I'm no stranger to winter weather. Having spent 27 consecutive years in the barely inhabitable tundra of Northeast Ohio, my season-free existence in the Bay Area now seems like sweet payback for all the times I've nearly been slain by Jack Frost himself.
Playing The Long Dark this morning with a hefty set of headphones brought me right back to those days of lake-effect hell. As the snow whipped around my face and the wind howled through my ears, I started having flashbacks of those harrowing 15-minute walks to the local pub in the dead of night/winter. When I finally stumbled through the door like the last member of some cursed expedition, I'd literally have to wait until my face thawed before I could order beer one.
So, in terms of authenticity, The Long Dark succeeds—I speak from experience. And while we may be hitting critical mass with these survival games on Steam, developer Hinterland's little creation could easily find itself falling into the "walking simulator" genre (which isn't a dig at all), since most of the game involves trudging through the human-free wilderness, in search of supplies and shelter to help prolong your life—if only by a few hours.
While The Forest focused on establishing a base camp and reinforcing it with materials found nearby, The Long Dark takes the exact opposite approach: Staying in one place too long can be deadly. Since your character's warmth, fatigue, thirst, and hunger meters never stop dropping, playing successfully means you always have to be on the hunt for new supplies.
Finding these supplies, however, stands as the game's biggest challenge. Since the frigid landscape provides very little to help sustain our mushy, human bodies, most in-game resources can only be found in the abandoned cabins and other buildings dotting the area. The Long Dark puts just enough distance between these helpful locations to make the trek to nab their supplies downright harrowing—after ten minutes of blindly wandering, watching a chimney rise from behind a snow-capped hill feels like a real achievement.
Even if you're fully stocked on supplies, The Long Dark still throws plenty of roadblocks in your path by making your support system somewhat unreliable. Sure, you can build a fire, but it takes a certain number of resources, and you'll lose them all in vain if you aren't successful. Even if your food is plentiful, there's always a chance it can poison you, which requires a significant amount of calorie-eating sleep to heal. Nearly every action has a risk to it, and even taking a wrong turn while wandering through the drifts can earn you a broken ankle, or worse.
The Long Dark may have the resource-dependent systems you'd expect from an open-world game, but the focus on exploration over excessively "gamey" elements really pulled me in. Though its environments aren't procedurally generated, every session of The Long Dark drops you off in a different location of one huge area—the only one available in the Early Access version—and with no in-game way to map it out. The best moments from my experience came simply from wondering what I would find around the bend, or surveying the area from a high altitude to figure out my next destination. The Long Dark's choice of stylized graphics—similar to those of The Wind Waker—may seem like an odd choice to some, but it adds a dreamlike, surrealistic quality that wouldn't be presented if the game attempted photorealism. Sunrises and sunsets look absolutely stunning, and I would often catch myself stopping on my travels to take everything in—which might be why I made such easy pickings for the local wolf community.
As with any game that relies on some degree of randomness, playing well in The Long Dark often boils down to the luck of the draw. The two instances that spawned me next to a series of lakeside cabins proved the most successful, since they gave me plenty of resources to rely on during the beginning of my journey. Still, The Long Dark can be brutal regardless of how well you prepare. While the presence of bloodthirsty wolves means a lot of games will suddenly end after an unexpected attack, some of the most disheartening moments come when you've trudged up and down hills silently for the past 15 minutes, only to realize you've ended up exactly where you started.
Even though The Long Dark might be missing many of its features in its Early Access stage, this basic version provides an extremely solid survival experience, one with a focus on exploration, and a certain sense of unnerving solitude that's genuinely hard to pull off in video games. The Long Dark's story mode may be absent at the moment, but even with its sentence-long, post-disaster premise, Hinterland's well-designed environments have me itching to map them out in my head, if only to learn some hints as to what actually happened. Even though I've figured out the spatial relationship between a few locations, I know there's a lot left to discover—like where to find some bullets for that damned hunting rifle. I may be a vegetarian in real life, but losing dozens of hours to cans of spoiled peaches has given my in-game self a real taste for blood.