I feel like the developers at Klei Entertainment really wanted to make a survival horror game and messed up somewhere down the line in a good way. Normally titles in this genre involve characters trying to live through a horrific experience with only their physical prowess and weapons to defend themselves. With Don’t Starve, Klei decided to take the survival aspect very seriously, but remembered they were making a “survival horror” game and threw in every monster they could think of for good measure. What popped out of the Klei machine was something that doesn’t look like anything else out there.
It’s so wrong, yet so right.
The game has been in beta for many months, available for free to customers who pre-ordered on Steam. Slowly Klei has been fleshing it out, adding features and fixing bugs, and now it’s finally available in its completed form for PC. I’ve had the beta since late 2012, and have been eagerly waiting for the final version. Even while playing an incomplete product, I could tell that I would be pleased.
Don’t Starve follows your character—Wilson, the Gentleman Scientist—after he is dropped into the wilderness by a demon named Maxwell. Maxwell performs his only real purpose—telling you that you need to find food before nightfall—and then disappears. You then have to use the environment and your wits to collect materials, food and objects in order to survive starvation, insanity, constantly growing facial hair and the hoards of monsters that show up.
There isn’t much of a story, but what it lacks in plot it makes up for in atmosphere and world development. It’s immediately obvious upon launch that the game oozes personality. It takes a lot of inspiration from Tim Burton animation and black comedy, and combines it all with its own unique brand of humor. You can combine seemingly random objects to create science machines that help you to create even more objects. The idea that this actually works, and is one of the most important things to know about the game, is absurd considering you’re in the middle of the woods equipped with nothing. Another example concerns the monsters, which may be adorable upon first glance—the spiders have giant mouths with pointy little fangs and their bodies are so round that you just want to pick them up and squeeze them—but you soon begin to fear every sudden movement. Rustling bushes could be filled with nightmare fuel, and sometimes literally, as there are creatures that are made completely from the stuff.
That’s where the main fun comes in. Don’t Starve succeeds in creating memorable monsters, introducing dozens of uniquely-styled beasts ranging from small and harmless to large and dangerous to small and terrifying. There are so many kinds, and because of the game’s seemingly random spawn points and secret wormholes, you have the opportunity to encounter different ones. During my first playthrough, for example, I only ran into normal animals such as birds, turkeys and pigs (granted the pig walked on two legs and had a house, but I’m not going to split hairs). However, my second attempt led me to a wormhole that was filled with giant eyes on two legs that were way faster than I was. Needless to say, I didn’t survive long and you probably won’t either.
During your initial playthroughs it’s very difficult to gauge what animals you shouldn’t chase, and which ones you can take in a fight. The game lacks a real tutorial, so it’s really up to trial and error as to how well you do. Luckily scores are graded not on how well you survive, but how long, and you gain experience points in return that increase your character’s level and unlock more characters and more features. This leveling system is suited well to the uncertainty of the action as players will be penalized less for mistakes made early on. The jump from level one to level two is obviously smaller than two to three. This also allows for players to customize their experience. As there are almost too many things you can pick up and create, each playthrough can be unique.
The sheer number of options is almost too overwhelming, though, especially for beginner players. While it’s doable to check out Don’t Starve blind, it’s helpful to know exactly what you’re getting into. This game is deceptively huge. There are so many monsters and so many things to collect that things become a bit muddled when you’re trying to actually create something that matters. Your backpack is going to fill up very quickly, so that desire to check out everything will probably just get in the way of a successful run. The fullness of the game is going to contribute heavily to wanting to replay it, but it can become frustrating when you have so many things to keep track of that you end up losing.
If you can get over the size of Don’t Starve, and put in the effort to sift through its density, then you could have a very fun time. The characters you unlock and the things you create are unusual but totally logical and it’s a kick to create them while lost in a foreboding wilderness.
Now excuse me. I have to go find a bunch of sticks in order to shave my awful beard.
Carli Velocci is a freelance journalist in Boston, Massachusetts. She has written for DigBoston, Gameranx, and isn’t afraid of anything. You can find her on Twitter @revierypone.