Danger, Death, and Deerclops.
Four short days ago, I was about halfway through the remarkable Bioshock Infinite, and my girlfriend and I were practically drooling to see what would happen next. Alas, we had to take a breather for her to get some work done, so I decided to pass the time by buying and playing the early access version of Don't Starve, the latest from Klei Entertainment, best known for Shank and last year's sleeper hit, Mark of the Ninja. This, as it turns out, was a terrible idea.
I don't know if she ever got that work done, and Infinite is still exactly where I left it. In fact, I'm not really sure what I've been doing for the past 72 hours, but according to Steam, 30 of them have been spent struggling to survive in Don't Starve. Stunned by my lack of self control, I mentally scrambled to find a way to justify it. “I know! I'll tell Nick we need a preview for it! Then I'm doing it for work, right? RIGHT!?”
Consider this preview my therapy—a sad, broken man's attempt to free his mind from the throes of unrelenting roguelike addiction.
And that's ostensibly what Don't Starve is: a roguelike set in a whimsical wilderness somewhere on what seems to be an alternate dimension version of Earth. Sure, there are birds and bees, along with grass and trees, but there are also giant spiders, deerclops (exactly what you think they are), and other such beasties who, to my knowledge, don't actually exist here. But I don't want to tell you too much about what you'll find, because discovering the world around you is a huge part of Don't Starve's appeal.
Things start simply enough, with Wilson waking up in the forest, as an old man named Maxwell warns him that he better find something to eat before nightfall. You have nothing. You're inventory is blank, there is no tutorial, no blinking arrows, no hand to hold. You are alone, and all you can do is click around this alien 2D environment in the hopes you'll find something useful and that you'll figure out how to use it in the first place. There's a rather extensive Wiki devoted to this game, but do yourself a favor and ignore it. Every death, which is permanent except in certain circumstances, is a learning experience that helps you piece together the 1,000-piece puzzle the game throws at you, and every time you put two together, you'll feel like a genius.
Despite its Burton-esque presentation and old school, top-down viewpoint, Don't Starve is packed to the gills with levels of simulation and world detail that will continually surprise you. Body temperature, wind dynamics, seasons, moon cycles, animal behavior… it just doesn't end. You'll pick up tiny nuances that you'll be sure are incidental but will wind up being vital to surviving, while you discover new items, events, or locations. After 30 hours of play and several dead characters, I feel like I've learned so much, and yet, I still have a laundry list of items I've never crafted, and random events continue popping up that I've never seen. Seeing as the game world is randomly generated every time, you never really know what each playthrough will bring.
For as much as it sounds like the game throws at you, the minute-to minute gameplay couldn't be more streamlined or urgent. There are no real menus, and just a few basic meters that show the time of day, your health, your hunger, and your sanity. Staying fed is the most immediate but often simplest challenge to meet, while healing takes a bit more work. Unlike most games where you magically heal fatal wounds by scarfing down a steak, Don't Starve requires you to make dedicated healing items, which often require hard-to-find ingredients. Sanity is much more of a long-term battle and keeping a grip on reality becomes harder and harder as you go, particularly during the harsh winter months. But of course, even insanity has its benefits in this world…
I have to apologize for how vague I'm being, but outside of saying it has resource management, crafting, and exploring, I don't want to say much because the memorable moments I've had aren't going to be the same ones you have. And to spoil some of the surprises the game has sprung on me would be criminal. Don't Starve officially launches on the 23rd of April, but if you pre-purchase it, you can play the beta right now. I'll be writing a full review closer to release, but if you like adventure and survival, there's no excuse not to have Don't Starve on your radar.