Next up on my marathon of reviews, Don't Starve, the latest game by Klei Entertainment. Many of you know I have a less than positive review of Klei's last game, Mark of the Ninja. I imagine fans of Klei's work are hoping for a more positive outlook, and I'll spoil it to you now -- I love a lot of ideas and everything at work in Don't Starve. I just also think it's sort of broken by them.

I swear, it was just to get rid of the  spiders. The rest of the trees just happened to be standing too close!

The core mechanics of Don't Starve are quite simple, and will be familiar to fans of Minecraft. You've got health, dangerous enemies, limited resources in a randomly generated world, hunger, and an emphasis on building your way to the top of the food chain. The core differences are the shift to 2.5D (don't expect to build anything besides walls and doors for your hovel), and a far more hardcore feeling. In fact, yeah, if you think Minecraft on Hardcore has become boring for you, go out and buy this game -right now-. You, particular niche #425-6578 will LOOOOVE this game. As for the rest of us... well, it's certainly a higher watermark than the last game by this studio.

Yes, I know, most people liked Mark of the Ninja, but it really only had a few good things going for it amongst a sea of awful decisions and one of the worst examples of "show not tell" narrative I've ever seen (seriously, that's how you're supposed to make a story, and yet you made it worse than if you gave exposition. How did you guys manage that? HOW?). In this case, Klei goes with their strengths and makes the game focused on non-linear narrative through player interactions and some vague dark magic tie-ins along with very nice characterization through quote bubbles. In addition, they've dropped their voice actors for quirky Charlie Brown adult style sound effects, which work so much better.

Just two of the characters you can play as, with more characters on the way in updates!

The swap to a slightly less polished looking art style fits the dark and eerie tone perfectly, especially if your character starts to slowly go mad. Yes, you can go insane. If you do, your dreamed up monsters can KILL you. So not only are you constantly trying to manage health and hunger (not easy in the regular difficulty), but you have to stay sane too. This is in tandem with a new staggered version of the daylight system from Minecraft. Instead of just day and night, there's an afternoon-twilight period where enemies start to come out and it's getting darker, and serves both as a tempting trap to grab "just one more" and as a warning sign that you need to make camp or hide.

To say this game is brutal is an understatement. You can't even make weapons to start with, and even shovels require a "science machine" to unlock. Trees only drop acorns to be replanted if they grow tallest, and food needs to be cooked if you don't want it to poison you or your sanity. Mushrooms can take you out or heal you (sorry Mario, redcaps aren't so good after all), and tampering with magical relics can either be a boon and give you powers/items or kill you in a flash. Lightning can strike you, fires can burn you, giant two-legged birds will peck you out of existence, demonic dogs will come out of the darkness of night and chase you, trees will come to life and smash you in the name of Treebeard, moose-like bipedal monsters will turn you into paste! And that's part of the fun in it.

The game is just -so- sadistic that it's almost humorous. Dying uniquely is almost a game in of itself. I honestly think my favorite one so far was death by literally just being out in the dark. I was playing as Wilson and the only text before he died was "What was that?" and then BOOM, I died. Even in the game's ending (yes, there is an ending of sorts), you're hard pressed to find an ideal out. This is a game where your days are truly numbered, and no one is interested to help you. You have to depend upon yourself in an absurd, maleviolent world.

This ties in with the permadeath system. You gain experience points every time you die, which go into unlocking new characters. This means dying is a bit divisive an affair for you. Maybe you'll have lived long enough to now unlock the librarian with magic spells, but you were just about to get started on that alchemy machine. It does make the game feel a bit like a grind though, and it would nice if you had a clearer measure of how much EXP you unlocked per life -before- you died.

The core flaw in this is that permadeath with the only carry over being knowledge and new characters means you never get a sense of real progression. I know, especially some of you long time readers also remember, that I spoke once about an MMO with permadeath as a good idea, but the key difference here is the game is designed around using it almost like how a free to play game would use an "energy" system to limit you to a few battles a day. Sure, it doesn't have to prevent you from having fun, but it just sort of sucks the longterm investment out from under you since no matter what you do, there will always be a start from scratch.

Finding odd trinkets may or may not pay off in the end.

Now the game does have mod support, so there may be a time down the line when you can use a save system, but for the time being, the realities of how harsh the game is will turn off the more wary gamers. There is also one more knock against the game I have to deliver -- the UI is terrible by modern standards. Everything is so tiny that you have trouble telling what it is, the inventory management is inconvenient for no reason other than inconvenience, and the lack of tutorial or explanation as to what does a certain action will irritate newcomers. The biggest inconvenience is not knowing you can shift the perspective forty-five degrees left or right -- something that would have made setting up hay walls far easier.

The nice thing, and something that gives it a significant edge over Minecraft, is you have far greater control over your randomly generated worlds. If you want to slowly get used to mechanics, you can literally make worlds where almost no enemies spawn (although certain resources only come from them), or if you're up for insanity you can make the world a barren desert of monsters and death. It's this level of customization that will likely add variety to the already very random world generation. Also, there are certain one-off revive methods in the game, but you need to prepare beforehand and you won't know them until you find them (so far I've found several ressurection points with pig heads on spears that may be also creatable down the road, and an amulet that restored me upon death with all my gear and returned the game to daylight hours). It's not that the game truly is trying to be unfair, it's just got a less smooth balance than similar masochist games like Dark Souls.

Food-eating turkeys may very well do you in!

Really, despite so far being the best game by Klei I've played, it suffers from all the same issues their games have*. It's got great style, a good sense of what makes it's substance, but a lacking ability to execute on that substance and a serious hindering factor that probably didn't seem like a big problem to the developer. In this case, it's the style of permadeath; for Mark of the Ninja, it was twofold, the story and progression curve. I'm expecting to review Shank sometime later on in my 31/31, and it got the roughest thrashing of Klei's games, so we'll just have to wait and see.

With some obvious flaws included, Don't Starve really is a great little indie game, if a bit frustrating, grindy, and repetitive at times. A 7.5/10**.

Paradigm the Fallen

Remember the Minecraft forerunner made by Notch, Wurm Online? Yeah, neither does anyone else.

* -- Why do I keep going back to the developer and Mark of the Ninja, you ask? Because I'm observing a trend. It's worth noting, and you should keep it in mind with developers. Sure you might think of Starbreeze as those guys who are making that new "Brothers" game, but they also made Syndicate, The Darkness, and Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. Knowing that informs you a great deal about what to expect from them no matter what genre or IP their next game is.

** -- And for those just joining us, that's a -good- score, coming from me.