Don’t Starve – PS4 Review

Don't Starve - PS4Then you die. And die. And die…

Review of Don’t Starve on the PS4.

Don’t Starve is a conversion of a PC Indie game from last year, and one of those oddity titles I tend to adore.

It’s proper old school. I’m talking real retro. Pre-Nintendo retro (or pre-Nintendo popularity in the homes in the UK-which is where I guess my gaming heart must still lie).

Back then, there were adventure games like Atic Atac, Sabre Wulf, Mask, Sacred Armour of Antiriad, Head over Heels, Three Weeks in Paradise and Doppelgänger.

Not only did you have to traverse the game world (however it was laid out, top view, side view, 3D) to seek out items to help you beat the game, you also need to avoid/fight enemies. It was a tense mix of cerebral challenge and action game. Lose too much health or too many lives and it was always “Game Over”.

I don’t think people quite appreciate the ten minutes waiting for a game to load, then playing for half an hour, getting well into a game and suddenly missing a jump onto a Dalek Prince Charles, or getting caught by an angry wasp that stings your final life away from you.

No save games, no codes to get to certain levels. Just you, your keyboard, an entire Sunday afternoon and the patience of a saint.

You start – you die. You restart, you don’t die in the same place, but two minutes farther into the game – you die. Repeat until you’ve learned enough about the game to live for five or ten minutes and actually start to collect items and achieve goals – you die. Start to get 30 minutes into the game and start to build a decent set of skills to complete large numbers of objectives – you die. Dinner is ready – you switch off and lose three hour’s work.

Every death results in starting again. Every death results in learning a little bit more. Every death either tries your patience to the extreme until you give up in frustration, or makes you stronger in your resolve to beat the bloody thing. It’s one reason I hate retro gaming, I’ve already served my time.

Don’t Starve then, what’s it all about and why is it so great?

You start, tricked and transported into a strange land where everything is either useful, or wants to kill you. There are no instructions, no guides, no real prompts. Just you, a few skills a pseudo 3D/flat world and the need to gather materials to get a fire lit before it gets dark. If it’s dark and you don’t have fire, you die (I’ll let you have that one avoidance of death for free instead of learning it the hard way). Pitch black contains monsters that kill you, so you need to avoid them.

The game is then simply a challenge to live as long as you can. You’ll die of the dark, of starvation, killed by monsters, killed by bees you thought you could steal honey from, killed by poison, killed due to insanity nightmare creatures coming to life. Killed. By. Bunnies!

You’ll die. Lots. Sometimes you’ll see it coming as the desperate cold of winter sets in and you haven’t prepared. A slow, drawn out death with withering resources ebbing away. Or it’ll be a rapid attack from some beast while you’re not ready to defend.

Every time you die and restart, the world is created afresh. No learning the best places to set up camp, or the safe havens. Your first few game days are spent exploring and laying down the foundations. You get good at laying down the foundations rapidly. You even think after four or five goes that you’re getting good at the game. You’ve managed to work out how best to gather resources, and have opened a massive technology tree – you’re filling your obscure game life with wonderful objects that are really helping you gather more resources, better technology and life-prolonging tricks.

Then you die. And die. And die. Then you realise that in truth, you need to modify your behaviour each time for each new world. You also unlock new characters, which offer advantages/disadvantages to take into account.

It’s a constant bombardment of tedium and thought. Problem solving and planning mixed with bouts of action and fierce competition with the natives. You fight the constant challenges as much as you fight your own skills and lack of ability to think your way out of a situation.

I guess the best comparison in modern times is with The Sims. It’s very similar with the constant requirement to meet basic needs of your avatar, while all the time trying to make things better. Only a giant crab monster thing, or a pack of nightmare penguins never killed you in a forest while hunting for berries in The Sims.

It’s possible to eventually reach a plateau of near Farmville calm, but to do so, you need to invite insanity. You need to create items using resources only available to the insane. You need to invite death to your door to move on.

My first hour with the game I almost, but didn’t quite hate. I thought “this is getting a bit dull. I’ve died again and again and again and I’m fed up with finding flint for an axe every ten minutes”. Then it clicked and I found a rhythm, I found a perfect place to make a home. I examined worm holes and spelunked and went to the ends of the world looking for reeds. I then accidentally ate a poison mushroom and died.

Then I loaded straight back in. Every new world offers new opportunities and new challenges. It’s a game that will eat your life if you let it. You’ll starve because “just another five minutes and…” is what you’ll say to yourself for hours on end.

The developers knew what drove us to lose Sunday afternoons back in the 80’s. They know what drives gamers today and they’ve successfully merged the two. It’s proper old school gaming wrapped up in a modern way.

It is not a game for the impatient or easily frustrated, but it’s there for the true hardcore in everyone if you’re willing to let it out for a while.

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