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It’s getting dark.

I have nothing to hand except some roasted seeds from last night. My stomach is rumbling but I know I can last it out until I find a safe place to sleep. I don’t remember seeing any trees for miles but there must be something I can use around here to light a fire. Something to cook my rapidly spoiling, precious food, something to keep away the things that strike when the lights go out. There’s nothing here to burn, and in this ScreenShot043strange, savage wasteland, when it gets dark, it’s pitch black.

Night crawls in all too quickly. I die abruptly. Time to try again!

Don’t Starve is, essentially, Minecraft via Tim Burton, and that’s no bad thing. You begin as intrepid gentleman explorer and scientist Wilson, transported to a hostile realm where food is scarce and friends even more so. To survive, you must fashion tools out of sticks and stones, gain research points by learning about your environment, and, of course, tailor yourself a rather dapper waistcoat/top hat combo to keep you looking sharp when those cruel nights roll in. In all truth, there’s very little of Minecraft’s blocky influence, there are a few obvious similarities like crafting and foraging, but Don’t Starve is so much more complex, so infinitely charming, that it instantly becomes a game apart from comparisons.

dont-starve-qa-lead-baseWhere it succeeds, and all of the researching and crafting knits together so perfectly, is that you can never really get yourself into a position where you have any sort of permanent advantage. Everything degrades, everything can be broken. Food spoils no matter how many iceboxes you have, walls crumble and need to be replenished – you’re vulnerable all of the time, constantly one surprise away from a sudden death. And Don’t Starve is a game full of surprises.

It’s one of those games where the objective is to not die for as long as you can – certainly in this early beta stage there’s no real story in place – but research carries over from game to game which alleviates a surprising amount of frustration after you’ve been killed by a frenzied Tallbird for the fifteenth time. There’s a wide variety of nasties capable of bringing your life to a swift end, but the most persistent enemy of them all is easily the ever present Hunger gauge. You’ll survive (and stay fed) by staying on the move, by establishing camps across the vast map, and collecting pretty much everything you can.

At first you’ll be scrabbling for seeds and berries to last out the night, but then as you start fashioning weapons and traps, creativity and survival instinct comes into play. I needed to get from the end of one island to another and back again in the space of one day to research my next don't starveupgrade so I built several snares (used for catching the smaller critters) and deposited them across the map as I walked. On my walk back, with a rucksack full of the rocks I needed to create the Alchemy Engine, I managed to scoop up enough stringy rabbit meat to keep myself fed across the next few days.

As dwindling resources and new advances force you to develop different ways of surviving (like using farm plots to grow seeds instead of just eating them) it becomes apparent just how impressive Don’t Starve’s design really is. Every time you think you’ve started to get a handle on it, it changes tack, and all of a sudden you’ve been murdered by a tentacle and all is lost. At one point I had myself a pretty sweet set-up, a full inventory of cooked meat and weapons, complete with a couple of Pigmen bodyguards, and boom (or rather, squelch) tentacle attack. I have never made a louder frustrated grunt in my life.

The game is heavily mid-beta at the moment, set for a March launch, and the updates are coming thick and fast. Each one brings a considerable number of new features, playable characters with their own quirks – even if it is quite hard to beat the magnificent beard Wilson grows – and bug fixes. It’s not likely that Klei will stop expanding and refining the game even after it launches properly, not if the rapidly growing and rather vocal community  has anything to say about it. In my humble opinion, they could have launched it last month and no-one would question whether it was finished or not. There’s plenty here to compel you, with more substance than some of 2012’s AAA titles (though that’s not saying much) already. With a great core game already in place and so much more of it still to come, you’d be missing out if you didn’t at least give Don’t Starve a try.

It’s not even finished yet, and it’s still the best indie effort of 2013 so far.

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