I finally purchased The Long Dark after it had been sitting on my wishlist for a few years. Before playing it, my view of it was that it was a stylized survival game that may or may not be interesting to me, hence why it sat so long without being purchased.
Having now played it, I was both correct AND wrong in terms of what The Long Dark is, and my enjoyment level of it. The first time I loaded it up I played the story-focused episode mode, but about 30 minutes into it I wasn’t enjoying it so stopped that and went into the more sandbox survival mode. About an hour into survival I wasn’t enjoying that either, but playing that mode did make me more curious about the story so I went back to episode mode. I ended up finishing all 3 available episodes (parts 4 and 5 are coming in 2021 I believe), which took about 25 hours. I have now been playing the survival mode for another 20ish hours.
The Long Dark is as pure a survival game as I have played. The need to stay hydrated, fed, and rested are not just requirements, they are basically the ONLY requirements, and the entire goal of the survival mode is to see how long you can go until you run out of food/water/health and die. It’s because of this that I initially didn’t see the point of playing survival; since the first few days on the lower difficulty level were very easy, and it felt like I was just wandering around to wander and collect more stuff that I didn’t seem to need. And since you are the only human alive in survival, the feeling of loneliness kicks in fast (which is the point in some ways, of course).
The more story/mission focused episodes serve as a very nice tutorial for both the gameplay aspects and the world setting, while still mostly revolving around the core gameplay loop of staying alive and exploring to gather things that help you stay alive. The story itself is interesting, more-so IMO than most video-game stories. You aren’t reading a books-worth of text here or anything, but who you meet and the overarching plot is really solid.
Once the episode content was complete, I had a solid understanding of how the mechanics worked, and wanted to go back into survival mode on a higher difficulty to apply that understanding. This also clicked, and I got into a good loop of exploring and surviving. Of finding better clothing to stay warm, and new/better tools to help in exploration. And slowly your character gets better at the basics, like starting a fire or having the stamina to go on without needing as much rest.
The Long Dark does some things exceptionally well. For starters, the weather in the game is the most impactful weather I have seen. Visually a blizzard or fog greatly reduces what you can see, while from a gameplay perspective harsh winds drop your warmth fast, and make walking into the wind much slower. Snow leaves your clothing wet and will eventually freeze. The night is colder than the day. Combine it all and a clear day to explore in feels like a bonus, while getting caught out in a blizzard at night is panic-inducing and brings a real sense of dread.
I like the art style a lot as well. There are some very rough textures at times, the animations can be a little stilted, and overall this isn’t the next Crysis by any means, but everything looks ‘right’ when you are out in the woods, surrounded by snow, trees, and the occasional animal. The game places you in the designed setting very well, and nothing ever really feels ‘off’ to break that immersion.
The Long Dark is a hard game to recommend because it is so unique. There is little combat (mostly shooting wolves and bears with one of three weapons), no building, limited character progression, and a pure and singular focus on survival. But it does what it sets out to do extremely well, and again for me personally it did click, and has become a really enjoyable game.
It’s also a free download from Epic games (without expansions) for the next few hours.