Don't Starve: Hamlet Review

Don't Starve: Hamlet Review

No matter how much you love a game, there is only so much mileage you can get out of it.  Even with an evergreen game like Don’t Starve and its two DLCs, you can only go through it so many times before challenge fades. If yo’re like me and put in a couple hundred hours into Klei’s brutal survival and crafting series, then you might think you’ve have seen everything it could possibly have to offer. And you would be wrong.

A few years after the release of the excellent Shiprecked DLC and providing terrific support for Don’t Starve Together, Klei Games has finally released new single player DLC, Don’t Starve: Hamlet. For a price of only seven dollars, Hamlet extends the life of the game for another 50+ hours and provides about as much fresh content as each of the previous DLCs. An interesting mashup of themes, this new content pack mixes a little bit of Shakespeare with a little bit of Indiana Jones and a lot of fresh humor. If you are tired of Don’t Starve and were hoping for more than just a new coat of paint, then the DLC is just what you are looking for. In between new gameplay mechanics, wacky events, playable characters, crafting recipes and biomes, Hamlet is a great excuse to get back into Don’t Starve.

Whereas Shipwrecked shifted the game to a new setting but kept the gameplay largely intact, Hamlet changes it significantly. The formula is so much different, in fact, that you will have to find entirely new survival strategies for the first time since you discovered the original game.  That is not to say that the game isn’t still Don’t Starve at heart, but you will probably spend a lot of time figuring out how the new systems work. And you’ll have to learn quickly too, because Don’t Starve: Hamlet is brutally difficult – even moreso than its predecessors – and loaded with more than its fair share of painful mousetraps. Only these mousetraps don’t just snap down on your finger, they morph quickly into gigantic steel jaws that devour your entire arm as well.

If you are thinking of buying this DLC without having spent a lot of time with the previous content, then a quick recap of those games is in order. In Don’t Starve, you find yourself marooned in a distant world, left with nothing but the resources of that world to survive. Monsters are dangerous, useful resources are precious, and just when you barely finish overcoming one challenge, another comes along and bludgeons you in the face. Like most games in this genre, you can collect some basic resources in the environment and use those resources to craft tools, weapons, and structures for your home base. You can build farms to grow food and kill monsters to collect more precious resources. Each randomly generated world is completely open-ended and you can tackle almost any problem in the way you see fit. The key to every challenge is understanding how all of the game’s systems tie together.

Most of what gave Don’t Starve its discrete identity is still present, but usually in some form that makes it more difficult for the player. For instance, you can still recruit pigs to act as bodyguards, but in Hamlet, it is more difficult to acquire the resources to do so. Rocks, which you can break in the original game to collect flint for tools, are comparatively rare and Rocks with gold are almost nonexistent. Berry bushes only grow on farms that are guarded by armored pigs. Getting silk is like breaking into Fort Knox. As a result, each decision that you make on what to craft is more difficult. Each excursion that you take to gather resources is more dangerous.

All hope is not lost, however, because the DLC contains one significant element that wasn’t in the previous games – civilization. Pig villages are no longer just areas where walking pork chops congregate for fun. Now they have shops where you can buy tools, food, gold, and other resources that you can’t necessarily find or create yourself. You can even buy your own house in the village to act as an indoor sanctuary of sorts. To buy goods, you trade items that you make or find for the game’s in-game currency, Oincs. Ten Oincs gets you a gold nugget, twenty Oincs gets you a miner’s hat, thirty gets you a Dragon Pie, and so on. The citizens of Pigville, like the villagers in Minecraft, are looking for a specific item. Farmers want grass and the pig who runs the academy wants artifacts. Some pigs want flowers, and most of them will give you an Oinc if you clean a pile of poop off of their front door. You can also steal items like flowers and crops from pigs’ farms, but once you steal one item you will be attacked, on sight, every time that you show up in that area again.

The economy in Don’t Starve: Hamlet is a bold addition to a series that has generally provided little interaction with NPCs up to this point. It also changes how the game is played, turning you from a packrat/resource collection machine into a bartering interloper. Instead finding everything that you need in the appropriate biome, you must cultivate or create a small set of trade goods that you can then sell for currency. It is this fundamental shift that gives this game so much additional longevity. The focus on an economy does have a drawback though — it comes at the expense of variety in both resource gathering and crafting. The crafting portion of the game has been de-emphasized in favor of the bartering system. Rather building everything yourself, you will probably find yourself buying umbrellas, gold nuggets, turkey dinners, green mushrooms, or any one of the multitude of items that you could find or build in the previous Don’t Starve games.

In addition to an economy, the game also adds another unexpected element — Indiana Jones-style treasure hunting and tomb raiding. In a weird example of genre blending, Hamlet drops in the occasional treasure and trap-laden ruin lying deep in the jungle. In these tombs you can break open pots for treasure, defend yourself from little beasts, and plunder precious relics. If you brave these dangerous crypts and survive to tell the tale, then you will return to the village with a backpack full of valuable loot to sell. If you ever get sick of farming resources to sell for Oincs, then you will find no shortage of challenges underground looking for artifacts. Don’t Starve: Hamlet also provides a couple of new playable characters — Warbucks, the greedy merchant and Wilba, the pig. Warbucks is unlocked via the traditional way of the game’s XP system but unlocking Wilba, however, requires defeating a huge and deadly boss, making her at least as hard as Woodlegs (Shipwrecked) to unlock. Warbucks is a tough character to play, but oe that provides some new and interesting challenges. I never got a chance to play as Wilba.  I have no complaints about the new characters, but I wish that there had been perhaps one more easily unlockable character in the game.

Don’t Starve: Hamlet takes its share of chances, succeeding at most of what it sets out to do. The one exception to this rule, however, is with its seasons. The game only has three seasons of 11 days each, one of which is the vanilla temperate season that begins each game. The other two seasons are a rainy/fog season, and an allergy season. The seasons are clearly attempts to try and change up the “moderate-cold-rainy-hot” formula that has been present in the previous games. Unfortunately, the ideas here don’t offer much in the way of fun. The fog, in particular, makes the game borderline unplayable without one specific hat. The allergy season is a little more interesting and there are more ways to manage it, but the constant sneezing that you will find yourself doing gets tedious. It must not be easy to keep coming up with new variations on weather when only so many modes are feasible, so I can’t hold these issues too strongly against Klei. Still, I wish that the challenge provided by the game’s yearly cycle had been more interesting — a larger variety of ways to tackle seasonal challenges would have helped in that regard.

One of the reasons why you can get so much out of Don’t Starve: Hamlet is because its difficulty level keeps you from uncovering everything that it has to offer. It wasn’t until I had gotten killed at least ten times that I discovered that the world has more than one pig village and a pig queen. The game can be immensely frustrating, especially at those times when one false move brings an otherwise perfect game to an instant end. Everything that the game does right, and there is a lot of it, makes those frustrations worth it and then some though. And, any negative criticism comes with the caveat that it is still in Early Access and can be upgraded with patches. In some cases, it would be appropriate to wait until release 1.0 to recommend a game, but in this case, it’s not necessary. Don’t Starve: Hamlet is a no-brainer recommendation for Don’t Starve fans. It likely won’t win over anyone who previously rejected this series, but this refreshing combination of humor, creativity, and challenge is sure to delight the long time fans who are hungry for more.