Hopelessly lost, dangerously malnourished and falling weaker by the second due to encroaching hypothermia, my journey through the freezing wilderness had become one of pure tension and blind hope.
I began my last-ditch effort to find supplies the prior morning, but as day faded away and the beautiful green hues of the Northern Lights filled the air, I realised that my trip had been for nothing; I’d soon freeze in this desolate winter wasteland. As I cross the hill in front of me, I suddenly come across salvation. A lone cabin lies merely a few steps ahead, offering the promise of warmth and shelter. Making my way towards it, my nerves finally alleviated, my heart sinks as the air is filled with the harsh roar of a familiar adversary. Turning to look behind me, the sight of a giant, aggravated grizzly bear envelops my screen, its jaws consuming me and, in turn, my hard-earned twenty-day survival streak.
This is just one of the many emergent, naturally unfolding stories that developed during my time with Hinterland’s punishing survival sim, The Long Dark. Journeying through blizzard-entrenched mountains and scavenging for food in the long-abandoned homes of desolate ghost towns, it’s these radiant stories that make your endless hours in the game’s cruel wilderness feel rewarding and satisfying.
No matter if you’re a regular player or somebody new to the game, it’s an immersive and involving experience that’s constantly forcing you to think and adapt on a moment’s notice. Sleep for too long and you may awaken with dire hunger pains in the cold dead of night; fight a wolf and the wounds you’ve sustained may become badly infected. There’s no end to how you may meet your bitter conclusion in the Long Dark, and it’s to its credit that this crushing difficulty is what makes it so addictive to play.
The core of the game is simple. You’re either a male or female survivor of a terrible plane crash, left to fend for yourself in the cold, desolate wilderness. Deciding where you want to begin from a handful of regions, you awaken in the middle of nowhere with a small number of supplies. From here on in, you must manage four distinct stats if you wish to stand any chance of making it through the night: temperature, fatigue, hunger and thirst. How you do this is entirely up to you. You can raid houses in search of food, craft weapons and hunt the local wildlife or find tools and assemble yourself a toasty fire. There’s no handholding in the Long Dark; just the objective to survive.
From here you will begin to balance other stats. Getting attacked or staying in poor weather conditions may bring illness, forcing you to collect antibiotics or disinfectant to cure your ailments, while the degradation of your equipment must be managed in aid of not losing it and having to scavenge for more. There’s also the drive to achieve certain milestones, the likes of which unlock access to special buffs known as ‘feats’. Unlocking these small extras gives you advantages when you next boot up the game, such as awakening with certain skill levels or having the ability to waste fewer calories in activities. (Yes, you even have to manage your calorie count). Despite there being so little direction in the game, there’s always something you need to keep on top of.
This is where The Long Dark is at its best. Crafting a mind-bogglingly detailed sandbox that allows you to learn its strict rules through pure gameplay, there are few survival games that achieve the same rewarding sense of satisfaction when you begin to thrive, self-sufficient in this hostile world.
Yet, it’s clear that certain elements of the gameplay need major attention now it’s out of early access. The combat is unintuitive, feeling over complicated and often confusing; the stats are frustratingly unforgiving, dropping frequently without warning; and certain restrictions such as the inability to craft certain small items without the presence of a workbench become more tedious than they are immersive. As it stands, while the game is enjoyable, it feels in need of a lot of minor tune-ups to live up to its true potential.
This, however, is merely the survival mode. Alongside it are two alternative sections, the first of which is The Long Dark’s episodic campaign titled ‘Wintermute’.
So far, Hinterland has only released two of the five episodes coming to this story mode, but, at the time of writing, it appears to mask what is essentially a much-needed tutorial. The story centres around William Mackenzie, a pilot who is coerced into escorting his ex-wife and a mysterious briefcase through a blizzard. Things to take a turn for the worst, however, when the pair crash land into the desolate and icy wilderness of Great Bear Island. William awakens to find his co-pilot mysteriously gone and his likelihood of survival diminishing. He decides to journey ahead in hopes of discovering the mysteries the strange island holds.
It’s not the most inspired of stories, but it does a superb job of establishing the essential areas of the game (and future episodes promise to unravel the cause of The Long Dark’s quiet apocalypse). Taking you through your core needs, how to gather supplies, how to combat animals and how to cure illness, this section winds up being a perfect introduction to The Long Dark’s world and the challenges presented to you in survival mode. Each episode clocks in at around six to eight hours as well, meaning you’re able to pick up a lot of the skills and tricks required to jump into the harder areas of the game once you’re finished.
Following this is the infinitely tougher challenge mode. Tasking you with completing a handful of gruelling trials accompanied by a variety of stipulations, they allow more experienced players to truly test their grit against the toughest scenarios the wilderness has to offer. Whether you’re being stalked by a hungry bear or are forced to navigate across a wide landscape to reach a faraway location, they encourage replayability for the game’s most dedicated players.
All these modes are framed within The Long Dark’s interesting visual design. Designed to look almost like an oil painting, the game can appear breathtakingly beautiful, especially when the northern lights illuminate the night sky with vivid purples and greens. Strangely though, the game also has the capability to look slightly drab, especially in the day. Textures can look terrible up close, and certain character models, such as those used for the wolves, fall flat as soon as they aren’t masked by nightfall. It’s a strange balance of striking and bland, the distinct style paying off in some ways and leaving much to be desired in others.
It must also be said that the game comes with some frustrating technical issues. Playing on the PlayStation 4, I experienced multiple crashes and drops in frame rate during longer sessions, as well as finding myself stuck in areas I couldn’t free myself from. It’s clear the game still needs plenty of patches and bug fixes post-release, as these quite significantly affect the experience.
Overall, The Long Dark may still be marked by the adolescent flaws of its spell in early-access, but its detailed and immersive central gameplay does a lot to distract from the severity of its issues. There simply aren’t many games that can match the visceral nature of Hinterland’s desolate survival sim, and while it may have a ways to go in reaching its full potential, there’s enough here to sink your teeth into while you wait.