It was getting dark. I didn’t have enough wood for a fire. There weren’t many trees in the area. My axe was nearly broken, and there was no flint in sight, so making another was out of the question. In spite of all that, I just managed to get enough wood before the world transitioned from dusk to evening. Just as I was about to build a fire, night fell. Within seconds, I was ripped apart by the monsters hidden in the darkness. That was the first time I died. It was only the first day.
My second attempt went a little better. I got killed by bees after I attacked one in the hopes that it I might be able to retrieve some honey from their hive. Needless to say, that didn’t work out the way I planned. Those hives hold a lot of bees. The next time, I found some frogs. I was running low on food, and was armed with an axe. I had a fire, and had established a small base camp. All I really needed was food, and when your character hasn’t eaten in a couple days, frog legs sound pretty good. Thirty seconds later, I was starting a new game. Let this be a lesson to you: never attack frogs. They have a lot of friends. And they will find you.
I didn’t starve to death until my fourth try. By then, I’d managed to set up a small camp that allowed me to craft more advanced items, grow my own food, and even sleep comfortably through the night. My problem wasn’t advancing through the game’s tech trees. It was remembering to eat. So perhaps Don’t Starve’s title is something of a misnomer. If you dedicate all of your time to finding food, starving won’t be your problem. But you don’t want to spend all of your time picking carrots, trapping rabbits, and foraging for berries, either. You’re trying to carve out an existence, too. That means managing your sanity, ensuring that you have a constant, readily available food supply, and carving out a home in this incredibly hostile world.
And that’s where Don’t Starve gets you: it’s in balancing your need to advance your place in the world with your need to survive. Without one, the other doesn’t have much meaning, and the game doesn’t make it easy for you to do either.
The game’s story is a pretty simple one: you take control of Wilson, a gentleman scientist who makes a deal with a demon for forbidden knowledge. Of course, the deal goes south, and Wilson finds himself in an inhospitable, alien land rife with monsters. You’ll start off by gathering twigs, grass and flint to make an axe, which allows you to chop down trees for wood. From there, you’ll be able to make a pickaxe and mine stone. If it sounds like Minecraft, that’s because it is. The difference is that Minecraft was about building; it was a giant LEGO box that dared you to play in it. Don’t Starve allows you to have some creative freedom, but for the most part, you take what you can get, and you don’t get a lot.
At first, you’ll probably stick to the easy, safe stuff: picking berries, finding the odd carrot, planting seeds, and maybe even killing rabbits if you can catch them. But that won’t last very long. Soon, you’ll be out of obvious, safe choices, and you’ll have to start experimenting, traveling further and further from areas you know are safe. Either way, you’d better be back at a fire by nightfall, unless you’d like to be murdered by the monsters that lurk in the darkness.
It’s at this point you’ll start to experiment. You’ll go after frogs, steal eggs from the terrifying Tallbirds, and eat about everything under the sun just to see what happens. As you’ve no doubt guessed, most of this will turn out badly. Eating certain things will kill you outright, while others will take a toll on your sanity. Lose too much sanity, and you’ll start seeing and hearing things. Lose all of it, and the scary looking shadow monsters you’ve been seeing will actually be able to kill you.
The potential loss of sanity is made more frightening by the game’s art style, which looks like it was plucked from a Tim Burton film. The game sounds good, too, and even basic enemies, such as spiders, sound incredibly frightening, while mining a large gold vein produces a satisfying “clink” whenever you swing your pickaxe. This compliments the game’s aesthetic nicely, and Don’t Starve’s game world comes together in a very cohesive and satisfying way.
The game controls well, too. The right stick allows you to cycle through your inventory and crafting materials, while the left stick controls your character, and the face buttons allow you to interact with the environment. Pressing L2 will give you access to your crafting recipes, while the d-pad allows you to use, inspect, or drop items in your inventory. This may sound rather counterintuitive on a page, but in practice it works really well.
The problem with Don’t Starve, then is a problem that plagues most games that have decided to play in Minecraft’s sandbox. At a certain point, progress becomes extremely time consuming, and the transition from exploration to self-sufficiency is long, hard, and rather monotonous. Sure, there’s still stuff to do after you’ve made a house, researched some tech, and started farming, but there’s no endgame here. Survival is its own reward. Beyond that, you have to make your own fun, and that requires balancing the desire to continue exploring the world with the ever-present fear of getting killed and losing everything.
As such, Don’t Starve isn’t a game for everyone. Some people won’t like the game’s lack of an overarching goal, and others will no doubt be bored by the monotony that begins to set in once you’ve got things pretty well established. The game does its best to alleviate these qualms by offering unlockable characters that deviate from Wilson in significant and often hilarious ways, but at the end of the day, Don’t Starve is going to you appeal based on its design, or it isn’t. Fans of punishing survival games and enormous game worlds will find a lot to like here, but everyone else is probably better off finding another sandbox to play in.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.