In 2013, Klei Entertainment brought Don’t Starve to the world, introducing players to a hard-edged and horror-tinged take on the growing survival genre. Since then, the game has been released on several different platforms and a few expansions have been released, giving players no shortage of options in how they can experience it. Now, in 2018, Don’t Starve: Nintendo Switch Edition has landed, bringing with it all the improvements accrued over the last five years to Nintendo’s new platform. While it doesn’t do anything to set itself apart, this version of Don’t Starve proves to be just as engaging as its predecessors, while offering lots of bang for your buck.
Gameplay in Don’t Starve plays a lot like the survival mode of Minecraft, with some notable changes. Your character spawns in the center of an enormous procedurally generated world and the goal is simply to survive for as long as possible. You have heath, hunger, and sanity meters to keep filled, with there being dire consequences for letting any one of them drop too low. Through clever manipulation of materials that you find, you must build tools, hunt and forage for food, and figure out how to survive events like the coming of winter or a Deerclops attack. It’s brutal and unforgiving, but there’s something immensely satisfying in beating such towering odds.
At the heart of Don’t Starve lies its crafting system, which provides the structure for just about everything that you do. At the outset, you can only build a limited number of tools and other items, and you need to build a “science machine” to unlock the ability to produce more, complex things. This helps to add a sense of open ended and meandering progression to things to keep you moving forward, as you set goals for yourself to build things that make life easier.
Don’t Starve revels in its ability to throw you curveballs, and you’ll constantly be working to react and adapt to new situations. The world is littered with pigmen villages, spider nests, bee hives, and eldritch horrors that are all out to kill you in some way; at no point are you truly ‘safe’ here. Maybe a thieving monkey will run off with a fishing rod that acted as your main source of food, or you’ll cut up a bush and agitate a nest of poisonous snakes. Don’t Starve has an uncanny knack for catching you off guard; just when you’re beginning to feel comfortable, something will usually go wrong that torches all your hopes and dreams. This oppressive difficulty is supplemented by the almost complete lack of handholding. Aside from basic item descriptions, the player isn’t told how anything works in the world, requiring lots of trials and error to figure out the intricacies of survival.
When you die - and you will die a lot - you’re given XP relative to how many days you managed to survive, and this is how most of the other playable characters are unlocked. Every character has unique strengths and weaknesses - such as the ability to start fires, or possessing a crippling fear of the dark - and these can help to make subsequent runs more interesting in how they modify the gameplay experience. Perhaps one character is only particularly effective in the late game, while another maybe requires a completely different playstyle. This adds some welcome variety to the overall experience, while still never diverging too far from the core gameplay loop.
The most notable shortcoming of all this is the tendency for the gameplay to grow repetitive over time, which may come as a sticking point to some. Although there is a massive amount of content to be accessed for those willing to grind it out, there’s lots of time in the game spent cutting down thousands of trees and doing other similarly monotonous tasks that can tend to drag down the pace over time. It can be rather disheartening, too, to lose a good run and have to go through the same motions for the first few hours to get yourself back to where you were before. This won’t be an issue for everyone, but it still bears mentioning.
Though the main game contains a near infinite amount of replayability, the Switch version also includes the two major expansions, which can feel like distinct games in their own way. Reign of Giants is the more conventional of the two, acting as a ‘hard mode’ that’s custom made for experienced players. The expansion adds new seasons, biomes, enemies, and items into the mix, along with new systems meters that measure your temperature and wetness. Indeed, Reign of Giants can be a tough pill to swallow, but if you’ve gotten to the point that you can reliably conquer the vanilla versions, this expansion is the perfect fix.
Shipwrecked is the other expansion, notably changing up the game’s flow by introducing a nautical theme. Rather than one massive overworld, you start on a small island with limited resources, and you must build a raft or a boat to carry you between islands in your constant scrabble for supplies. It’s remarkable how much this relatively simple addition changes up the experience, as you now must take into account that every island you visit only has so much material to use, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll find what you’re looking for when you get to the next island. Throw in seasons that bring monsoons and hurricanes, and an ocean full of killer whales, krakens, and other fun things, and you’ve got an expansion that offers up a nice twist on the concept of the other two modes.
From a presentation perspective, Don’t Starve manages to carve out a distinct identity for itself that’s memorable, though not nearly as appealing. The world has a 2D hand-drawn look to it that’s amplified by a cool Tim Burton-esque art style, although it comes off as being a bit dreary. This is perhaps a deliberate choice to reinforce the sense of oppression, but colors are rather muted and brown, and it tends to look a bit drab after many hours of play. The soundtrack matches the visuals by taking on a mischievous and quirky tone that perfectly matches the sense of panic and dark humor, although it’s rather forgettable on the whole.
Don’t Starve: Nintendo Switch Edition is an extremely meaty and punishing experience that always keeps you on your toes. The open ended, tough as nails gameplay isn’t for everyone - particularly in its repetition - but it can be quite addictive once things click. A distinct visual style, countless hours of randomized gameplay, and an open ended nature that favors boldness combine to make this an easy suggestion. If you still haven’t gotten around to playing Don’t Starve, this is one of the best versions you can get.