Surviving an icy wilderness with nothing but your wits is just as hard as you’d think, in this intriguing new indie game.
The end of the world is one of the first stories mankind ever came up with, so it’s no wonder that video games have been obsessed with the concept as much as any other medium. It’s a subject that’s been used in many kinds of games over the years, but paradoxically it does fit survival sims particularly well. You’re not meant to survive the apocalypse, but as impossible a task as it seems The Long Dark manages to encourage both despair and hope in equal measure.
Although the specific nature of The Long Dark’s apocalypse is never explained it doesn’t involve zombies or aliens. Instead, it seems to be geomagnetic in origin, which is far more plausible than most scenarios but always ends up getting relegated to bottom of the disaster movie barrel. The specifics of what’s going on though aren’t really important, as the game focuses on your player character’s attempts to survive in the frozen Canadian wilderness.
There’s three different ways to play The Long Dark, although all of them are single-player only: a sandbox style survival mode, a slightly more focused challenge mode, and a story mode called Wintermute. The survival mode has been in early access for years now, but the story mode is split up into five episodes – only two of which are available at launch. The price includes all five though, so you’ll be able to download the others as they become available.
Wintermute starts with a plane crash and things never really get better for its hapless protagonist from there, especially not once he realises that all electronics have mysteriously stopped working. Although the episodes have a clear beginning and end all the survival aspects of the sandbox mode are in full effect, even if the explorable area, and random elements, have been purposefully limited. Naturally that means you have to keep warm and fed, but The Long Dark goes into far more detail than just that.
Eating is treated much more realistically than just a health power-up, as you have to worry about both your caloric intake and thirst. Body temperature is vital but you also have to take into account the wind-chill factor and how tired you’re getting. Given the lack of electricity, animals and firewood are your key resources – with the former providing not just food but also clothing and weapon parts if you scavenge them correctly.
Although items can be repaired, everything degrades with use over time and it’s perfectly possible to poison yourself or succumb to other illnesses. Considering the survival and challenge modes features permadeath The Long Dark is just as hard as it sounds. Although there are three difficulty levels to choose from, the lowest of which lessens the challenge considerably.
Despite the multiple difficulty levels you’d still imagine Wintermute to be the most accessible part of the game, and the obvious place to start. But that’s true only up to a point. The tutorials are woefully inadequate for explaining anything in detail, and after all the years in early access you get the sense that the developer is too used to its players knowing the ins and outs of the game almost as well as they do.
There’s also the problem that the story itself is pretty awful. You would’ve thought that crash-landing in a frigid wilderness, and searching for your estranged wife, would be more than enough plot to be getting on with, but the game quickly over-eggs things with implausible twists including a prison break and a mystery suitcase.
None of this is paced out at all well, so the parts where you’re back to just trying to make ends meet almost seem like they’re from a different game. The story mode’s problems don’t detract from the survival or challenge modes, but what does is the numerous bugs and glitches – which seem far more numerous than they should do for a game that’s been in development this long.
The game’s also not been optimised terribly well for consoles, and it’s obvious the main aiming reticule was designed purely with a mouse in mind. The graphics are simplistic but nicely atmospheric, although the stylised characters do look worryingly like a Telltale Game where all the characters are carved out of wood.
The Long Dark is a difficult game to recommend (and score) because while it does have some fairly obvious faults they’re unlikely to bother the game’s core audience very much. If you’re interested in survival games then this is one of the best we’ve played, but if you’re looking for a more narrative-based take on the concept then perhaps you better wait a little longer for the other three episodes to become available.
The Long Dark
In Short: A pleasingly complex and realistic survival simulator, accompanied by a story mode that so far fails to be anywhere near as compelling.
Pros: The survival and challenge modes are great, and just about as realistic as you could hope while still being enjoyable. Plenty of content for all levels of players.
Cons: The story mode is not very good, in terms of plot, pacing, and teaching you the basics of the game. Quite a few bugs and glitches.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Release Date: 9th August 2017
Age Rating: 12