memory. Its laboriously unforgiving nature may be to the detriment of some adopters, whilst at the same time others may well thrive in the face of the futile conditions the game so ruthlessly presents.
Gamers play as Wilson, a gentleman scientist with a penchant for nifty facial hair who’s thrust into a nightmarish plain – for reasons not initially made abundantly clear – and must attempt to stave off seemingly inevitable death by making use of the surroundings afforded to him. To exemplify how grave the situation is, when you die it’s permanent; no hand-holding, no extra lives. Depending on how many days you survive, experience points will be earned after your demise, which will unlock new characters with distinctive abilities. The day’s broken up into three cycles: light, dusk and night, each of which presents their own individual barriers and drawbacks.
As soon as the peculiar adventure begins, repetition’s the name of the game; salvaging and foraging through the decrepit, yet charming world in the faint hope of surviving the nightfall. Repetition begets accomplishment, and soon after trudging through the first 15-or-so days you begin to meticulously strategise and survey; scavenging the items to now prosper, rather than to just simply survive. Nevertheless, it’s all too easy to become lulled into Don’t Starve’s deceptively slumbering atmosphere – causing you to neglect your character’s vital statistics. Maintaining your health, food intake and sanity is effectively the core of proceedings here; failure to do so will trigger death or a descent into madness, where monsters – who are most notably commonplace at night time – will begin to appear in the light of day, relentlessly pursuing your now jaded character. That said, it’s the night cycle that gifts these creatures a chance to strike and as a result a hearty fire is imperative for survival – if it begins to dwindle, eyes will lurk in the darkness, just waiting to capitalize on the frailty of your plight.
A quick jab of L2 opens up your sidebar of crafts, giving you details on how to upgrade your armoury, which ranges from tools right up to weapons and fortifying structures. The right analogue stick is reserved for cycling through your accumulative inventory; alternating between the two, alongside tapping X repeatedly to harvest the landscape, is what initially takes up most of your time. Most importantly however, is the science portion of this sidebar, which allows you to research and make advances to your crafting selection, allowing for more manoeuvrability in terms of your planning and approach. Once a prototype of an item has been developed for the first time, the item’s then available for crafting anywhere around the world. Each science machine is tiered; the higher the level the more items available to the player. The system works well on a fundamental level, but the crux of its shortcomings comes from the length of time in which it takes to gather certain components needed to develop some of the more varied items. Many players will rightly revel in the challenge this sort of conditional gameplay presents, whilst others may soon grow disillusioned by it.
Of course, the folks over at Klei Entertainment like to throw a spanner in the works now and again, and no sooner after you think you’ve mastered the process the game’s season changes, presenting a whole new manner of problems in itself. Summer is bit of a doddle at first, with the vast majority of playing time revolving around plodding along the landscape, exploring and collecting anything in sight. Once winter arrives, players’ foraging skills are put to the test as plants become scarce, animals retreat for hibernation and nights last a great deal longer. There’s the added threat of freezing to death which rears its ugly head, too. While night time can feel like a breeze at the times during the summer, it’s an entirely different ball game at winter. It can be incredibly disheartening to endure the 20-or-so days until the next season shift, only to succumb to the environment almost instantaneously. It’s a live-and-learn experience, one that should be brought into your next playthrough, undoubtedly.
Luckily the PS4 version of the game’s on par with that of the PC, so all the updates and customization options are present, allowing for players to tinker the experience according to their preferences at any given time. It’s a nice shift in momentum, but the game’s best experienced in its purest form. The untailored mode leads to far more memorable incidents such as aimlessly chasing a band of rabbits before stumbling upon a purple patch of carrots, or having no logs so using a torch to light up everything in sight at the dead of night just to stay alive – it’s that sort of personalised allure at its heart that makes the game so everlasting.
At its core, Don’t Starve harbours a distinctly morbid charm that is as remarkably engaging as it is grim. Its world is populated by a whole manner of weird and wonderful creatures, most of which are more than happy to go about their own business until you set foot in, or threatening their living quarters. Once you’ve gotten a season or two under your belt, the game reveals itself as a far richer experience than just surviving for the sake of it; you begin to build upon your knowledge and start making the world and its populace your own. The incredible array of options and depth no doubt facilitate this transition from prey to predator, and it’s in this arena where Don’t Starve easily soars highest.