The Long Dark Early Access Review
8.3our score

The Long Dark is a first person survival simulation set in the aftermath of a geomagnetic disaster (I’m not exactly sure what that is either), full of wintery wilderness vistas and painful ways to die. Produced by Hinterland Studios, it comes from an impressive pedigree, with a team of industry veterans at its helm and a very successful Kickstarter campaign behind it. For those of us who missed out on the backer alpha though, the early access has finally arrived to give you a first taste of its frozen wastes.

The Long Dark is as lonely as it is beautiful, and every moment is a perfect balance of pleasure and pain

The Long Dark is as lonely as it is beautiful, and every moment is a perfect balance of pleasure and pain.

The early access is a first look at the game’s potential and allows full roam of the sandbox survival mode while you await the story mode’s release. Despite its early access status, the sandbox is completely functional and well implemented. Survival is a balancing act of resources and effort – avoiding starving to death, freezing to death, illness or injury by carefully allocating your resources and energy. Do you have time to boil some water before you pass out so you don’t dehydrate? Will running to find food with the windspeed this high be more trouble than it’s worth?

Some features as of yet remain inaccessible (I’m waiting impatiently for the option to dig myself a snow shelter and craft new items) but the core of the game is well in place, with only minor balancing and bug removal being tweaked between updates. My personal favourite was where dropped items had a chance to become incredibly, hilariously large though this was quickly dealt with, and player feedback seems to be really impacting updates.

Regardless of its currently roped off areas, The Long Dark is already offering complex, immersive play in some truly stunning scenery. From each echoing crunch of my snowy footsteps to the moan of bitter winds and the creaking of shack floorboards, every moment of playing made me feel cold and exposed and alone. There’s something awe-inspiring in its isolation though. With a slightly painted feel to the texturing and a mesmerising use of skies and lighting, The Long Dark had me staring in awe at sunsets even as I froze to death. I was torn between fear of my inevitable demise and wonder at the mountains under the stars. It’s an enchanting balance of desperate will to survive and of quiet surrender to the breath-taking, brutal beauty of nature. But longing to survive you will, and easy it certainly isn’t.

Not pictured, the corpse upstairs I kept awkwardly walking past until I started sleeping on the floor down here.

While I admittedly died for a variety of reasons: dysentery (thanks, snow water), food poisoning (thanks, dog food), or exposure (thanks, snow), overwhelmingly I died from wolves. I woke from a nap under the stars to being eaten by a wolf. I nipped out of a nice, safe cabin to light a fire and boil some snow – eaten by a wolf. I stopped to butcher a dead deer and got eaten by one wolf as yet another wolf looked mockingly on from a distance. A particularly persistent wolf trapped me in a watchtower for two days by refusing to leave the area. Eventually I snuck down to escape in the early hours of the morning and JUST KIDDING he was hiding underneath and I got eaten by a wolf. I started to hear wailing howls in the slightest breeze. I was jumping at suspicious looking rocks.

Eventually I found a hydro dam that looked solid enough to keep even the most ferocious of carnivores at bay, and threw myself into it with joyful tears of relief. As I turned slowly towards the stairs, the wavering chorus of feral growling drifted up them to greet me. I’ve pinpointed this as the moment The Long Dark may have actually broken me. I simply lay down to die as this inexplicable indoor wolf tore me apart, wondering blearily how it had taught itself to open doors. Wolves were just my fate now.

this artwork seems to be the core design value of the game (also how my nightmares look, now)

This artwork seems to be the core design value of the game (also how my nightmares look now).

Generally speaking I’m a gentle soul. I’ve spent an hour of an icy February evening convincing a lost dog to come home with me out of the cold. I always break the ice on my birdbath in winter. But The Long Dark turned me almost instantly into an awful, desperate, wildlife hating mess. Suddenly I’m disappointed when something I thought was a corpse turns out to be a fallen tree, and I can’t steal its boots. I’m coaxing creatures in the distance to just give it a try, punk, because I found a rifle and some ammo and it’s payback time.

The Long Dark poses us the question “How far would you go to survive?” Apparently, I will beat a wolf to death with my bare hands, sobbing and screaming like a hysterical banshee. Eventually I passed that make-or-break first achievement for five days still living, and full of frostbite and euphoria I’m crawling my way towards 20, nursing my wolf-shattered nerves. The tide is turning though, for those furry devils. I rule the forest now.

Oh no, a derailment. How terrible. Such a shame. There better be a corpse to loot

Oh no, a derailment. How terrible. Such a shame. There better be a corpse to loot.

The Long Dark’s survival sandbox is a harsh place to thrive and a pretty place to die - I couldn’t have asked for more. This game makes me really, really want to keep living even as it demands more in return. While I’m still eagerly awaiting its narrative mode, this endless and unforgiving challenge is more than enough to win me over. I’ve fallen for its wild, horrific beauty. I’m captivated by its utter disregard for my life and sanity. Most importantly, I’m thrilled at the image of my snowbound self, cackling wildly as she rules the wilderness covered in wolf pelts and revenge. It’s an oddly proud feeling.

Pros:

  • Good balance between simple controls, but complex requirements
  • For any audiophiles out there, the soundscape is rich and evocative
  • Beautiful visuals
Cons:

  • Wolves
  • Only one area of the sandbox is available so far, and not all of the functions are in place
  • Good god the wolves

the author

Thryn is a multimedia designer who loves unique artwork, strong narrative and teamwork. Also huge quantities of fancy tea. Find her on twitter @Thairyn