Browsing the Steam offerings at the beginning of the year, I noticed a new indie looking game called Don’t Starve. After a quick glance at the page I see it is labelled as a wilderness survival game developed by Klei Entertainment. OK, sounds like my kind of thing I guess. Scavenge and gather resources, keep the terrors of the world at bay and such. I also see it is still in beta and this is an early release, so expect bugs and an unfinished product. This has not deterred me before, since I found buying Minecraft to be a positive purchase overall.
I have to confess, though. I was not expecting much from it, and not because it was clearly marked as an early access beta. Not that I was expecting bugs from it, simply because I wondered how in-depth it could be. Was it purely a Minecraft style game with a different camera perspective? There is something to be said for moderate expectations going into something new.
Maybe I am too cynical for my own good? Maybe I have the right idea to not let high expectations get the better of me? It does leave plenty of room to be happy with my purchase, and happy I was. Being a beta at the moment, the game has little in the way of tutorial and, honestly, it feels better for it as you experiment and explore the world, and learn all there is to know about how you can interact with your environment. I wonder if this is a design choice for that reason alone, or if it is simply not done yet. The game is littered with little details that make a full and rich experience with plenty of replay potential. Though as a means of introduction, I will say that the basic idea of the game is to simply survive, as the blurb on the Steam page states.
There is a day-night cycle in the game, and you need to make a fire by nightfall or you are attacked by monsters in the dark and die. The damage you take is more scripted than environment based, however. And in early versions of the beta it was instant death if you did not light a fire quickly so more recent versions give you a gradual death to react to and avoid if possible. The world map is randomly generated when you start, and resources are scattered around the various biomes and need-finding. Monsters have their own spawn areas, like large egg sack nests for spiders which come out after the sun goes down. And other peaceful animals like rabbits have their burrows dotted around certain types of biome. Berries grow on bushes and bees buzz around near their randomly placed hives. It can rain at random, bad at night as the fire dies faster and needs to be fed more. And there is a harsh and unforgiving winter which can chill your character to the bone and kill them if they don’t stay warm. You can even go insane if you don’t look after your character, and rabbits turn to hairy creatures and shadows attack you. So, OK the world is random and varied with a lot of stuff in it. This is nothing new or revolutionary though it is a positive trait to see in an indie title still in beta.
The real joy comes in the discovery of what you can do. There is a clear crafting menu showing the resources you need for each recipe, many of them not even showing up until you make a science machine that unlocks more prototype recipes when you stand next to it. These enable you to learn more advanced tools and other items like clothing, weapons and survival gear. So none of this is really hidden, if you get my meaning, and you only really need to figure out where the more obscure resources come from. The real delights, simple though they may be in retrospect, come in realising you can do something by experimenting. An example is needed, I think. So here I am on my first playthrough of the game, having gathered some seeds off the ground, managed to kill a rabbit for its meat, picked some berries and even found a few randomly growing carrots. Night has come and I start my campfire using the crafting menu. So.. I cook the meat? Maybe I should, though the game has no instructions on this. So I guess I should just try and drop it in the fire. Ohh that worked, cool. Now I can eat it. And eat some berries and… oh I can also eat the seeds. Then I look at the fire… Wow, I can roast the berries? What about the carrot. Yeah, cool I can roast the carrot. Seeds? Awesome, they can be roasted too!
I know… as I said it is a simple thing when you think about it but I was already getting a feel for how detailed this game might actually be and the bar of expectation was being closed in on at rapid pace by now. Other instances of depth came when I suddenly happened upon some neutral NPCs in the form of pig men at their makeshift village, and the centre piece of this being their fat ‘king’ sitting in the middle of it all. Can I give them something? I gave them some food and the pigman stuffed his face with it, then followed me all the way home calling me his friend. I had adopted this pig man who then helped fend off large spiders if they came close to my camp.
Then I found out that not all experimentation is going to yield a positive result as I fed the pigman some monster meat, wondering why I should feed them all the good meat that I will be needing for myself. I won’t spoil this one for you though. Needless to say, it was not a great time had by all involved. Neither was it funny when I set my campfire for the night in a thick forest, intent on continuing lumber-jacking into the night, only to have the forest around me catch fire and burn to a crisp. Oops… but hey I had wondered where I should look to get charcoal, something needed to make a crockpot for cooking better food. Hitting the crispy trees yielded a couple of lumps of the stuff so, again I had learned something new!
I could go on and on but I would not want to give away too much of what the game has to offer. It is really as much about experimenting as it is about just gathering resources. So I will leave you all to your own experimentation. Meanwhile, let’s have a look at other aspects of the game. There is a progressive system of sorts, though remember the game is in beta and this may not be entirely complete. It consists of gaining XP to level up, and each level unlocks another character. They all have unique traits that are subtle but do change some of your game-play none the less. You always start with Wilson, the gentleman scientist. He is your average guy, though he grows a beard over several days which can be shaved for the hair… it has a use too. Needless to say that the next level character, a creepy girl called Willow, does not grow a beard. She does, however, have traits like fire immunity and being able to make a fire in the dark. I am not sure about the last one as I have not seen it in action as anything unique so maybe I am missing something here in how I play the game. I would guess, if you had not started a fire before night she would just make one on her own? Dunno. Another I have played with up to now is Wolfgang, a strongman character with a ‘mighty belly’. He can store more hunger points and they fade away slowly, and food fills him more as well. He is also stronger in combat and has more hit points. So the game continues to remain interesting the more you play it.
The map of the game adopts a biome system where each area is unique in style. There are darker grass areas that are usually full of trees like a thick forest. Very few rabbits inhabit the place though you may find the pigman village and their king. Light green grass meadows can be a mix of all sorts. You should find a lot of food lying around and a few rabbit holes to trap. Also they tend to have a chance of spawning many beehives. The yellow grass fields are more a grazing ground for the Beefalo creatures who provide wool and manure for farming. Just watch out for their foul tempers when around them. You will also find a lot more tall grass to harvest, though no trees grow here naturally. Rocky areas have.. rocks. Yes, I know! Who would have thought? Ohh and there is also the chance of a semi-hostile creature lurking around there. You will know it when you see it. There are other biomes too and they are randomly stuck together when a world is generated for you with each new game. Earlier in the beta, when I first started playing Don’t Starve, the biomes were mostly uniform in their size and shape, like large circles overlapping each other, and usually they were in a similar pattern of distribution. In later releases of the beta the biome distribution and overall map shape are more random. When you die you can continue in the same world, starting from scratch with resources and unlocks, or you can make a new one again.
This leads to a note I wish to make about progress in the game as a whole beyond unlocking characters. In the early beta you would, after death, remember recipes for items you have researched using the science machine. You needed to fuel it with resources to generate points which could be used to unlock the different advanced tools and structures. And once purchased you could make them any time in future new games so it gave you a leg up, as such. In the current incarnation of the game you forget it all when you die, and you need to start again making the science machine to make your first prototype advanced item. Though you don’t have to pool research points to buy them anymore. You just make the item when you have the required resources and need a science machine to make the first one. I like this system better though it does always put you back to square one in the tree of unlocks. However, if you die and continue in the same world again you do have the advantage of playing the same map and knowing the lay of the land, and you can make smarter decisions as a result. You only lose that if you make a new world entirely.
Finally I will talk about the style of the game. I love the art and sound of Don’t Starve. Character voices are replaced by the sound of instruments like flutes, trumpets and violins. The music matches the tone of the art-style which I can only describe as a combination of Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas and Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. Both of these I can totally dig.
I encourage anyone that has not done so already to get this little gem of a game. Of the indie games I have played so far this year, this one rates near the top, and it is not even done yet. Releases are frequent and scheduled, and the game’s front screen even tells you how long to the next release. So you know the game is being developed constantly and you have not bought a beta that may never be completed. Even then there are very few bugs I have encountered and their patch notes from release to release show a priority for bug squashing. Something else to be encouraged about. As it stands it could pass as a finished product already, though they have features they wish to implement in the game such as adventure mode vs survival mode. In the current incarnation, you enter adventure mode in the form of an instance within the survival game where you pick your kit and go off on a little mini-quest. I have not encountered these yet so I am not sure how polished they are currently. Early on in development winter was not even present, nor rain, and new monsters and random structures in the world have been added already. I look forward to seeing what else they add in the future.
I do know this. I am very satisfied with my decision to buy this game. And I am confident that anyone who buys this game will be satisfied as well. If you want to wait for full release then by all means, do so. I would, however, urge you to put it on your wishlist.