After 30 hours I have had a hard time bringing myself to write this review. I want to keep playing The Long Dark and keep thinking about it to get a good overview and opinion of this game down on the page. I have come to the realization however, that it is going to be a very long time before I feel like I have played this game enough because I absolutely love it.
The Long Dark is a game in which you play as a person who is very fucking cold. In fact, everything is cold. This is what you might call a “Survival game.” The term “Survival game” is often used, in educated circles, as a technical or descriptive term for what you might call a “bad game” or a “boring game.” Typically, these terms may be used interchangeably. The Long Dark, fortunately, is a Survival game in a much more literal sense. The only goal of this game is survival. There is no punching trees to craft a new stock for your toilet seat assault rifle, or using your tasty dino treats to enslave and ride an endangered prehistoric animal. No, in The Long Dark, you are lucky to find a single bullet, for a gun that you will never have. In The Long Dark, you are the treat that will be fed to the wildlife, and the cold, unforgiving environment itself will enslave and ride you. This survival is in no way “evolved” and death will come a whole hell of a lot faster than 7 days. In a sea of mediocre indie survival nonsense, The Long Dark carves a niche for itself by forcing the player to use somewhat real world survival techniques, and being incredibly polished.
I began my journey with the “Wintermute” game mode. This serves as a competent episodic story driven campaign. As of this review, I completed 3 of the planned 5 episodes of the campaign, which took me roughly 20 hours. You take the role of Mackenzie, a floatplane pilot whose plane crashes in the middle of the Canadian wilderness. This mode was executed with varying levels of success. While I like the weird mysterious story beats that get deeper with every episode, the quality of the voice direction and objective design is sometimes a real test of patience. A big part of this feeling is the obvious increase in production value from episode to episode.
Episode 1 starts with stiff dialogue and a compact map, whereas episode 3 rivals the animations and dialogue of The Walking Dead Telltale Series, and has an expansive area for the player to explore. I really appreciate how this studio greatly improves their craft with every episode of this story, but it’s not consistent. One thing that hasn’t improved from episode to episode is the objective design. Some of these objectives are just a huge kick in the balls. Most of the time there is an easier way to complete these objectives, like stumbling upon a map to a cache of resources, but if you miss these it can really take ages to complete. While episode 3 does have the best production value of the bunch, it absolutely has the biggest grind when it comes to the objective design, so your mileage may vary with this mode but it’s a great introduction to the gameplay mechanics, and it has some absolutely fantastic, cinematic moments of tension.
After I cut my teeth on the story mode, I decided it was time to put my big boy pants on and stroll right into the perma-death survival mode. I decided to go ahead and start my new adventure on the “Interloper” difficulty which is described as such: “You are not part of Mother Nature’s plan, and you will bear the full force of her wrath. The true test of Human vs. Nature.” Fun! In my first five to ten attempts, my survivor’s life expectancy was just a few hours shy of a genetically defective mayfly. It goes without saying that he was not having a good time. I started to get the eerie feeling that my nameless avatar was stuck in some sort of arctic purgatory, and unfortunately for him, his many short lives were controlled by a twenty-something year old idiot in a low quality Ikea chair with no survival experience. Eventually though, I started to survive for more than a day or two, and that was such a satisfying feeling. Every extra in game hour I clawed out the harsh winter wilderness was a lesson learned that I could immediately apply to my next run. Set to this difficulty, The Long Dark almost resembles an extremely difficult rogue-like. Survival mode is the meat and potatoes of the game and it is one hell of a tense, satisfying, and engaging way to mercilessly punish yourself on a Saturday afternoon.
The Long Dark’s most impressive achievement is how scalable and unified the many game systems are. On any difficulty, this feels like a full, fleshed out, satisfying experience that can be tailored to anyone’s preference. If, unlike me, you do not have a desire to be challenged to the brink of your patience, there is a difficulty for you. Because the game’s many intertwined systems have been crafted with such a focused and unified vision, the full Long Dark experience is available at any difficulty. This is a rare feat, and means that anyone can experience the full game at any skill level.
There are a lot of variables which you need to manage to stay alive while you are out in the wilderness. Do you have a place to stay warm? Do you have enough water to get through tomorrow? Do you have a source of food? Is your clothing sufficient for the environment? The Long Dark expertly juggles all of these systems, and I always felt like I was being communicated all of this information clearly and without intrusive UI elements invading the screen. Your character will audibly remind you how cold or hungry he is, not enough to be annoying, but enough to remind you to glance down at the five meters that keep you alive. It is made clear to the player what ambient temperature is safe for you to remain in and what affects their clothing, their bedroll, or the wind will have on the player’s body heat loss. It is clear how many calories you will lose by completing an action or sleeping, and how many calories you will gain by eating an item. If you need to do something that requires risk, like starting a fire with low quality materials, or eating something that is close to rotting, you will know how likely you are to fail at that action. It is impressive just how many different variables the player faces and how clearly the developers have managed to communicate so much information without becoming overwhelming.
So at the end of the day, there are some things that The Long Dark doesn’t do perfectly in its gameplay loop, but honestly, they are not worth mentioning here. This game is an immersive and engaging experience from start to finish and none of the missteps that the developers have made caused me to feel otherwise. There are some RNG based frustrations here and some sudden game ending deaths there, but really, that’s what survival is. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and that’s not always in your control. I can’t recommend this game enough and there is plenty of content coming down the pipe from developer Hinterland. So put a jacket on, open up a rotting frozen can of dog food, and stay inside this winter pretending to be cold.