Game review: Don’t Starve: Nintendo Switch Edition is a lot to stomach

Don’t Starve: Nintendo Switch Edition (NS) – all at sea on the Switch

One of the most popular survival games of recent times comes to Switch, together with five years’ worth of DLC expansions…

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There are lot of things you do in video games that really wouldn’t be that much fun in real life. Driving a supercar or playing at Wembley might be the stuff of dreams but being caught up in World War III or chased by zombies is not the sort of thing you’d normally wish for. Being marooned in a hostile forest and forced to scratch a living from the earth doesn’t sound too fun either, and the problem with Don’t Starve is that sometimes first impressions are correct…

Don’t Starve was first released as far as back as 2013 and has been subject to a steady stream of expansions, updates, and ports ever since. It’s by Klei Entertainment, who were responsible for the excellent Mark Of The Ninja and Invisible, Inc. But while Don’t Starve has proven to be more successful than either of those we’ve never liked it nearly as much. But then we haven’t played it for years, or seen any of its expansions, so this new Switch edition is a useful opportunity to give it another chance.

The game’s title is as descriptive as they come but the particulars involve you playing the role of foppish scientist Wilson – and a variety of other unlockable characters – who have been trapped in a demonically-controlled wilderness. The visuals and music owe an obvious debt to Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, making everything look like it’s come from the pages of a gothic pop-up book.

What exactly is going on and how you’re supposed to escape is left purposefully vague, not least because getting good enough to worry about such things will take most players an awful long time. Don’t Starve is a punishingly difficult game from the start, and although that’s mollified somewhat by the expansions we still don’t really understand why.

You start out in a randomised map with no pre-set goal and little real direction as to what to do. In that sense there are clear elements of Minecraft, as well as more general roguelikes and Konami’s Stranded Kids/Lost In Blue series. As in all these games just staying alive is reward enough at first, as you try to gather enough wood and food to set up a basic campfire and to then think about creating a more permanent residence.

There are obvious problems with this right from the start though, since a) the maps are randomised so it may take ages to find everything one go and just minutes the next and b) there are horrible big monsters chasing you around the whole time. Perhaps the most dispiriting factor though is that, as with roguelikes, when you die you lose your entire inventory up to that point.

This also means that, even with the randomised levels, the first half hour or so of each go is pretty much the same, since your requirements for basic habitation and survival don’t vary. The game has a very complex crafting system, that lets you build everything from sheds to casserole pots, but the essentials are the same every time.

Don’t Starve: Nintendo Switch Edition (NS) – don’t get eaten either

That sort of old school all-or-nothing approach will please some gamers, but it will frustrate many more and we can’t help feeling it’s still misjudged. Bodily harm is not the only danger the game offers though and you must also keep up your sanity, by engaging in more stimulating tasks than just looking for interesting rocks. There are various science experiments you can set-up and these can be used to not only keep yourself sane but in some cases advance the story.

Don’t Starve is a frustrating experience in more ways than one, as all the elements for a great game are here – it’s just that you have to pick around the more annoying aspects in order to enjoy yourself. How happy you are to do that depends on your own attitude to survival games, and clearly the game’s success shows that there are plenty of people happy to put up with the inconveniences. But just as many will feel it’s all too much like hard work.

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The Switch additions includes the two existing single-player expansions Reign Of Giants and Shipwrecked, but curiously not the co-op Don’t Starve Together. These do add a great deal of variety to the game though, with Shipwrecked in particular expanding the scope considerably with its sea-fearing theme. Although its load times are frustratingly long when you’re trying to play the game in handheld mode.

With the expansions adding a more structured story element to the game this is definitely more enjoyable than the first time we played the game, but it’s still an experience that constantly seems to be tripping over itself. We want to love Don’t Starve but, even after all the changes and additions, we’re not sure the game feels the same way about us.

Formats: Nintendo Switch
Price: £17.99
Publisher: Klei Entertainment
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Release Date: 12th April 2018
Age Rating: 12

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