I’m going to start off this review by saying this game is difficult. Plan on dying many, many, many times. The catch here is that you learn something each time you die. Couple that with having some lucky chances in some play-throughs and you have a formula that is both challenging and engaging.
The Long Dark has something going here that on the surface seems pretty simple but is actually quite deep. And when you consider this is an indie game with a team of 27 people (someday we won’t even give this ideal a second thought), it’s even more impressive. It’s a survival game that is challenging and realistic and something you may find yourself coming back to quite often. Even when you get eaten by that wolf. Again.
A Satisfying Loop
The main core of this game is survival and it’s the main reason you’ll want to play this game. On the surface it is a simple survival game that plants you in the Canadian wilds alone and with a minimum of resources. You’ll have to be on your toes to survive. Battling the elements, tiredness, thirst, and hunger is a constant balancing game. You’ll always find yourself combating one of these problems.
As you play (especially at the beginning) you’ll die often. Usually because of mistakes you made. While some of the resources scattered about are randomized there is usually just enough for you to get by if you are, uh, resourceful enough. These mistakes, and most likely your deaths, add a bit more to your knowledge of the game. Which in turn allows you to survive a little bit longer. In this way, progression is felt more through your knowledge of the game then, say, leveling your character.
Eventually you’ll get pretty good at this balancing act and you’ll be able to survive longer. Until you stumble on some type of misfortune. Whether that’s a random encounter with a bear or getting lost in a snow storm or a number of other things. Then you’ll probably die again, only to start again and live a little longer.
If this sounds like something similar to Dark Souls or Bloodborne, it kind of is. Although I would say it feels like a much different experience. On top of all that you can also get other afflictions, including sprained ankles or wrists, bleeding, infections, and so on and so on. These will have to be doctored up as you go as well using resources you find.
This game can be pretty unforgiving. But it’s also satisfying to return to and use your new found knowledge to get a little further into the game. It’s a very satisfying loop and is probably the biggest strength this game has.
Nature is Cruel and Unforgiving
As mentioned, there are plenty of things that can kill you in the wild world of The Long Dark. On top of combating hunger and the cold and other afflictions, the animals wandering around are not very friendly either. Wolves and bears are quick to attack but can be scared off with fire. Although there is no guarantee it will work every time. In which case you’ll find yourself face to face with a deadly beast and empty hands.
Even if you happen to fend of an attack you’ll probably be bleeding or develop an infection. Even the resources you find can turn out to be a bad idea. Eating raw meat or a can of tomato soup that is old will likely get you sick. Which is something you don’t want to deal with on top of everything else.
Other animals can be used to your advantage however. Crows can lead to food and rabbits can be caught and eaten. Although you might feel bad for having to kill them. Eventually you can find the resources to hunt the animals that used to hunt you.
Just Enough to Get By
The UI of the game is very clean as in there isn’t really anything on the screen unless you have some kind of issue such as hunger. The cross-hair isn’t much more then a dot in the middle of the screen and frankly is pretty hard to see sometimes. Combine that with the fact that items do not light up and sometimes it’s hard to know what is something you can interact with and what isn’t. Until you learn anyhow.
This is a minor inconvenience that only lasts for so long plus it adds to the realism of the game. Last I checked we didn’t have a cross-hair in our vision or items don’t light up. Crafting and inventory management is mostly done in menu screens. You’ll find a lot of stuff and the menus actually work pretty good. It’s definitely not as confusing as it could be considering how much you do in the menus.
The game itself has actually been out in early access since 2014 with the survival aspect of the game being the core mechanic. Survival is a sandbox mode for the game that has you seeing how long you can last against nature, aka the satisfying loop I talked about earlier. There is a huge fan community that has plenty of passion to share for the game and you don’t have to look hard to find tips and tricks as well as other people’s experiences.
With the actual release of the game this year, which includes console releases, Hinterland Studios added in a story mode which is called Wintermute. It’s an episodic story which, at the time of this writing, has two episodes named Do Not Go Gentle and Luminance Fugue. Some literature influences in this game as well. Purchasing the game does include the next three episodes when they release though. At 35 bucks you're getting a large amount of game here.
Compared to Survival, Wintermute is different animal although similar in game mechanics. The first part of the story starts out as a tutorial of sorts. You start out stranded and barely able to fend for yourself after crashing in a plane. It’s not entirely clear what you have to do but a little fiddling and experimenting (and dying) plus using the journal for clues and you’ll figure it out. It feels a bit like the sandbox mode has been around for so long that they had a hard time going back and figuring out how to show the ropes to new players. It’s a bit of a rough start but it works.
After leaving the first area the game opens up and is interspersed with cutscenes that give you the story of Wintermute. While the scenes are pretty well done, the story goes in some interesting directions but seems to have a lot of potential. We’ll have to wait and see when the next three episodes are released to see if the story holds up next to it’s sandbox counterpart. I think it has potential.
It’s The End of the World as We Know it
The Long Dark is an apocalyptic game. But instead of zombies or some sci fi world ending event it seems to be a geomagnetic event. All electronics are rendered dead which is why your plane crashes. It’s something that is a little more realistic then zombies. It also makes it more interesting.
The Apocalypse is Pretty
The look of The Long Dark is a quasi-realistic art style that I think works quite well for this game. It’s just shy of being cell shaded mixed with a realistic portrayal. I’m actually reminded of the look of Firewatch which had a bit of a cartoonish edge mixed with it’s realistic vibe.
The aurora lights are especially beautiful even if it is a bit deadly in this case. Lighting looks great and snow storms are appropriately blinding. Lighting of interiors is especially nice looking when the sun is shining through the windows.
All in all The Long Dark is a good looking game and in my experience is only marred by a few slow downs that are most likely being ironed out. The game has been updated several times since it’s release so it’s pretty obvious that any bugs encountered are probably temporary. Kudos to Hinterland Games for that.
The Apocalypse is Also Quiet
One thing I noticed pretty quickly is the lack of music in The Long Dark. That’s not to say it’s not there at all but it’s only comes in small doses that highlight the action on screen. One example that comes to mind was when I was walking through a storm and I was afflicted with hypothermia. The music appropriately picked up in intensity but did not override the rest of the game. For the most part the music is absent and you are surrounded by the sounds of the wilds.
Which is actually key to your survival. Being able to hear the environment is vital. Sound effects are well done and satisfying. Hearing a bunch of crows is a good clue there may be some food nearby. Also hearing a growl is a warning before possibly being attacked.
The aurora lights also makes a noise which adds to the beauty and eeriness of it. That’s also based on the noise they make in real life.
One More Time
The Long Dark’s satisfying loop I mentioned before has a touch of that, “must get a little bit further”, or “one more try”. It can be frustrating at first (it’s got a bit of a learning curve) but once you make it over that hump and you’re not dying quite so often, the game puts it’s hooks in you. What started off as figuring out how to survive turns into a “see how long you can survive” type of game. It’s not if you die but when.
This core mechanic is the best part of the game and it’s what will keep you coming back. On top of that Hinterland is going to be supporting the game for quite some time, adding more content as the game grows as well as three more chapters in Wintermute.
The Long Dark is a satisfying experience of survival that is both realistic and has good game mechanics. It’s very unforgiving and can be frustrating but gets better the longer you play and learn. Hence the satisfaction. Dying a lot is balanced out by finding valuable resources and having some good luck. I got pretty frustrated at times, I’ll admit, but I always came back, interested in getting further along. The story isn’t the best yet but seems to have potential. Although it is fairly well done and the characters are interesting.
I’ll be putting some more hours in to see how long I can survive. Or how long it takes me to die. That’s the same thing isn’t it? Who knew the quiet apocalypse could be so fun. This game has a lot more coming down the pipeline such as more episodes and other updates. This game looks like it's only going to get better with time. Kind of like the gameplay.