Sometimes the name of a game can give you a pretty good clue of what to expect when you get around to booting it up and giving it a whirl. Call of Duty sounds bombastic, Resident Evil doesn’t sound like you’d get on with the neighbours and World of Warcraft just sounds big. Don’t Starve, on the other hand, is remarkably instructive. It seems to promise a simple premise – hey, how hard can it be? I manage not to starve most days. In actual fact, it manages to sound a little underwhelming, and the great surprise is that the game is anything but.
Initially released on PC back in April 2013 Don’t Starve received about a bazillion updates and additions between then and now in a heart-warming display of continuing support from Klei Entertainment. At its most basic, Don’t Starve is a sandbox roguelike, casting you into the middle of a randomised world and tasking you simply with surviving for as long as you can. From the off, food is scarce – perhaps a handful of berries or some seeds will be the only things you find to help keep your hunger down. You’ll learn more with each passing day – and, more importantly, with each passing death – ultimately gaining in the knowledge and skill you require to string a couple of days together before you make your next, inevitable, mistake.
And yet, most of the time, starving is the least of your worries. As well as keeping on top of eating you have to keep an eye on your sanity. Clearly survival is a harsh business, and many of the situations you’ll find yourself in will have far more of an impact on your mental wellbeing than on your physical state. As your sanity drops you’ll begin to hallucinate – your focus will begin to waver and the world will seem less solid. Strange shadows will appear in your peripheral vision, ghastly hands will creep upwards and steal your light; fail to take steps to address your mental instability and these shadows will soon become solid, taking exception with your very being. Oh, and you’ll see fluffy little beards running around the place. Everyone loves living beards, right?
It’s likely, however, that the moving beards will be the least of your worries. In fact, Don’t Starve perfectly embodies an element of classic Hong Kong cinema I like to call ‘The elderly man/woman switcharoo’. If you’ve seen any vaguely martial arts-ish movie from the ‘70s onwards then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Hero meets old man, laughs at old man for being old, and then sometimes acts all cocky. Old man says something scathing that is lost in comical translation, and our hero takes umbrage. This then leads to our hero being a bit of an arse, and SHOCK! HORROR! the old man is actually a martial arts master and kicks the young kid’s butt. How is this relevant to Don’t Starve you ask? Well, virtually everything you meet, regardless of how feeble they may look, is actually that old man in disguise. Everything from mosquitoes to frogs can, and will, kick your arse as you work out the ropes, and then probably do it a few times again after that. Congratulations – don’t pass go, don’t collect £200, just brush yourself off and start again.
If you do find it too hard to get going (and no real shame on you there, this is an under-represented genre on consoles) there are a range of options you can find as you start each game that allow you to tinker with many of the game’s presets. Fancy longer days to give you more time to get stuff done? How about increasing the spawns of a certain resource? These options, and more, are available to you, but as you decrease the difficulty so too will you decrease the pleasure you can derive from the game. Don’t Starve is about dying, or, more accurately, about the wonderful tales you can tell as you bumble your way through the world. Tales of close escapes, tales of failure, tales of those random occurrences that left you running through a burning forest trying to cheat death – these are the things that Don’t Starve is really made of, and you’d be cheating yourself out of a whole wealth of them if you try to ignore the more difficult parts of the game.
As you manage to survive longer and longer in the sandbox mode, you’ll find yourself base building, planning defensive strategies, and even spelunking deep underground in search of esoteric resources and ancient magic. Nuances in the game appear throughout, and as survival turns to subsistence you’ll find you have more time to dedicate to gearing up and facing this hostile world. Combat is simplistic on the surface, but a few kiting battles, follower-thumpings and scenery-traps involving fire later you’ll realise that Don’t Starve gives you a huge number of ways to skin any cat you might happen to find. At the end of each game your days survived are tallied up, and converted into experience. As you accrue these experience points you’ll unlock new characters, each with their own perks and foibles. By this time, you may have even found the door to Adventure Mode. That’s not a thinly veiled reference – you actually have to find a door in a sandbox map to enter and begin Adventure Mode. Random, huh?
Of course, this is fallout from the iterative development process the game followed post-release over on PC, but it still actually works well within the game. Adventure Mode presents a randomised set of sandbox ‘levels’, tasking you with finding ‘things’ and progressing onto the next level. It’s certainly an interesting diversion from the main sandbox, and while you would be forgiven for wondering why such a mode is so hidden away, the reality is that you simply won’t be ready for the challenge of Adventure Mode until you have cut your teeth into sharp, spiky points within the main sandbox. Dangers are exaggerated, less room is offered for mistakes of judgement and death will send you back into your sandbox game, your character still stood looking at the door.
But then, you know all this, don’t you? Evidently you’ve followed the post-launch development of Don’t Starve during its life on the PC and you’re only here to see what’s explicitly different in this PS4 console version, aren’t you? Well, even if you’re not, I’m going to tell you. I’m good like that. Don’t Starve: Console Edition is a direct port of the latest version of the PC game, containing all of the updates previously released on that platform. The only real change made has been the addition of a Science building called the ‘Accomploshrine’ which is linked to two of the game’s trophies, and actually also manages to demonstrate the developer’s feelings on achievement-fuelled gaming fairly aptly.
Control-wise the PS4 pad is an acceptable substitution for a mouse and keyboard, with the only real problem coming from when you are trying to interact with an object directly next to or on top of another - essentially the game defaults you to focusing potential action on the closest object, leading to some situations where you have to jiggle around a bit to have the correct item highlighted. This is much more of an issue when performing smaller tasks, such as trying to pick up a trap directly above a rabbit hole, and doesn’t impact gameplay to any large extent. Potentially annoying to some, however, are the fairly small icons in the crafting menu; depending on what size TV you have and your quality of eyesight, these may be a little difficult to read, and would potentially have benefited from being blown up slightly larger. This issue is made doubly-so for remote play on the Vita, although everything else about the remote play experience works perfectly smoothly. One last change we found was that it no longer seems possible to create giant surface Rock Lobster colonies - although, you probably weren’t going to try that, were you?
Don’t Starve is wonderfully unforgiving, proudly unhelpful and sometimes (“How bad could something called the Deerclops be…?”) just downright mean. And it’s all the better for it. From the first rabbit you trap through to the last reeds run you need to make, it’s an exhilarating journey of risk versus reward – even the later game appearance of various methods of resurrection don’t take away the feeling of panic as you realise, once again too late, that you have bitten off more than you can chew. It’s always far too easy to give yourself one more little goal, to promise yourself that you’ll make it through just one more night before bed, and then before you know it you’re coming up to Day 100 and you have a stash of items to rival the Pig King. Oh, and one last thing. A top tip, if you will. The game is amazingly hands off, and as said all the better for it, but trust me on this one, this is one pointer you’ll love – hit the DS4 touchpad to bring up the in-game map. You can thank me later.