Don't Starve Review

Survival and crafting take a turn for the brutal in this fascinating adventure.

Like in any extreme survival situation, the early moments of Don't Starve's grueling-yet-fascinating struggle to stay alive are electric. Suddenly the clock is ticking. Confidence is high as you first explore a vast open-world wilderness teeming with danger. From trapping a rabbit for the first time to crafting an axe to chop precious firewood before nightfall, every minor accomplishment that keeps you ticking is immediately gratifying. But as the days draw on and dodging death's icy grip gets harder, the rigors of this unflinchingly brutal roguelike adventure chip away at your patience.

Behold, the portal to adventure…and doom.
Behold, the portal to adventure…and doom.

Don't Starve casts you in the unfortunate role of Wilson, a scientist who has been mysteriously transported to a strange and deadly world by a demon-gentleman. With little more than a quick greeting, your adversary vanishes, and you're left alone to figure out how to stay alive. Story and dialogue are pretty minimal, aside from a few encounters in the super tough adventure mode, which is accessed by first locating a portal hidden in the randomly generated survival mode world. The hands-off nature of the story is a strength, allowing the heavy atmosphere and outstanding visual design of this grim land draw you in. There's little time for dalliances anyway. A great many things in the game's eerie world are out to kill you from the get-go.

Survival doesn't come easy, but there's an undeniable thrill to the challenge. Your first few minutes of exploration hinge on harvesting whatever basic resources you stumble upon: a few twigs, some flint, rocks, a handful of grass. Collect enough of these raw materials, and you can make an axe, a torch, rope, a spear, and other crucial tools that increase your chances of survival. Don't Starve's deep resource harvesting and crafting system brings previous open-world games like Minecraft and Terraria to mind, and it's one of the game's strongest hooks. Figuring out how to put each item you collect to good use is a fun process of experimentation. Basic items are relatively easy to cobble together with minimal materials, though creating science and alchemy stations also pushes you further down the crafting rabbit hole by unlocking tons of more elaborate item recipes to pursue. Of course, staying alive long enough to build everything is another story.

A helping hand would be much more appreciated than demoralizing lecturing.
A helping hand would be much more appreciated than demoralizing lecturing.

Dangers are frequently stacked against you in inventive and sometimes frustrating ways. Exploring, scavenging, harvesting resources, and building are best done in the day. Without a torch or a campfire to provide illumination when night falls, you will be torn to pieces by the demonic creatures that roam the darkness within seconds. Building a fire isn't enough either. You have to have enough wood or other fuel sources to keep it lit throughout the night, which creates a constant state of near panic every time the twilight phase of the day/night cycle arrives. Getting caught without the necessary ingredients for a fire or ample burnable materials to last the night spells instant doom.

Changing seasons also usher in new problems to tackle. Live long enough, and winter rears its frosty head, bringing subzero temperatures that cause you bodily harm if you venture too far from a heat source. Admittedly, these interesting wrinkles add depth and additional difficulty to the already challenging survival mechanics at play. They sometimes tip the scale too far, however, particularly given the plentiful supply of other potentially life-ending obstacles thrown in your path.

Managing your hunger, sanity, and health meters is a meticulous juggling act that demands a lot of your attention too. Food sources are often scarce, leaving you to scavenge berries, pull up wild carrots, and trap small animals early on to keep your belly full. While it's possible to build gardens and cook the meat of large beasts you slay to provide more-sustainable and gut-filling meal options, death by starvation is an omnipresent concern. When your stomach is completely empty, your health depletes rapidly until you die. Your sanity also depletes over time, and as it dwindles, you see more and more shadowy hallucinations and trippy visual effects. These hallucinatory creatures attack if you let your mental well run dry, and they're far from the only beasts you encounter.

Alone and in the wilderness, life can only be what you make of it.
Alone and in the wilderness, life can only be what you make of it.

From giant cyclops birds and living tree monsters to carnivorous frogs and spiked tentacles, there are lots of creepy critters out there eager to end your existence. The rewards of battling them outright rarely feel like they measure up to the risk involved. Point-and-click combat is unfulfilling, since you basically stand there and whack away until someone dies. Often that's you. Slain foes may yield crucial ingredients for crafting and survival, but enemies are just as likely to kill you with a few quick hits before you have a chance to finish them off. Even docile critters can turn deadly with only the slightest provocation, since they tend to rally their pals in large numbers and come chasing after you en masse.

Dying wouldn't be such a big deal if it didn't wipe your progress away permanently. While other roguelikes make it easy to get up and running, building a foundation for survival in Don't Starve is labor-intensive and monotonous at times. When you finally gain a decent foothold on survival after spending so much time chopping wood, scavenging sticks, and fighting for your life, losing it all in a split second is absolutely agonizing. You lose steam after being wiped out a few dozen times and forced to start the whole process over from a few twigs and berries. Every day you stay alive in each run does add toward your total experience points, but that only unlocks a handful of additional characters to play.

At least Don't Starve doesn't force you to dig your own grave.
At least Don't Starve doesn't force you to dig your own grave.

Adventure mode ups the danger and frustration substantially too, since it requires you to hunt down pieces to assemble portals across five increasingly tough world maps. Die once in, and you're kicked back to Survival mode, outside a portal. Granted, when this cycle gets too irritating, you can manually tweak the frequency of most resources, monsters, and perils before starting a new run. But it's hard to find the sweet spot between painfully hard and absurdly easy, since having everything at your fingertips saps the enjoyment of foraging and crafting.

The way Don't Starve blends its crafting, exploration, and survival elements makes for an enthralling and unique combination. This game will readily eat up many hours of your time if you let it, but the promise each run holds never seems to pan out thanks to the insidious challenges the game constantly stacks against you. The initial sense of wonder that comes from stumbling upon the surprises and discoveries of this interesting world rapidly fades away when you're stuck tackling the same menial tasks over and over again to regain lost ground for the hundredth time. It's disappointing, because Don't Starve otherwise packs a tremendous amount of charm, depth, and intrigue.

The Good

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

The Bad

  • Lacks the rewards that would balance out the repetition
  • Unflinchingly brutal difficulty

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