The Long Dark is one of those games that I’ve been waiting ages to be able to officially review. It’s true that I could’ve written a review at any point, but I felt it was better to leave my opinions on it as impressions; at least until the official release date. Think of it as a matter of principle.
I’ve played The Long Dark on both the PC and Xbox One (though it’s out on PS4 now as well) quite extensively, and even gone so far as to use it as inspiration for creative writing.
So I’m definitely biased.
However, I doubt you started reading this review to just listen to me ramble about the stuff that I’ve done with the game. You probably want to know how The Long Dark itself stands up against the rest of 2017’s releases.
There’s a good mix of gameplay elements in The Long Dark that makes it a solid title. Like many survival games, there’s a heavy emphasis on managing needs. In the case of The Long Dark, those needs are hunger, thirst, warmth, and fatigue. Unlike many other survival games though, freezing to death is actually a legitimate concern given the setting The Long Dark takes place in. Where most survival games are set in temperate areas, The Long Dark throws you into the frozen hellscape that is Canada.
I kid, I kid. I know that only part of Canada is a frozen hellscape.
Even better, having a needs bar drop to zero doesn’t instantly result in death or a rapid depletion of health. Instead, you get a small amount of time to reverse the damage before your condition deteriorates too much. For instance, spending too long in low temperatures results first in hypothermia, which can be deadly, but only if you don’t spend some time indoors, thawing out. Similar states exist in the game for hunger and thirst as well. Fatigue is a little more straightforward; you just get so tired that you die.
It’s a pretty simple system, aided by light crafting. You won’t be building a house or combining rocks and twigs to make guns or swords. About the most complicated thing you can make is a bow or hatchet, and even then you need access to scrap metal, coal, and a forge (of which there are a precious few). The benefit of this lighter approach is that you aren’t bombarded with tons of crap to sift through, like in games like Minecraft or Ark: Survival Evolved. Sure, in those games the crafting makes sense in the context of what you’re playing, but in a game like The Long Dark where you’re busy just trying to stay alive each day, that simplicity is welcome.
While there are the usual threats in the form of wildlife, like bears and wolves, your interaction with them is fairly rare, making your scuffles more harrowing as a result. Instead, your primary foe is the environment. The weather is unforgiving in The Long Dark, and a clear day can quickly spiral into a snowstorm of lethal scale. Even if there aren’t whiteout conditions, a strong wind can sap your warmth in a matter of minutes, leaving you knocking on heaven’s door if you don’t get to shelter.
Of course, leaving the safety and warmth of a shelter is what makes The Long Dark worth playing, otherwise you’d be playing a game called Hermit Simulator.
The Long Dark definitely isn’t going to win any awards for being hyper-realistic or for being yet another 8/16-bit style game. Instead, Hinterland Studio chose to go in the direction of making their game appear as if it were a painting. Other games, like Firewatch have adopted a similar design philosophy, and like Firewatch, the chosen art direction of The Long Dark is beautiful. The color palette sells the idea that the world is cold and unforgiving, with reddish and orange tones denoting warmth in fires and in the sky during sunrise and sunset.
Sounds plays an integral role in The Long Dark as well. Well, that sentence was pretty vague. Of course, in most games, sound is important, but it’s how the sound is used in The Long Dark that’s important.
The crunch snow fading to the sound of ice cracking helps indicate that you’ve stepped onto a lake or pond (usually prompting the fear of falling through). Waking up to the sound of your procured cabin rattling in the wind gives away that it may be a little too windy to venture outside. And of course, there’s the telltale sound of a bear or wolf growling behind you, prompting a quick judgment of whether or not you have enough in you to survive an attack or run.
The only dialogue breaking up the silence while wandering around in the sandbox is an occasional, off-hand comment by the player character, usually offering vocal cues about freezing to death or feeling tired. It makes for a rather silent experience, but it’s immersive and frankly, pretty calming.
If you were to boil down The Long Dark into the most basic of terms, it would be considered a survival game. It holds many of the same tropes of the survival game genre, with meters to monitor and the sandbox mode offers little in the form of direction. However, if you look more closely, you’ll notice that it’s a much more nuanced experience than most other survival games on the market.
I mean, there’s no zombies after all!
No, seriously. There are plenty of frozen corpses, but no zombies. Thankfully, the differences don’t stop there. Instead of being constantly at the mercy of starving to death or dying of dehydration every single hour, you can actually get things done throughout each day without needing to worry about the needs meters. If you remember to eat that jar of peanut butter (yes, the whole jar… I don’t know how, though…) and keep water on you, you will be fine.
That won’t save you from your food eventually spoiling though. Stockpiling food will only work for so long, though you have a convenient refrigerator outdoors, as long as you don’t mind attracting animals.
It’s also rather difficult to carry everything you might need, which is lamentable to some players, but it invites an interesting challenge. Bundling up like the kid in The Christmas Story might work to keep you warm, but it makes it damn near impossible to get anywhere quickly. Similarly, carrying your bedroll, rappelling rope, hatchet, lantern, firestriker, can opener, knife, rifle, bullets, food, water, whetstone, bow, arrows, medicine, flares, and firewood is certainly possible, but it’d be very restricting.
The Long Dark is about balance. Do you value mobility or warmth? Are you a nomad or a hermit? Do you want to be prepared for anything or fast on your feet? So many other survival games fail at this, offering too many ways for the player to be prepared for anything at any time. The Long Dark forces you to make hard decisions about what you are going to do to survive.
All without throwing zombies or psychotic players at you.
I will write individual story reviews for The Long Dark because of its episodic structure.
WILDCARD: FATEFUL DECISIONS
Many of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made in The Long Dark would’ve been innocuous in other games. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s about balance. I’ve met death countless times because I decided to go outside at the wrong moment. I’ve lost days of progress because I got impatient, tried taking a shortcut over a lake or down a hillside, and spent precious time and resources waiting to recover. Huge setbacks caused by making the wrong gamble at the wrong time.
But I’ve had big successes too. Like finding a knife on the ground just before a wolf attacked. Stumbling across one of the random prepper caches in the hills, stocked to the rafters with supplies. Finding a can opener, hatchet, and prybar as soon as I started the game. I think that last one takes the (pan)cake(s).
The Long Dark is chock full of rewarding experiences that are underscored by some of the biggest defeats I’ve ever felt. Part of what drives the gravity of each decision home is that not only can that next decision be your last, but there’s little you can do once the proverbial shit hits the fan. The sandbox and challenge modes offer only permadeath as an option, meaning that every decision can be your last. It’s a refreshing change from the trend of unlimited chances.
Ever since I began playing The Long Dark after first hearing about it during E3 in 2015, I’ve been in love. Something about it resonated with me, fulfilling a gaming need that I didn’t know I had. The Long Dark sets itself apart from the over-saturated list of survival games by combining permadeath, an actual story combined with background lore, wonderfully simple design, and unique balancing decisions.
For anyone looking for a great survival game that doesn’t rely on the usual survival game tropes, look no further than The Long Dark.
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