Don't Starve: Console Edition Review

  • First Released Apr 23, 2013
  • PS4

Hurts so good.

A swarm of agitated frogs. Tentacles that sprout from the earth. Poisonous mushrooms. Winter's frosty embrace. Rotten food. Giant cyclops birds. The darkness. Rampaging subterranean bunny things. Packs of hellhounds. Your own slithering hallucinations. Starvation. The laundry list of things that can kill you in the eerie world of Don't Starve is as excessive as it is intriguing. I've succumbed to just about every ill-fated demise imaginable in this brutal but addictive indie survival sim. Despite the frustration that comes from dying and losing everything--a common occurrence in this unforgiving and mysterious realm--it's hard to pull away once the engrossing cycle of exploration, crafting, and survival grabs hold.

A hasty introduction to Don't Starve's vast danger-filled realm leaves little time to consider the particulars of why you've been summoned out into the middle of nowhere by a mysterious demonic gentleman. As Wilson, a scientist-turned-survivalist, you're plunked down into this randomly generated world and left to figure everything out on your own. Outside of some light questing and very minimal story elements, the emphasis is placed on your survival. Rather than being a detriment, the hands-off direction paves the way for the world's grim Tim Burton-esque vibe and entrancing visual design to unfurl, telling its own harrowing tales as you struggle to stave off death.

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Come on baby, light my fire.
Come on baby, light my fire.

When it comes to figuring out how to stay alive, there's precious little handholding here. The lack of any tutorial means that every resource, creature, and curiosity you encounter poses a two-pronged question: how can I use this to my advantage, and will messing with it somehow result in getting killed? Considering that many vital resources can be perilous to acquire or have an ill effect if used improperly, each choice you make at any given moment has the potential to usher in your own doom. This trial-and-error nature is a real pressure cooker at moments, since even a simple slipup like overharvesting a scarce material can send you into a downward spiral. The constant tension that builds as important supplies dwindle ratchets up the stressfulness of each dire situation, but it makes each victory, however small, feel like a major achievement. It's an unpredictability that also adds to the thrill of your survival.

The hands-off direction paves the way for the world's grim Tim Burton-esque vibe and entrancing visual design to unfurl.

As you explore, gathering food, material resources, and fuel for a steady campfire is critical. Whether you scavenge berries and vegetables or kill and cook wildlife to consume, keeping a supply of edibles on hand staves off hunger that can sap your meager health if left unchecked. A steady day-night cycle weaves several more layers of complexity into the mix. You can freely explore during the daytime, but nightfall ushers in a new threat: get caught in the dark for more than a few seconds without a light source, and the darkness itself consumes you. Spending too much time out in the dark, even by torchlight, saps your mental health as well. Activities like eating flowers, resting, and tinkering away restore your sanity. Let it deplete too far, however, and the increasingly hallucinatory visual effects that warp the gameworld onscreen spawn imaginary nightmare creatures that attack. Really, you never feel truly safe. Ever. That's not a bad thing though.

Don't Starve smartly entwines all this danger and tension with a well-designed crafting system that provides the real hook for risking life and limb to push onward. The raw materials you harvest on your travels let you cobble together crude implements to help you survive, which is your sole means of gaining ground in your pitched struggle. Mundane materials like wood, flint, grass, and rope can be forged into axes, spears, torches, and more. Your collecting and tinkering thankfully don't end there. With depth and complexity that rival similar survival-centric offerings like Minecraft and Terraria, the expansive crafting system really kicks into high gear once you develop alchemy and science stations to boost your options.

This guy's attitude is as icy as his surroundings.
This guy's attitude is as icy as his surroundings.

The jump to the PlayStation 4 brings a welcome speed and fluidity to the tasks of gathering, exploring, and crafting, thanks to thoughtful use of the DualShock 4's control scheme. Simple updates, such as the ability to hold down the action button to automatically harvest whatever is on the ground nearby or to interact with nearby objects, have a big impact. The dual thumbsticks make quick work of juggling inventory items too, and the overall scheme is a comfortable improvement for crafting. If you've played the PC version, it takes some time to adjust to using a controller, but even as an avid PC gamer, I just can't go back to using a mouse and keyboard after playing on the PS4.

Don't Starve's console port remains largely in line with the latest PC version, including all of the updated content like subterranean caves and a new Default Plus mode, which offers a steeper challenge but gives you a bunch of goodies from the get-go to help more-seasoned players motor through the sluggish stretches of a new game. Aside from the lack of mod support, one notable difference is the reduced control for fine-tuning custom games in the console version. There's some wiggle room to toggle the frequency of individual creatures and elements, but it's scaled back here. That's a minor concession, since the core game is well done and is a great fit on the PS4.

The flames of change are roaring.
The flames of change are roaring.

Even so, some of the underlying problems still linger. Don't Starve's roguelike aspect is utterly grueling in the way it doles out punishment. While there are a few means to prolong your life beyond the grave, most games that end with you dying wipe out your progress completely, leaving you agonizing over the numerous hours you just spent chipping away to gain a foothold in this harsh world. Your experience carries over and goes toward unlocking new characters with special perks to play as, so it's not a total loss, but this doesn't negate the agony of having to grind through from the beginning after getting killed in a later-game run.

If you're up to the challenge and precariousness of exploring this stark landscape bristling with danger, Don't Starve delivers unique charm, exhaustive depth, and brutal punishment. On the PS4, it remains a frustrating, fascinating, and beautifully grim experience that controls nicely and packs the same absorbing punch as the original.

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The Good

  • Great mix of crafting, exploration, and survival
  • Distinct art style and atmosphere set a cool vibe
  • Massive open world to explore

The Bad

  • Grindy repetition grates post-death

About the Author

Having already submitted to the pleasant but punishing discipline of Don't Starve on the PC, Nathan Meunier knew what he was getting into with this updated PS4 port. After many more hours spent dying, grinding, slaying, and exploring, he knows the meaning of roguelike pain. And he's ready for more.