Nature is beautiful. We observe it from pictures and videos from the safety of our home. We get up close to it on vacations through tour guides and hikes. And sometimes, we even interact with it by camping in the wilderness, preparing with ample supplies and experiencing only a sliver of what it must be like to rough it for real. But what if you suddenly found yourself in a stunning yet strange land with nothing but the clothes on your back? What would you use around you? What strategies would you implement to fight back hunger, maintain your health, and keep hold of your sanity? Don’t Starve presents the scenario that these questions pose as it slaps you down into an unfamiliar and unforgiving world with no tutorial, no guidance, and no mercy. However, will its harsh difficulty discourage and deprive you from experiencing much of what the novel PlayStation 4 release has to offer, or are the title’s beautiful visuals enough to keep you coming back for more?
Wilson is a ‘gentleman scientist’ that’s out of luck. We see him trying to come up with a potion of some sort in the opening cutscene, but when botching it for what seems like the umpteenth time, he slumps down on his recliner in defeat. Suddenly, a mysterious voice comes from the radio by his side that offers him a chance to attain the knowledge that he lacks. Gladly accepting this deal, Wilson is imparted with newfound intelligence that compels him to get to work on a weird machine with an unknown purpose. When he’s finished, the voice tells him to switch it on, and when he does, the protagonist discovers that he’s made a terrible mistake. Lightning cracks, the sky turns black, and shadowy hands protrude from the wooden panels of his home to drag him into the unknown. Once in the actual game, we see that Wilson has been transported to a foreign land. Then, while he’s lying on the ground recovering from shock, the brooding villain responsible for his predicament appears and encourages him to start searching for supplies. Only once he’s disappeared from sight, does the fight for survival start.
Played from a top down perspective, the goal of this game is to find, manage, combine, and use hundreds of items for the purpose of enduring in a randomly generated world. You have to feed yourself by hunting animals, combine food to create recipes for better meals, and maintain a garden to store up rations. You need to keep up your wellbeing by donning armour, heal with natural resources, wear warm clothing to brave the winter, and stay out of the dark with light sources to avoid experiencing hallucinations and draining your sanity stat. In addition, you can befriend strange creatures, fight menacing foes, explore bizarre underground caves, and much more.
If you’re thinking that this title sounds similar to playing Minecraft on Hardcore mode, that’s certainly right. This release seems heavily inspired by it, making the game a tense and dangerous journey to embark on every time. But one major difference is that you can play as different characters that have unique pros and cons. For example, Wilson is the average, well-rounded hero. The witty scientist can grow a beard that helps keep him insulated during the winter, but he has no major weaknesses or strengths to note. On the other hand, a character like the disturbing, emotionally detached Wendy is comfortable in the darkness and can summon the ghost of her sister to fight enemies. On the downside, she loses a lot of her sanity when she does the latter and lacks strength to fight compared to the other characters. You unlock all of them over time with a level up system tied to your performance, which works as a fairly neat incentive to try them all out.
While the abovementioned mode is the only option in the game, you can adjust an assortment of settings like how many of a certain enemy appear, how long the seasons are, what foods are in normal or limited quantities, and so forth. Altering these options can make the game somewhat easier, but also harder – which is probably not something that you want to do at first. Without looking at walkthroughs, figuring out how everything works and what you should do to survive while juggling the essential needs of your character can be stressful.
Even after a little over a dozen hours spent with the release, we weren’t able to get a true sense of the full adventure due to the intentional learning curve and severe difficulty of the experience. Like a roguelike, you lose everything that you've obtained when you die; hours spent playing will be wiped away if you slip up, which only leaves you with the knowledge that you gained if you start a new session. We hoped that we’d get lucky enough to spawn in a randomly generated world with plenty of food so that we could focus on getting further than our previous attempts, but due to the deliberate game design, this didn’t happen. The gameplay is definitely solid, but the devotion required to succeed will render the experience divisive.
Fortunately, there’s absolutely no doubt that everyone will enjoy the fantastic art style backing up the graphics. Heavily inspired by Tim Burton’s animated films, every object and character in this game has a sort of stylised, cartoony, and spindly aspect to its design. What’s also fascinating is that nearly everything looks like a cut-out piece of paper that's been drawn upon, which results in a mostly flat presentation of the world despite the fact that you can navigate it in any direction as if it were 3D. This makes the game a visually memorable experience because it manages to pull you in with its peculiar charm.
The audio adds to the high production values, too. Specifically, the sound effects immerse you in the experience with the unnerving cries and shrieks of creatures, the sound of your footsteps changing from environment to environment, and especially the impeccable ambience of sounds like the ocean, fire crackling, wind, and trees swaying – there’s definitely some great attention to detail here. Meanwhile, the ragtime and silent film era inspired soundtrack is quite catchy, featuring unconventional appliances such as the xylophone and accordion with the typical piano and strings. These upbeat compositions are pleasantly odd, and the same can be said for the characters' voices and their amusingly entertaining dialogue, which are individually portrayed by a specific brass instrument like a trumpet, tuba, or melancholy flute.
Don’t Starve may make your stomach rumble in frustration if you’re not willing to invest the required time to master its complex systems, but triumph over its crushing difficulty, and you may find a satisfactory dish here. The beautiful art style, entertaining music, and solid gameplay mean that you owe it to yourself to at least give the title a try – but know that not everyone will want to stick around for seconds.