The Long Dark Review
I first heard about Canadian survival sim The Long Dark back in November 2013, soon after the Kickstarter campaign was over. It had, even then as a rough alpha prototype, such a unique visual style that it caught my attention and I kept the name in the back of my head. Then, about a year later, it launched on Early Access and I picked it up on day one.
Since then, I’ve poured over 100 hours in it, most in the sandbox mode. In August 2017 they finally took it out of Early Access and included the first two episodes of an episodic mode, called Wintermute. Three episodes remain to be released and Hinterland Studio continues to release new content and fixes. All things considered, a rare Early Access success story.
As usual with games developed under Early Access, it has undergone major changes in every aspect, and some of those changes did not always sit well with the original playerbase, myself included. It is now thoroughly streamlined, which can be both good and bad depending on who you ask, but overall it remains a great and unique game.
And it is truly unique; there is no other single-player first-person survival sim set in the glacial Canadian hinterlands. Sure, survival games are now a dime a dozen on Steam, and having played a number of them, The Long Dark remains unique for its immersive and intricate survival mechanics that verge on needlessly fastidious in its attention to detail.
A bit of background to the game’s post-apocalyptic scenario: the world was hit by a major geomagnetic storm (a likely scenario explored in one of Werner Herzog’s documentaries) that basically sends us all back to the stone age. In a country such as Canada, the lack of electricity would drive most of the population away from the coldest regions.
In the sandbox mode (now Survival Mode), as expected, the player is free to roam between handcrafted maps, all interconnected by hard-to-find passages. Part of the allure and challenge is finding these passages and certain crafting materials. Exploration is the main activity in the game, occupying at least 80% of the time, which does require patience.
Coupled with the fact that walking speed is ruled by the amount of weight carried, fatigue and other factors, players with short attention spans and used to fast-paced games will be bored stiff and probably abandon the game within the first couple of hours. The Long Dark is indeed a “thoughtful exploration-survival experience,” as they said it in the Steam page.
And that’s where it shines: as an experience or experiment in patience and dedication to the bare necessities of survival rather than an action-packed roller-coaster. As such, it is almost therapeutic in the sense that the simple acts of foraging, hunting, cooking, crafting, scavenging and camp setting seem to satisfy our most primal urges and ease our anxieties.
Which is not to say that there are no thrills: wolves and bears, somehow affected by the geomagnetic storm, become hostile in most of the Survival Mode difficulties, and so fighting, hunting or avoiding them can be seriously nerve-wracking, due to permadeath. Even if the wolf fight QTE is far from optimal, the way wolves chase the player is on point.
Originally, the game lacked much ambiance in the early days of Early Access, but now there are quite a few details and narrative elements scattered all over the maps, which makes for some satisfying environmental storytelling at times, not much unlike what you might find in the Souls games. The story outcome is always the same, though: everything is dead.
Players will spend a good deal of playtime crafting or looking for the most optimal winter clothes, which is almost a minigame in itself. The clothes made from animal skins, obviously the best ones, take a long time to make, as one has to skin the beasts, cure their skins, then sew and craft the clothes and so forth. It is very satisfying to finally achieve it, though.
Lugging a large amount of things from one place to another is a major hassle, just as it would be in real life. Instead of being greedy and trying to keep all the loot, it would be recommended to set up several outposts in every map and only carry the essentials, which would be crafting and hunting tools and the means to maintain them.
The ideal is to live off the land and have no need to scavenge for the old processed food and old factory clothes that are scattered in the ruins and abandoned houses and buildings. Once you manage to find or craft good weapons and tools you have what it takes to part with “civilized” ways of life and go back to the good old days of hunting and gathering.
Hunting can be difficult at first, as the rifle available is not exactly The Deer Hunter grade. The shooting mechanics are rather unusual, which makes every sparse bullet count. I’ve had a lot of success chasing the deer into a wolf area, and when the wolf had killed it, I would sneak up behind it while it devoured the deer and bam. Two birds, one bullet.
It is also possible to craft a bow and arrows, but the material for that will be very hard to find at random and it will take quite a while to prepare and craft them. As mentioned before, this is a game that requires a lot of patience and dedication, without which nothing in the game can be accomplished or even tried.
It can be a hauntingly beautiful game for those who appreciate landscapes and paintinglike scenarios. It excels as an experience in exploration, but also as a trekking simulator for those who, like me, are too lazy or timid for the Great Outdoors. After all, the great Canadian hinterlands may seem very romantic in theory, but who needs all that hassle?
And speaking of hassles, a major issue in The Long Dark comes down to that most ancient of game mechanics: the progress bar. Just about everything you do in the game will require you to watch a little circle filling up for a couple of seconds. And while it is understandable as game design goes, it can get old and annoying.
Unfortunately, this bad design habit crossed over into the story mode, where quests mostly come down to fetch bars: fetch X this or that until you fill the quota, which is not what most of us early fans expected from the long-awaited story mode. There were a few good quests so far in the two episodes, but, mostly, it has been disappointing.
Wintermute is not entirely lacking in appeal, there are merits to it, definitely. But the fact is that it takes some indulgence to actually enjoy the eventually mute dialogues, the unseemly character development and sloppy quest design, and all the sappy drama between the main characters. But it is, after all, an indie game made by a man with a dream and a small team.
The response to the first two episodes so far was probably not what Hinterland Studio might have been expecting, and they will most likely take all the feedback into account to develop the remaining episodes in a way that will make up for the shortcomings. The game can still shine as a narrative if they are willing to learn from their mistakes.
Regardless, The Long Dark is first and foremost a sandbox survival sim and that’s what it will be remembered as: a true heir to the immersive sim school of game design. BioShock, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Dishonored and Bethesda’s sandbox games are usually considered the great heirs of classic immersive sims: Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Thief and Deus Ex.
The Long Dark belongs to this mighty dynasty for its elaborate survival mechanics, its inimitable ambiance and art direction, and its commitment to a niche of patient, dedicated gamers. In an industry where such single-player games are considered a risky investment, it is up to independent studios to carry the torch and hold it high enough to lead by example.
- Immersive and intricate survival gameplay
- Excellent art direction with beautiful vistas
- Challenging and rewarding exploration dynamic
- Variety of difficulty modes for all kinds of players
- Story mode needs work in upcoming episodes
- Gameplay too reliant on progress bars (or circles)
- Requires more patience than most players will invest