Editor's Note: This review update covers the Errant Pilgrim update of Christmas 2019, with the game now in a full release and updates the previous Early Access review available here. As this is an update review, it focusses on the changes since that review. Please read the previous review for full context.
The Long Dark is a minimalist survival game developed and published by Hinterland Games. I've reviewed the game previously, and it ironically ended up pushed as a full release not long after my early access review. Honestly, I was left feeling mixed about the game, and I ended up that dabbled in it occasionally, watching its progress with some admitted interest: there really hasn't been a survival game that touches on the kind of more minimalistic experience as The Long Dark does that does it as well, and I guess, ultimately, I was hoping they'd add more to make it better, even post "release". However, a lot of my initial enthusiasm for the game was coloured somewhat by the fact that the game was offered in Early Access, and that implicitly it would be built out and extended somewhat as development continued. Well, it has indeed been built out, now with a whole bevy of sponsorship logos on startup and that similar kind of off-putting schomoozing that is of little importance to the game, and more relevantly, some story content. But I have to confess that a lot of the things it has added since my initial look have been a mixed bag at best. And with the universal truth that annoyances build up while the initial good impressions tend to lose its luster, I unironically cooled a fair bit on the Long Dark. I can still lose myself in the survival mode of this game a fair bit, when it isn't being kind of bullshitty, but the plodding story is of little interest to me, and the challenges are generally of such an artifical difficulty that I don't find them appealing. Let's break down what lead to the erosion of my originally-quite-positive sentiment, aye?
A Balancing Act
The Errant Pilgrim update was (and indeed still is at time of writing) advertised as follows on the official website:
Look for the Ammo Crafting Workbench. With the right supplies, you can assemble your own ammunition for the Rifle or Revolver. But assembling the gear you need, and finding the bench, won’t be easy.
Spurnned on by such a challenge, my first order of business was to start in the new area called the "Bleak Inlet" and set about to find this new facility. I had tempered expectation of weaponsmithing to begin with - diagetically in the world it would make little sense to have complex gunsmithing stuff going on here - but the way I was let down was not one I would have expected. As you can read from the above, the marketing material makes it out that it is difficult to get to this armoury - but it actually isn't. Time-consuming? Yes, if you don't know what you're doing and have to go about it a few times to get it right, but difficult? No. We'll get onto ammo and materials therefore when I get into the changes to guns below, but even just getting there is supposed to be a challenge, but either I'm the god-queen of gaming or that's a pretty trumped up claim, and honestly, as much as the former is gratifying to believe, the latter is much more likely.
Allow me to expand: the path to this workbench is essentially an obstacle course. The problem with this came with the fact that for all of the games pretentions to realism, you cannot jump, or even step up a slight lip. So basically, once you know the path, all you have to do is walk. There isn't really even any of the climbing that the game has utilized previously, so it becomes a matter of just figuring out the path from point A to point B. It wasn't the easiest thing in the world to figure out, don't get me wrong, but once you've figured it out, even with the danger of the wolves on the grounds I easily navigated it with a flare in hand in almost the burning time of a single flare, so I wouldn't call it particularly difficult in the slightest. This isn't soloing Orntein and Smough without phantoms. Or even soloing Gravitar pre EOTS nerf in CO. It's a pretty elementary path once you know it, and it isn't long enough to outlast the flare as I said, unless you're overburdened and trying to do that; but being over carrying capacity is just a death sentence to begin with on the higher difficulties and there isn't anything particularly added by this challenge that makes it moreso; indeed, being up somewheres where the AI can't easily path to you is safer rather than more difficult.
That isn't to say that this challenge couldn't've been done in a way that made it inherently challenging and more dangerous. What comes to my own mind is some sort of mechanic having to balance on the many narrow planks, in the sense that you embrace the shorter nature of the path and have to be expeditious passing it or you lose balance and fall off and likely, into waiting wolves below. However, no such mechanic exists. Since the wolves have difficulty reaching you at the start of the path and in fact cannot follow beyond perhaps the first third, this results in a situation where as long as you exercise some moderate caution not to walk off the planks themselves, you can take your time with it, so any challenge that could be argued to exist drains.
Now having demonstrated the truth failure that is claiming getting to the new addition is difficult, lets go over what makes it time-consuming. The chief factor is the matter of access. The door to the shed which contains the ammo crafting table has a code-lock on it. That code lock requires a code from a fairly distant (maybe a couple of days if you're lucky with wildlife) radio tower that you kind of also have to know the way to find. Moreover, that code lock is only powered by the aurora events. So even when you go through the arduous process of getting up to retrieve that code you need, you end up often pretty much having to wait until an aurora happens. I'll get to going on about the aurora events in and of themselves in a moment below, but having to go through a fairly long trek to the radio tower and back, and then having to wait even more .. well, my patience had eroded considerably by then. The designers were cogniziant of this wait, it seems, having provided a fire barrel right beside the door. I guess I appreciate that, but I would have appreciated not having the arbitrary wait even longer. Especially since the wildlife couldn't reach me in that shed, the only thing I was in danger of was not having enough food and drink, and of getting bored and quitting the game. And let me tell you, once you know that map, you probably won't be in danger of the former.
The aurora events are a particular sticking point of mine. When they were first implemented they were basically a nice audiovisual thing that made the wildlife more erratic and allowed you to view "buffer message" easter eggs on computers if you found them. So while it breaks the bleak wilderness ascetic the game otherwise did well, it was occasional and ended up reinforcing it by providing the contrast of the way things used to be prior to the disaster that is the framing device for the events of the game. However now there are a variety of mechanics that piggy-back on it. You can get electrocuted in the dam in certain places when the power is on - which actually provides an additional danger to what would otherwise be a treasure trove, so I didn't mind that. What I do mind is the flashlight, which while it only works during the aurora event is pretty much objectively better than everything else during an aurora, and has a secondary mode that easily scares off a lot of wildlife, defeating the threat offered by one of the most prevalent dangers of The Long Dark. It only scares wolves and deer, not bears or caribou, but the wolves are the most common aggressive wildlife, and it is easy to avoid bears and caribou so long as you are being careful.
Upon the initial early access release of The Long Dark, a great deal of the hype surrounding the game was around the story mode that was going to be introduced at a later time. An astute follower of the development of the game might note that while there was an initial gout of both praise and criticism following each episode of the game's story being released, this died down extremely quickly every time. There's a reason for that: no matter how much the shallow and stereotype-driven story may be appealing to people who romanticise the great white north and whatnot, it is delivered largely linear and non-interactively through lengthy and drawn-out cutscenes that only serve to diminish the replay value of the story, since they are unskippable and take a great deal of the actual run time of each game. This is especially the case with chapter one, which if you know what you're doing (as many of us did, from having the survival mode previously available and having played it to death), you can literally get through the interactive part of the chapter in almost the same running time as the cutscene. While there's those that don't mind that, I find that it highlights just how condensed and short a story this is.
I am trying to avoid talking about specific plot points to in turn avoid the kind of spoilers that get me spat on in the street (or at least on the social media), but the way the story handles its themes of that bleak northern survivalism is extremely heavy-handed and unsubtle. I suppose I should not be surprised by such a treatment getting praise in our prevailing mainstream culture where any subtlety or nuance hasn't so much been bludgeoned to death as it has been beaten into such an indistinguishable paste, but nonetheless, I chafe at it being called praiseworthy as something of a writer myself. There is a lot of pretentiousness that comes off in the game, in all the sponsorship logos, the kinda faux activism in the animal rights messages surrounding it about the wolves in particular, but it reaches it's head in that story with its coarsely-woven theme. (As an aside, protip: don't go trying to pet wolves of something, they do attack humans, contrary to what the game suggests in that splash screen - in fact it was easy to Google and find news coverage of several quite recent attacks in fairly civilized areas bordering on woods.)
A recurring character through the first two chapter best exemplifies the overbearing treatment of that theme: an old bearded man named who calls himself Methuselah. He essentially preaches to the player character at some length about how the world is changing and becoming more wild and all that. It's a whole exposition dump at one point, and just comes off as crass and artless a way to advance that central theme. Rather than show us the changes that occur in the world as the narrative expands and carries on, its largely told to us through dialogue with the small of characters in those chapters. At the end of the second chapter, I had the distinct feeling that the small number of actual characters in the plot was a result not of a world where there was few survivors, but rather out of thriftiness and not wanting to write a variety of characters. There isn't a feeling of scarcity, despite the second chapter featuring a mostly-abandoned, dead town. It rather feels like we're stuck in the back woods of a larger area.
In one of the most ill-advised turns to the story I could have imagined, this feeling is proven largely true in the third chapter, where we are presented with a character who is essentially said to be looking after a bunch of survivors. This blows any feeling of isolation right out of the story, and that isolation represents the thing that the game did best in the survival mode compared to its contemporaries. It turns into a fairly bog-standard string of quests that feel like generic RPG filler. I don't know if we're ever going to get an episode 4, but at this point, I don't know that I'd care for it. Anything the fourth chapter could do to recapture the game's thematic strengths would be akin to closing the barn after the horse has already bolted.
I feel I should point out - I should be an easy mark for this kind of story. You're talking to a woman who sits on a small supply of canned foods and buys a ridiculous amount of hunting and outdoorsy gear from Varusteleka. I write this wearing some finnish cold weather pants and a combat shirt I bought there. Feeling I can be independant and survive out there with that kinda proper gear and some ingenuity is something which deeply appeals to me, especially post-amputation where I've had a lot of anxieties about my independence. No doubt, that's why some of the core gameplay has such an enduring appeal for me, but it's also why the story falls so obviously flat. The first couple of chapters are short and mostly leaning way too inelegantly on, and the third chapter basically betrays and ruins.
By having a story that is essentially at odds with the actual thematic environmental strengths of the game, I have to wonder how much of the design of the game that works is as designed and intended, or if the developers kind of happened to chance upon a combination that works. Irrespective of that, the game design works for the most part and you can find my dissection of most of that in the Early Access review linked above, but the story largely doesn't, because it impinges on that isolation.
While its name it bangs on that same unsubtle drum as the story, Desolation Point is otherwise the game at its best and most emblematic. It is the area around the ruins of a lighthouse and abandoned whaling industry complete with a wrecked ship and lots of otherwise unbroken wilderness. It does a good job of conveying through the use of that empty space a feeling of loneliness and isolation. There is a simultaneous promise of hope and harm: you're alone and often not far from dangerous wildlife but there's plenty to find and use to survive if you're resourceful. That is the core feeling of the game, and while you can find a good shelter, outside of the explorer mode where wildlife never attacks, you're never going to feel entirely safe from it, not to mention the weather. The game does this pretty well and eschweing the base-building elements that many of its competitors has, the Long Dark goes a good way to preserving that feeling and atmosphere throughout the survival mode, if not the story mode.
Unfortunately, especially over my extended play, it starts to evolve from isolation to desolation. I cannot say that the game feeling desolate is not thematic, because it certainly does reinforce that theme. The problem is that there isn't a lot of variety in .. well, anything. The wildlife consists entirely of fish, rabbits, two types of wolves, deer, caribou, and bears. That's it. That's not too bad compared to food variety in general: by the time you've been through your second or third major shelter, you've probably seen most of the food on offer. Even just having cosmetic different varieties of the food might of shored up that somewhat, but it never materialized. This is exactly the concern that I had with the early access version that I was hoping would be addressed before release. I can't say it wasn't addressed at all - they did add a couple new things such as packaged airplane food you can find in a crash site, but that kind of stuff was too little to really curb the feeling of repetition in that. This is also the case in the fishing: there's a mere four varieties of fish, and you'll see all but the rarest pretty early on even without very high ice fishing skill. I can understand the economies of indie development at play usually here, where such variety can be a time and money sink better spent on game design and development of actual features, but given how much money the developers have received from our Canadian government, amounts most indies would kill for, I find it difficult to sympathise too much here. (That money was no doubt spent on Jennifer Hale voicing the female character rather than anything which actually helps the game mechanics or addresses its problems, but that's neither here nor there.)
The promise of at least some degree of realism was what appealed to many buyers of the game, including myself, for the reasons mentioned above. Ultimately, I ended up having a lot of problems in that regard. A lot of problems. This is a game where its better to get stark naked for forays outside where you'll get wet, irrespective of the temperature outside, for example. Even clothing that is supposed to be quite durable, like the Military Jacket that you can find, decays pretty quickly on anything above the normal difficulty. I find the military parka decaying that quickly a bit particularly vexing. The jacket is supposedly essentially the CAF ECW jacket, which is, according to the sources I could find online, made out of polyamide ripstop in the earlier version, and a material called GoreTex. Now, I never have owned an ECW jacket since I'm a games reviewer and not a member of the military stationed in the middle of buttfuck nowhere like Alert, but I do have experience with garments made out of those materials: the Bundeswehr surplus stuff I originally ended up kicking off my Varusteleka stuff has a rain jacket made with Goretex, and the aforementioned FDF grade pants I'm wearing as I type this now are made out of Finnish M05 camo-patterned Cooltex, which is a polyamide ripstop blend. Let me tell you, I am abusive as hell on my clothes - as part of my routine to keep this wreck of a body of mine going I bushwack for about an hour in the woods near my place, and there's all manner of brambles and branches and stuff that grabs at them, not to mention the prosthetic rubbing against and catching on the pants all the time - but you'd never guess I'd have had these pants for a while now, unless you looked closely, they look as new. Same goes for that jacket (though I do kind of debate it's ability to keep out the rain, I suspect its been laundered and essentially ruined the waterproofing/resisting treatment). Meanwhile on the harder difficulties, it can be hard to last more than a handful of days in a given garment. It's ridiculous the amount of wear. And that's the inelegant way they've ramped up the difficulty: not by making equipment scarcer and wildlife more common and more aggressive (though they've done that too), but by making you have to eat more, drink more, and have things decay much more quickly.
The clothes are the most egregious example, but there's many more I can come up with. Afflictions I'll touch on in a moment, but the lack of variety I touched on earlier comes up in a big way here too: there isn't much to do that is actually improvisional. If you don't find an axe, you just can't do anything to cut a log or tree limb. You can't baton a knife, you can't even try to hopelessly chip at it with your knife in desperation during a blizzard. Can't use the hacksaw you find on it either. It suffers from that typical survival game mechanical problem: most tools have their one or two designated uses and that is their use, you cannot change them or do something improvisational. While this is endemic to the genre somewhat and I cannot blame Hinterland for it specifically, this is a game that especially cried out for it, especially since it ends up resulting in situations where you perish due to circumstances like a storm or something where it feels like you could have survived the encounter if the game did not have that arbitrary limitation.
When it comes to the afflictions, well, along with clothing decay, raw food decays pretty near instantly on the highest difficulty and you're pretty much gauranteed to get potent afflictions eating wildlife on the higher difficulties. Also, on the Interloper difficulty that is the highest, there are no firearms. Period. Kinda makes that big reveal of the ammo bench a bit of a wet fart, in that light. These afflictions and their, well to be frank, I can only call it silliness, is what kind of tipped me onto the side of receiving these changes fairly poorly. Let me provide an example: if you eat meat on the two highest difficulties, you are at risk of receiving an affliction called Intestinal Parasites. The mechanic is essentially every time you eat meat, you increment a counter which increases the chance for you to get this affliction. This means two things: one, you're going to get the affliction eventually, and secondly, you might actually basically want to accellerate this process and be permanently sick with Intestinal Parasites if you plan on subsisting on animal meat. The second just underlines the hilarity of such a simplistic mechanic, especially when it is offered in the name of being 'realistically' difficult. Now it's been a long, long time since I've had to open my medical textbooks, but I have a good inkling that intentionally getting sick being the best course of action for survival in the wilderness is not very realistic, whatever the sickness may be.
Now that I've whinged myself inside out about the meatier (metaphorically and in part literally) parts of the game that tick me off, I feel I should end on a positive note by stating that the atmosphere of the game really is well done. A sort of watercolour-ish (not really watercolour, but the digital painting passed of as it, but still) art style really gives the game a very particular look and feel that makes it stand out in a genre that to this day is pretty crowded. The music is sparse but appropriate and well-composed as well. I don't really have strong enough feelings to go on for as much length as my complaints do, I have to confess, but at the end of the day the core gameplay loop is something I touched on in the early access review, and its the key to what makes this game good.