Hinterland’s journey through the development of The Long Dark’s story mode is like a playthrough of the game itself. There are highs and lows along the path, but the more experience the studio gains, the fewer lows players are forced to endure. In Episode 3: Crossroads Elegy, it’s clear they’ve found their rhythm. The result is the best episode of the game’s story mode, and it isn’t particularly close.
Before you dive into my impressions for Crossroads Elegy, I highly encourage you to start off by reading my Episode 1: Do Not Go Gentle impressions, and then my Episode 2: Luminance Fugue impressions. Those tend to focus on the differences between the original episodes released in 2017 versus the Redux versions that have since replaced them. In this episode, however, I’m experiencing everything for the first time, so my thoughts will be focused on the core of the episode.
A bit of Misery
After finishing Luminance Fugue, the second episode in The Long Dark’s story mode, I set off as Dr. Astrid Greenwood, ex-wife of Will Mackenzie, the main protagonist from the first two episodes. Astrid is first seen unconscious in the snow and is moved indoors by Molly, a longtime Pleasant Valley resident who will make players uneasy in a big hurry. In fact, Molly has locked Astrid in her home, supposedly for her own safety. The entire sequence gives me serious Misery vibes, but soon Astrid is on her way and players are mostly free to explore Pleasant Valley, the one and only region Crossroads Elegy features.
The first thing I took note of in Crossroads Elegy was that the training wheels were off. If you’re coming from Episode 1 and Episode 2 with little survival mode experience, enjoy death. Crossroads Elegy is a bump in difficulty, and I found myself struggling within two minutes of being outside. My potato aim was to blame, but new players are in for some pain.
Lock ‘n’ load
The other noticeable difference was that the shackles were also off. No more dodging wolves and firing “Please go away” Flare Guns at them, or being restricted to a heavy Rifle. Players are given a Revolver in the first 10 minutes and can be equipped with a Survival Bow and Rifle within an hour if they look in the right places. This gave me a sense of comfort that I hadn’t experienced in the first two episodes, and that trend continued. Crossroads Elegy doesn’t shy away from giving players end-game gear and, as I quickly realized, they need it.
This gear isn’t just available through mindless looting, though, it’s tied to the side quests in the episode. This addresses the fetch-quest beef players had with Do Not Go Gentle back in 2017, as most of the side quests in Crossroads Elegy reward with lore, or high-end loot that encourages you to seek out the next side mission. Quite a bit of this loot is clothing and, given Pleasant Valley has awful weather, it was very useful, even to someone like me with nearly 800 hours of experience with the game. If I’m too cold, most players are in trouble if they think they’ll just power through the main quest line without proper gear.
Something to live for
A feeling I’ve encountered in the game’s survival mode over the years is that there really isn’t a reason to keep living. You’re alone. Once you’ve looted the world, what else is there to do but add days to a largely meaningless life? While I think that’s an important question survival mode poses, I found it refreshing to have reasons to keep going in Crossroads Elegy. There are more NPCs than previous episodes, and they need Astrid’s help. I felt a sense of urgency to complete quests because it wasn’t just me that had a horse in the race. I didn’t want to let others down.
In Crossroads Elegy, Astrid must locate several survivors, diagnose and treat their conditions, then carry them across Pleasant Valley to safety. It was fun to plan a route, including where to stop, get warm, and take shelter. My first trip provided just the right balance between anxiety and a feeling of responsibility for another life. This was one of the best parts of the episode for me, but also introduced one of my annoyances.
Timberwolves make their first appearance in Crossroads Elegy. Unlike the regular wolves players are used to, these ones travel in larger packs that look to overwhelm. They attack from all angles and, instead of pinning the player down and initiating a life or death struggle, nip away bit by bit. Players must find a way to scare them off or hold them at bay. This can be done with weapons, or if a Marine Flare is available it can keep them from attacking for a short time.
It was initially exhilarating to face off against a pack of Timberwolves and be more worried about another character than the damage my Combat Pants were about to take. In theory, and partly in practice, this was quite good. Timberwolves have the potential to add something special to the game, but they aren’t quite on target in Episode 3.
The problem is how Hinterland uses Timberwolves in Crossroads Elegy. Timberwolves are thrown in your face every time you pick up an NPC to carry them a short distance. By the third NPC, I was rolling my eyes because I knew I was going to have to drop this heavy fool in the snow and start blasting. They weren’t scary anymore, they were just annoying. This gets so predictable that, as I was finishing the episode, it was obvious a pack of Timberwolves would be waiting at the exit for me. I was pleasantly surprised when they weren’t, but quickly realized I was in the wrong spot because they weren’t there. Even before that, though, I was predicting where Timberwolves would be placed to inconvenience me and was able to scale rocks and trees to easily take them out while they stood stationary, waiting to ambush as I approached. Timberwolves feel like a means to increase the difficulty on demand, and the system just feels a bit forced in story mode.
Timberwolves weren’t my only issue with Crossroads Elegy, though. Another was a major piece of the map being largely blocked off to force players to approach from a specific direction. This was fine during the main quest, but once that was over and I decided to return to the area, I found it maddening I had to walk around a mountain because my character couldn’t hop over a fallen tree. It goes back to having survival mode experience and trying to problem solve, only to realize some of the options have been removed. It may be a minor inconvenience, but I think it would have been wise to alter the terrain to allow for easier access once the main quest in that area was finished. Not surprisingly, the area is much more open in the game's survival mode.
What it’s supposed to be
Back when story mode released in 2017, Hinterland took it on the chin. It was ugly. The experience was fun but buggy, and some players were downright rude or abusive about it. However, there was also some constructive criticism, which still sucks to hear, but was probably the best thing that could have happened to story mode. Hinterland returned to the drawing board and put out Redux versions of Episode 1 and Episode 2. Those were more polished, and still good, but Crossroads Elegy is on another level.
With Crossroads Elegy, Hinterland has beefed up its cinematic storytelling to a level I didn’t expect. It’s more polished and fluid. They added new features, such as Timberwolves and the ability to carry NPCs and care for them. They made use of the entire space, changing the environment and adding events that make an old map feel new again. Availability of end-game gear has unleashed skilled players to face off against tough conditions. Side quests feel engaging and don’t exist just to add hours to the total play time.
That all confirms Crossroads Elegy is a better experience than Episode 1 and Episode 2, but even that isn’t doing it justice. With this latest episode of story mode, Hinterland didn’t just improve on work from the past, the developers have created a near-flawless experience that expertly combines survival mechanics with narrative-driven gameplay. If this progression continues into Episode 4 and Episode 5, I can’t wait to see where Astrid and Will end up next.