Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
I have to admit right up front that, in the nearly two dozen hours I put into Don’t Starve: Reign of Giants, I never encountered any new bosses, from the Bearver to the Dragonfly, so in a way my review is incomplete. But the truth is that experiences in Don’t Starve are so unscripted that no definitive review of the game is really, truly possible. Despite evading the major foes – which is kind of a success, I think! – I’m fairly certain I have a good handle on what the game is all about.
Reign of Giants is an expansion for the Klei-produced survival roguelike of the same name, and though its art style is cute and the game is not strictly a straightforward horror title, it packs a tense wallop in its immeasurable ability to torture the player. The game almost seems to relish the opportunity to do so, and when combined with the variety of weird, unnatural creatures and sense of existential foreboding, Don’t Starve seems to fit in quite nicely with its darker, more overtly unsettling brethren.
You won’t be roaming blood-soaked hallways filled with the undead, but you will encounter roaming shadows, walking tree monsters, and half-eyeball bird creatures that can kill you in a few strikes, not to mention all of the ordinary, humdrum creatures that can take you down, like bees and spiders. If you manage to evade all of the overt, creepy-crawly threats in the game, then, well, you still have to contend with a winter that would make the Starks cringe. Don’t Starve is a microcosm for just how much of a knife’s edge humanity exists on, and it is no less demanding and brutal.
What Reign of Giants does so perfectly is shift everything around and rebalance it so that players have to change the way they approach survival. It’s really diabolical, and the amount of stuff that is packed in makes it feel more like a thoughtful, well-rounded sequel than an expansion. Even though you’ll largely be able to tackle vast portions of the strategy you no doubt refined over many unfortunate deaths the first go-round, you’ll have to adopt some new quirks in order to to persist and thrive this time through.
The game keeps the same premise: you play as Wilson (or one of the myriad other unlockable characters), trapped on a mysteriously Dr. Moreau-ian island, left only with the instructions to find something to eat before sundown. And that’s really it. For me, the real fun of Don’t Starve is uncovering the various ways supplies, food, and items can be used, combined, or repurposed to make your chances of survival slightly more favorable. The only way to learn (other than reading the amazing community guides on Steam) is to make mistakes. And die.
I might not be any good at the game, but I approach my journey like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day. I’m not nearly cautious enough to play the long game, but I enjoy being able to carve out a new strategy each time I die (although unexpected hound attacks still make me want to set my laptop on fire. I guess I’ll just never get used to those).
Reign of Giants does not drastically change the game’s overarching dynamic, but it offers some new wrinkles that may give veteran players fits early on. The main complicating addition has to be the wetness meter, which pops on-screen anytime rain begins to fall. Not only does it monitor your level of sogginess (and the sogginess of your items), but it also provides a constant reminder of how annoying it is to be wet. It’s almost as if the game wants to provide a sincere psychological link between real life and the thing being portrayed in-game. It’s hard not to feel helpless when your on-screen avatar pines for dryness or food or warmth, especially when you don’t have the resources or the know-how to make it happen.
The game also adds autumn and desert landscapes to the mix, with animal and plant types that complement the new environments nicely. Birchnut trees and moleworms and catcoons, while new, have the kind of simplicity that almost feel as though they evolved from the world rather than being placed in it. Not to mention that they are doing cute-weird in a way that Nintendo should be taking notes from right now.
The game’s art style and animations, like previous Klei entries like Mark of the Ninja and Shank, are easily recognizable and pop right off the screen. The color palette is pleasantly varied, even from the first game. It’s a treat just to explore, collect, and combine all of these strangely familiar items, even if the constant threat of death looms directly overhead.
Overall, there are plenty of refinements, and most of them appear to have been conceived in an attempt to make for a more challenging experience. Don’t Starve is already not the most hospitable game, but Reign of Giants makes it a point to have the player constantly considering all the various elements of survival simultaneously. For example, rabbits. In the original game, captured rabbits could be held in perpetuity, stashed in a chest until needed for food or warmth. However, in the expansion, they can get hungry and die, which is the live food equivalent of spoiled or rotting food.
And that is the beauty of Reign of Giants. Rather than muddle the experience with new gameplay elements or more complicated systems, it splices together already existing ideas into something that players will inherently understand but will nevertheless have to assimilate into that previous knowledge. You won’t be able to skate by on everything you’ve learned by toiling away in the original Don’t Starve, and even veteran players will likely experience a renewed sense of wonder at what Klei has managed to achieve with this wacky, weird, and inimitable game.
Reign of Giants is so idiosyncratic and arcane that it may drive some people crazy, or push away people who do not wish to give in and become well-read on the variety of enemies, animals, and plants in the game, but I am slightly obsessed with the minutiae, so I’m happy to see how Klei has iterated on it.
Still, despite the mind-numbing amount of content added to this version of the game, the thing to keep in mind is that, no matter what sorts of monsters you encounter, the lingering, ever-present knowledge of an eventual winter is the real adversary. Or, as I kept typing, deleting, and then retyping: “Winter is coming.” (You can sigh. It’s all right.)
Even if you’re a newcomer, Reign of Giants will still be a great place to start. Don’t worry; you’ll make plenty of mistakes, but screwing up is most of the fun. It is only through failure that you will learn how to be successful, but learning from mistakes will not guarantee success. Both Don’t Starve and the Reign of Giants expansion are available on Steam right now for PC and Mac.