Hinterland Studio is one of the latest developers to hop on the first person exploration wagon with their debut title, The Long Dark, a cell-shaded survival game that takes place after a mysterious geomagnetic disaster. The difference between this title and most other titles of its genre, is that there are no zombies, cannibals or raiders. The only enemy hindering your progress is good ol’ Mother Nature and boy is she a you-know-what!
The first thing I should note is that this is an Early Access title. There is no story mode in the game’s current state, but there is the ever-improving sandbox mode available to you. You begin sandbox mode by choosing your difficulty. As of now, the game offers you three different difficulties to choose from. The lowest difficulty, Pilgrim, is for people who just want to explore the game’s massive land without worrying about wildlife attacking you (unless provoked) and the elements are a little more merciful. Voyager is the normal mode, and Stalker is punishing mode. For the purpose of this preview, I decided to start on Pilgrim mode so I could get a feel for the game’s atmosphere without worrying about being killed by an animal, but still having to survive the elements.
There are three locations total from which to start and only one is unlocked at the beginning. The rest of the maps you will have to unlock by exploration and surviving. I selected the available level, rolled a male character and began the game. There I was in the middle of a snowy forest with nothing but the clothes on my skin and a few resources in my backpack. It is extraordinarily cold outside, and checking my character’s stats, I see that his “cold” level is steadily increasing. I begin to make my way to find shelter, which in this game’s massive land is not an easy task. It takes me quite a while of exploring until I stumble across some railroad tracks. I decide to follow them and as I walk, I see a wolf chasing a couple deer not too far from me. They fade away into what has now become a whiteout condition. All of a sudden, I can’t see too far ahead of me and the temperature is rapidly dropping. I stumble across a derailed train and look around it for resources when I come across a frozen corpse. After looting the corpse, I decide that I may be joining this person soon if I didn’t find shelter and start a fire. I keep walking. My cold meter is almost at its peak and my hunger, thirst and fatigue levels are increasing. I see a Canadian Flag flapping in the wind, and right next to it is a cabin. I head into the cabin, loot the resources and start a fire. I survive another day.
The game controls very smoothly which is essential in a game where survival is key. Your character moves differently across snowy terrain, ice, uphill, and downhill. Your movement is also affected by your character’s condition. You can sprain your ankle and not be as agile until you use first aid or rest over time, neither of which is simple to do. Gathering resources is the most important thing you can do in a survival type scenario. The Long Dark does not hold your hand. If you need to break down a shelf for firewood, you need a hatchet. If you don’t have one, tough luck! Now go find one. Each task also takes time. You spend more time harvesting a deer carcass with your bare hands than you would if you had a hunting knife. You must decide if it’s worth exploring more to find the tools you need, or using what you already have to try and scrape by.
The fire has a time limit depending on which resource you add as “fuel”. You are accountable to keep feeding the fire if you don’t want to freeze to death.
Usually, I am not a huge fan of cell shaded games. For some reason though, it really works in The Long Dark. Developers could put most of their time in trying to make their game the most visually appealing, but it seems Hinterland focused more on the overall atmosphere. The game may not look as realistic as similar titles such as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter or The Forest, but it feels realistic. As my meters were filling up, I felt the need for shelter; my heart was beating in the race against time and I felt empathy for the character. I wanted him to get to safety, I wanted him to have a warm meal, I wanted him to sit by a warm fire. In other games, you usually focus on surviving a horde of zombies or raiders and only use food and supplies for healing or energy. In The Long Dark you’re trying to survive being human, and that is exactly where this game thrives.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” ― H.P. Lovecraft