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THE LONG DARK Review: An Uncaring Mother Nature

As a gameplay element, survival hasn’t exactly been given a lot of attention over the years what with titles preferring to focus on more action-oriented or traditional elements. Survival only seems like a casual engagement in terms of video games, too few are willing to entertain the thought of such an element.

That was, until, a certain Canadian-based developer that was voted Another Castle’s ‘Best New Studio, Developer, or Publisher’ of 2013 by more than 10,000 voters took a crack at it. Hinterland, an indie developer based in the Northern Vancouver wilderness with a passion for immersing and engrossing gameplay, put their talent towards creating a true survival game: The Long Dark. An atypical game with atypical aims. No central villain that you can attribute all your problems to, no insurmountable force that you and you alone can overcome; just nature, pure and simple. Vast merciless landscape of nature.

The Gameplay: The Wolves, They Come…

As a developer whose headquarters is located deep in the heart of the Northern Vancouver Island wilderness, you would think that a studio like Hinterland would have something of a propensity toward games that focus on nature and, for the most part, you would be right.

It’s as close to survival as you’ll ever get in a game aside from, well, going outside and actually roughing it in the woods (but seriously, who would want to do that when you can enjoy camping from the comforts of your computer chair?).

The Long Dark feels like a first-person bare-bones representation of something like Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead. A game dedicated to the noble art of surviving in a hostile world with a bit of rogue-like mixed in there for good measure. Except there aren’t any shambling flesh-eaters hungry for your man-flesh and the rogue-like elements only really affect where you find certain containers and where you spawn.

Many of the items and gear that are necessary to your continued existence in this wretched snow-driven wasteland are scavenged from the occasional discarded backpack or frozen deer carcass and every little bit of material from that piece of discarded cloth to that bolt of bandages has a very necessary and very important use. However, there is only so much you can carry.

Each and every find is a decision: Do you keep that heavy ski jacket and risk being encumbered OR do you drop that shiny hatchet in order to free up some room? It’s a game designed to demand constant choice from the player and, ultimately, those choices will determine whether or not you have a chance against this unforgiving wilderness.

And what an unforgiving wilderness it is.

When it’s not intent on throwing you in the middle of a raging snowstorm to die of hypothermia, it’s sending the wolves intent on ruining your day on your deserted survivalist hide . My first encounter with the black-furred death was deep in the bowels of an abandoned electric dam, it was just darkness the only thing I could hear were the beasts growls. I can still hear the curdling bellows calling to me in my dreams.

Your only defense against what essentially constitutes the only tangible enemy in the game is a rifle that you have a very rare chance of finding and only spawns in specific places around the one available map, so nine times out of ten you’ll be left beating them off you with your bare hands as they casually cut your health in half.

Your best bet is to get indoors and away from the elements and even then you aren’t far from the clutches of death. The game tracks your caloric intake and has various bars set up to track your fatigue, hunger, thirst, and cold ratings and should any of these bars reach their extremes than your character’s condition starts to deteriorate. The health bar hits zero and that’s it, game over.

Source: intothelongdark.com/media

Source: intothelongdark.com/media

“Hope you liked finding that rifle in that ranger station,” The game almost jeers, “‘cuz you ain’t gonna find it again!”

I should feel angry, right? Jilted that I’ve been cheated from the ultimate goal of this game. But no, only a grim weary resignation to my fate. I did my best and it wasn’t enough, I died because I wasn’t good enough.

Yet despite this, I feel that many of those deaths would have been avoided if there had been a small tutorial at the beginning to explain the mechanics of the game. It was rather embarrassing freezing to my death because I couldn’t figure out how to start a fire. But maybe that was the point. What better way to teach a lesson than to kill you and force you to restart?

Though it is still very much in the alpha stage of development, The Long Dark presents games not as a medium through which we can embellish ourselves as some grandiose ideal but rather a cold dark reality that we can’t escape from. There are times when I feel as though the game borders on the unreasonably cruel, but in our comfortable modern conveniences it becomes easy to forget how savage nature can be.

The Art Style: Pixels and Polygons

Despite it’s rather cruel nature and dark reflective thematic undertones, The Long Dark is perhaps one of the most visually spectacular games that I have played in a long time.

It has an almost cartoony-like color palette to it like Team Fortress 2 mixed with the edgy angles of something like Don’t Starve. The fading hues of daylight painting a vivid picture of green, blue, and orange against this barren backdrop of white while the jagged pines jut out into the heavens like grasping fingers.

It’s almost ironic, in a sense, looking at the epic vistas atop a snow-driven peak it’s easy to forget that you’re fighting for your life in an uncaring world. But don’t let the beauty of The Long Dark fool you, for just beneath that thin veneer of picturesque landscapes and graceful deer bounding through the woods, the wolves and dangers of this world lurk just beyond your sight ready to strike.

However, the beauty all but escapes this place when the nighttime darkness rolls around. It is literally pitch black inky nothingness all around you and whatever light source you have around at the time — whether it be a road flare, storm lantern, or barely lit campfire — does little more than light up the surrounding edges of whatever makeshift camp you have set-up.

This is arguably the time when the game “comes into itself”, as the phrase goes. The darkness takes away any beauty that this picturesque world may have held leaving only fear, apprehension, and the occasional heart-stopping growl of a predator ready to pounce.

Source: intothelongdark.com/media

Source: intothelongdark.com/media

It’s an odd combination, screenshot-worthy scenery set beside the crippling terror of encroaching darkness whenever the light goes down, but somehow The Long Dark melds these two seemingly opposite aspects into a visually spectacular work of art.

The clash of light and dark almost has a poetic feel to it. You spend those precious hours basking in the light of day using the time you’ve been given to scavenge and then you scurry back into the safety of fire when nighttime rolls around. Though it might not have that air of “art game” pretentiousness about it, The Long Dark certainly has that characteristic visually spectacular style that we’ve come to know and love of the genre.

If any complaint can be lobbied against The Long Dark it’s this: there isn’t exactly a lot of variety when it comes to location within the game. Certainly this little issue can be attributed to the fact that the game is still very much in the early stages of its Alpha development but still the awe-inspiring nature of the environments tend to wear thin after a few play throughs.

The Story: All About Survival

For a game that mostly presents the player with grand vistas and heart-pounding wildlife mauling, The Long Dark tells something of a unique tale of human survival and man’s constant battle with the forces of Mother Nature.

From the rather bare-bones intro sequence, you are told pretty much the only narrative reason to why you, the player, are trapped out in the Northern Canadian wilderness. Apparently, a recent global geomagnetic event has caused the cataclysmic shutdown of all electronically powered devices on earth, your plane included.

Before you begin your sordid tale of survival you are told that your plane had crash-landed somewhere nearby and that you needed to survive for as long as possible before help arrived to whisk you away to safety.

But it never comes. In a fit of dramatic irony, your character has failed to realize that practically no one knows that they have gone missing. What with the world plummeting into absolute chaos, that thing’s bound to happen.

You are alone in this cruel, unforgiving world. Alone with no friend to guide you, nor even the comforting heft of heavy ordnance to stay the wolves from your neck. Just you versus nature. It’s an almost primal beauty that The Long Dark has encapsulated within its odd little form.

As for any narrative driven story with interesting characters and an evolving plot, Hinterland has promised an episodic series for their little maiden game with Season One scheduled for a debut release sometime in the near future. Essentially what it entails is that you play as Will Mackenzie, an unfortunate survivor of one of these aforementioned plane crashes who fights to survive in this barren Canadian tundra.

It’s not much, but if Catcher in the Rye and Citizen Kane have taught us anything it’s that there will always be someone somewhere who will read way too much into it and find hidden thematic elements that, in actuality, are probably not there to begin with.

The Gameplay: 4.5/5

  • Based around exploration and scavenging.
  • Tracks various influences to determine your overall condition.
  • A literal fight for survival.
  • The wolves…

The Art Style:4/5

  • Visually compelling.
  • Unique art-style revolving around polygons.
  • Stark contrast between light and dark (An example of chiaroscuro said the art snob aloud).
  • Balance between visually spectacular and visually devoid.
  • Not a lot of variety in terms of location.

The Story:4/5

  • Very much a visually-based narrative.
  • Still very much a work in progress.
  • Compelling statement on the state of man and nature.
  • I might be reading too much into it.

Overall: 4/5

To be completely honest, The Long Dark is a stunning game by all accounts. For a title that was released in an unfinished state with some of the core gameplay elements unavailable from the get-go, Hinterland Studios did a wonderful job crafting a tense survival game whose sole mechanic was simply “to survive”. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I admit that the appeal of dying a slow and painful death far from home wears thin after a few play throughs, but what the game lacks in this regard it makes up for in its character. You are alone, no one to help you, no one to save you, just you and a cruel mother nature, and how powerful a message like that can be.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Cover image via

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