It’s pretty amazing that in 2017, amongst a slew of both AAA open world blockbusters and retro-inspired 16-bit Indie titles that a strange little sub-genre like “Survival” would become such an emerging and popular trend. The idea of taking something that is basically Fallout on hard mode without the combat, story, dialogue, and fun setting and turning into a full game based almost entirely on micro-managing a minutiae of menus and statistics, and it being both well-crafted—see what I did there—and popular would seem absurd to a lot of casual video game players. However, games like Rust, Don’t Starve, and even Minecraft to an extent have proven that players do indeed enjoy this kind of thing, and The Long Dark is certainly one of the better—if somewhat more reserved in theme and setting—outings for this genre. If you like survival games, this is one of the best. If the idea of spending hours and hours trying to keep your virtual self alive by crafting socks, killing rabbits, and making sure you have enough water in your system isn’t your cup of Rosehip tea, you might want to skip this one.
One thing about The Long Dark that immediately stood out to me as very cool and unique was the setting. The game takes place in an unspecified tract of harsh, Canadian wilderness, a setting that for many of our readers are both intimately familiar and will garner a “why haven’t they done this before” sentiment. Survival games often take place in fictional, fantastical worlds when in reality, anyone who has ever spent time winter camping or even playing outside during the winter season in Canada can tell you that it is not the kind of place you want to be stuck for very long without easy access to food and shelter. It’s cold, sparse, difficult to navigate, with very little in the way of shelter—for the most part. Add to that the lack of easily accessible food in the way of plants, fruits, and vegetables, with the actual wildlife even more difficult to track down or hunt, and you’ve got the perfect setting for a survival game.
The game features a campaign broken up into episodes that follow our protagonist and his attempts to survive after crashing a plane, a survival sandbox mode which just throws you into the game without a narrative to simply keep existing, and a challenge mode which offers various goals—stockpile a certain amount of items within a restricted time frame, and battle a Disney-esque villain in the form of a big, mean bear. All three modes offer the same kind of gameplay but allow the player to experience bits and pieces in different ways and master—or get killed or die, again and again—the various techniques that will get them through those harsh winter nights in the bush. The actual gameplay is pretty standard for games like this and involves keeping track of various statistics like warmth, calories, thirst just to name a few, while hunting for materials and crafting items out of them. One of the highlights for me was during the initial stages when you’re forced to use rocks to hunt for rabbits. If you’re not into the squeaks and cries of a dying rabbit after you bean it with a rock and then break its neck, you’re not going to last very long.
The Long Dark features some awesome, semi-cartoonish visuals reminiscent of games like Firewatch that really nails the feeling of “cold.” While the bleak winter landscape doesn’t offer much in the way of lush, colourful visuals, what colour there is during sunsets and the incredible night scenes provides a beautiful contrast. The Aurora Borealis, in particular, looks fantastic, just don’t get too caught up in staring at the pretty lights lest you freeze to death or get eaten by wolves. The sound design certainly works for what the game offers, from the nostalgic crunching through crisp snow to the hair-raising howls of the aforementioned hungry wolves. The crackling of a fire never sounded better in a game, but that’s mostly due to the fact that just like in real life, that sound means safety, comfort, and survival.
The Long Dark is definitely one of the better survival games out there and feels perfectly at home on the PlayStation 4. Navigating the menus—which you will do a lot of—is as easy as can be without the use of a mouse, and even if most of the game is simply walking, clicking, and holding buttons, there’s nothing annoying or tedious about the way in which they’re implemented.
If you were looking for a game that will keep you on your toes and juggling a million different stats and menus simply to keep playing—so, a survival game—you’d be hard-pressed to do better than The Long Dark. The fact that it takes place in a setting that many of us who grew up in a similar environment will find familiar and somewhat nostalgic is another bonus—especially for our Canadian readers. It’s difficult and at times frustrating, but wrapped up in a nice looking package with plenty of depth. If surviving through the night in the frozen wasteland of Canada sounds like fun to you, but actually doing it in person is a bit more intimidating, what better way to experience it than from the comfort of your warm living room?