It is no surprise that survival games have been the talk of the industry lately, especially with an overwhelming amount of them being released as Early Access titles. Many argue that there has not been a true survival game due to the fact that a lot of the survival games are more of a sandbox shooter/builder with ‘survival’ elements. The Long Dark however challenges that argument and steps up to define the survival genre with rich survival elements in a harsh Canadian winter.
[NOTE: This is a review in Progress. An update, if much as changed, will be added to the review below after episode 5 including a review score.]
The Long Dark went through a lengthy Early Access period during its development and funding phase and it gave players a taste of the harsh survival mechanics within a sandbox environment. Fast forward to now and we are given a full release with multiple sandbox environments, scenarios, and even an episodic story mode that is sure to please fans of games like Firewatch with its mysterious events within the story.
I remember reading a novel called Hatchet when I was a kid and how a boy learned to survive on his own in the wilderness after a plane crash with only his hatchet. I used to dream of being an explorer as a child as well. Always reading about wildlife and packing my bag with tools such as a multi tool, compass and map ready for an adventure. Our family often took our fair share of hikes through the wilderness and provincial parks, even exploring grand cave structures. The Long Dark eerily reminds me of that novel including some of the harsh winters I grew up with while living in a small town.
Set in a fictional Canadian town during a harsh Winter season, Will Mackenzie, a pilot, is approached by an ex wife, Astrid, who happens to be a doctor, to fly to a distant town to provide medical supplies to an unknown VIP. Trouble is, a strong winter storm is in progress with terrible visibility and wind conditions that would leave any seasoned pilot grounded. Regardless, Will rises to the challenge and sets out on the journey. Along the way, a freak geomagnetic storm interrupts the plane’s instruments and causes the plane to crash in the unknown wilderness below. Will and Astrid are separated from the crash site and so begins Will’s long journey forward to find Astrid, meet new people and find out about the current state of the world they all live in.
Day 1: I awaken to pieces of my plane. What was I thinking flying in a storm like that? I manage to pull a metal shard from my hand and have a sore side. I find some firewood. Luckily I landed by a cave and can rest.
Day 2: The fire is out. I’m starving. I need to find food today. Water too. I manage to find enough sticks to make a lasting fire. I melt some snow to drink. Find some food in nearby boxes. Cloth to patch up my hand. Lucky again.
Night 2: I wake up to a crazy storm. Fire has gone out. I manage to find enough sticks to get me through the night.
Day 3: Storm clears. Tired but feeling less sore. The storm knocked down a tree. I climb up the ridge and find a briefcase! Astrid. Oh no, Astrid! What happened? There was a storm. A bright light. She asked me to fly her somewhere. I collect some more sticks and medicinal supplies to rest through the night.
Day 4: I feel well enough to climb over the ridge above. I wonder where it leads? Cloth from Astrid! She came this way. More sticks and….rabbits! I’m so hungry I could eat one right now. I push forward and find a cave. Ah! There is a frozen women in here. She looks Astrid. How long has she been here? Not her though. It’s dark but I push through to the other side. There was a wolf eating a deer carcass. I scare it off with my torch. Skin some meat and hole up in the cave for the night.
Day 5: Feeling really refreshed after that deer meat and warm rest. Found some clothes and dried them out. Should be warmer walking now. I explore beyond the deer carcass. There are some cars! I find some beef jerky and soda. It’s getting late. I should head back to the cave. I don’t have enough food. If I make it through the night, I should go back and get some rabbits.
Day 6: So cold and hungry again. I make my way back to the rabbits and after several difficult attempts, I hit 2 with a rock. The cold wind didn’t help. Almost froze to death catching them. I wonder if there are houses beyond the bridge and cars? Does anyone live here? Tomorrow I set out beyond these stone walls and caves.
That journal is just a glimpse of the start of my story based survival gameplay for episode one. Each day forward went pretty much the same with many ups and downs, but eventually a routine was established and it became somewhat easier to progress without worrying about the vitals.
As you awaken into the wilderness after a plane crash in the harsh winter season of the ‘Great White North’, you must quickly master survival skills to keep warm, find food and survive in the cold. However not only do you have to master the skills, you must learn the controls, on your own, without on screen prompts. I didn’t have an issue with learning survival mechanics and the struggling process of up and downs as the character gets cold, hungry and tired, but the early struggle of learning the controls was a bit unfortunate. I had to bring up the keybinds window from the settings, which I suppose can be added to the game mechanics in that you have to find what you need to survive, and character controls are a mandatory element. Of course, if you were the character, using your hands and senses would be second nature, but when you have a controller or mouse and keyboard in front of you, the controls are foreign and provide no senses.
I feel like you are meant to learn by failing and practicing. Survival is not easy. You must adapt to conditions. But you begin to feel as if you are this character. You feel for him. You shiver as he does, you feel the pain of hunger and you don’t want to die to restart from a checkpoint. But I feel as if that is how the game is designed. After a restart with a new save and a different approach in mind, I progressed more smoothly. Shelters such as caves are your friend at first since you are sort of guided along narrow paths between the rocky terrain that your plane crashed within. You then start to discover abandoned cars and find the town of Milton. Then cabins and fishing huts and warehouses which make the game much easier.
There is an interesting progression, which works really well for the harsh beginning and steep learning curve in that you can have very little, and soon have a lot at your disposal. Clothing, although heavy and available, still doesn’t protect you as much as you’d think, but it’s also because the clothes get damp, which becomes frozen and you don’t realize until you check. Food, at least in snack form, is somewhat more readily available, and even more so when you can fish. If you stay on top of repairing your clothing and making fires while collecting the abundance of cloth and sticks, you should be fine.
It often felt difficult for me to want to return for another play sessions when I quit for the day, yet I always felt compelled to push forward as I would spend the day thinking of strategies or new ways to approach a challenging section. I was torn between the struggle of figuring out the game mechanics, while discovering how to properly survive and keep the character alive, although after some time, you understand the routine to follow and how much food you need, or the limits of the character before he really starts to beg due to hunger. I would likely ration my food supplies as much as I could as I would not know how long I would be in the wilderness alone. You can stretch the limits, as I personally would in RL instead of always being on top of his every demands. He says things aloud more as a warning but in a very demanding and immediate tone as if in pain, which makes you feel bad for him causing you to focus on recovering his vitals as a top priority. Another task to worry about is blood loss from fights with wolves. You can try to avoid them but if you are carrying meat, chances are they will come after you and be prepared to scare them off with fire or try to stab them in desperation by a QTE.
Most common things are readily available via the radial wheel. A quick status check button is useful, but most useful is the full status screen that shows your vitals, condition and if you have any afflictions, it gives tips on how to heal them. The character screen is important to check often as well as it shows the individual item conditions, whether they are wet or frozen, and an overview of the many layers you can equip to stay warm. These screens also give an estimate of the temperature outside and what degree you may be protected from the elements. There is a limited crafting mechanic for creating torches, bandages, teas and later other items when you gain knowledge from talking to the NPCs in the area. Sometimes certain events can’t be completed until you follow through with a quest or a certain event happens on a particular day or even time of day. One really interesting thing I noticed was the gun mechanic, which I thought was the most realistic I’ve seen in a game with guns. What makes it so great is that you must line up the iron sights accurately to your vision instead of the game crosshair in the centre of the screen. Regardless, hunting a bear is still beyond difficult and waiting for the right moment to hit a deer right in the heart is even more of a challenge because of the aiming. That’s ok though. I’m glad it is that way. There are of course some ridiculous things as well like melting snow on the fire with your hand, and two or more jugs of water from thin air. And other various crafting tricks that happen without logic behind them. But they do have to cheat somewhere to provide a smoother gameplay experience. Also, after awhile you begin to look pretty goofy with all the layers of clothing you wear, but you do what you must to survive and keep warm. You’re not out to impress anyone.
I found that the dynamic weather system was quite intense and provided some interesting mechanics for survival. Sometimes you would have a sunny day. Other days you would have gentle, soft falling snow. While some days it would be super windy or even windy and blowing snow which would slow you down, cause you to freeze faster, and have a difficult time seeing, lighting a fire or carrying a torch. Sometimes these changes would happen quickly without warning in a single day! In addition, the character’s clothes will begin to get wet and if there is a strong windchill, the clothes begin the freeze. Luckily you can stand near a campfire to thaw them out or even drop them nearby and come back to find them dry while you set out on a calmer day gathering resources, but you will likely be close to hypothermia, or death in most cases. These are purely RNG and not scripted. You must plan for these days and plan for being holed up for a day or two to let it pass. Sometimes night travel is required. Some things are exaggerated for the fiction such as darker nights, ferocious wolves and bears which tend to attack you more than they would in real life because there is the possibility that the events in the game may be affecting them to act out violently. This is clearly visible in the disclaimer as you load for every game session.
Beyond the survival aspect which can be tough to maintain, The Long Dark still feels like it is in early access. Some areas feel polished while others are still lacking. I will say though that Hinterland Studio is very much aware of the issues and actively releasing patches. Days apart or even weekly at best.
In addition to the episodic story component, the purely survival mode with various scenarios and locations that fans came to love from the Early Access release is very much still apart of the game and greatly enhanced. There is even a challenge mode with various tasks or limited amount of days for completion, or result in failure. This is good for hardcore players or those who want a short experience that may last only an hour or two. To be honest, after the amount of time I put into the story and the lack of patience I had there, I only briefly explored these modes and didn’t put a lot of effort into prolonged sessions.
Graphically, The Long Dark, to me, seems to draw inspiration from games like Firewatch and Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Not every game, especially a survival game, needs to be realistic looking. I thought that the oil painterly type art style was interesting, and when it comes to the cutscenes, they almost had a comic panel effect with a low frame rate animation to match the emotion they presented. Surprisingly, the clothing you find and wear while exploring doesn’t match the cutscenes as they seem to be pre-rendered and even when you are generally moving around in the gameplay component, you notice that you are missing some equipped items such as gloves which is noticeable when holding a torch or using a weapon.
To indicate changes in zones, emotions of the character, or to provide and ambience to the exploration, The Long Dark does a great job of providing various music and audio cues. The music is almost sombre and instrumental with compositions of a piano and ambience. The sound effects are noticeably folley with poor sound quality that sounds like hitting of cabbage or the crunching of bags of rice.
Actor dialog is well done and the character portrayal is spot on. However everyone seems to talk really slowly and with long pauses which could be frustrating for some people.
A Steam code for this game was provided for free for review purposes. This does not affect the opinion of the content or value of released game.