Preview: Don’t Starve

An odd figure stands before me in a field mottled with grass and twigs. He says very little, spending his few words on a single suggestion: that I should eat before night-fall. He vanishes, leaving me bewildered and alone. I look around the gothic plains in front of me and see a soft shine in the grass, the shattered remains of a larger piece of flint. I secure the flint to a branch to create a makeshift axe. Now I can really get to work. I see a bee-hive ahead and with the advice of the mysterious stranger ringing in my ears, I descend upon the hive to gather some honey. I ready my axe and swing once. Twice. Bees spurt from the top, angry at my invasion of their home.

Then I died.

Don’t Starve, like any other survival simulation game out there, is an iterative learning experience. Those bees were huge and my axe too small to deal with them, leading to a quick and painful death. The next time I loaded the game up, I decided to use the crafting toolbar (handily placed in prominent position on the left of the screen) to see what I could build to keep me alive. After crafting an axe, shovel and pickaxe, I flitted through the choices to see a Science Machine and I do love me some science.

The Science Machine, apart from letting me see a multitude of extra crafting choices, taught me about the research function of the game. Each of the new crafting options has with its material costs an extra cost in research points (a lovely straw hat costing 50, for example). To gain research points, you must drop materials into the Science Machine with rarer materials (such as eggs and gold) gaining more than generic items like grass. It’s a good way of providing impetus to search and explore the papercraft-style world you’re dropped into. The game is still in an alpha state, of course, and the most current news from the forums is that this research part of the game may be dropped for a new prototype-building system, so don’t be surprised if the game has changed dramatically by the time you play.

The levels seem to be hand-drawn in their ink-soaked style, with the world appearing to spring from a pop-up book, waves bouncing up and back-and-forth as if being pushed along by an invisible hand. It’s an attractive style that makes exploration not only a necessity, but a pleasure. As I wandered throughout the land, I happened to bump into a village of pigmen that I set upon with my axe, assuming they were hostile from the get go (they’re not, I’m just a horrible person); killing one and absconding with his flesh for consumption later, night fell. I heard movement all around me and the feeling that I wasn’t alone, the feeling that soon I would pay for my horrible massacre of sentient pigs dawned. The unseen creatures moved in.

Then I died.

I’ve forgotten to bring along the components for the ever-essential campfire. Without light, you die horribly in the dark, torn apart by what appear to your eyes mere shadows. It’s not a mistake to make twice. Not that fire is always a positive. To save my aching soul from having to type “Then I died” again, let me summarise the next few deaths I suffered:

  • Set a campfire in a forest, ploughed all my fuel into it and burned to death as the forest set alight.
  • Killed a bee and suffered from a sudden attack of hubris as I attacked three more and died.
  • Pigmen finally got their revenge on me, after my morals failing me again and leading me to attack them for food.

It’s certainly a good thing that death isn’t the be all and end all. With each death comes a sprinkling of experience (which varies, depending on how long you survived) that is spent towards unlocking new characters and I think the research remains between lives (although that might be a feature to be added later).

Don’t Starve is currently in pre-order state from both the developer’s website and on Steam, which will allow you to join the alpha state of the game now, although release isn’t until early 2013. Following the progress through the forums might be a good idea too, with major developments and additions being announced on a regular basis as the game grows. My tips though? Sensible fire control, don’t murder pigmen for fun and beware of bees. Pretty good advice for life actually, too.

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