The Long Dark review: Pinnacle of survival

Years of additional content and refinement have led The Long Dark to the top of the survival genre.

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Many games include survival elements. You eat or drink to fill a hunger or thirst bar. Maybe you need certain clothes to stay warm or protect yourself from the elements. You could hunt or fish to find food. These are all common in survival games, but few make survival the central experience. There are usually dinosaurs, monsters, or giant spiders tacked onto forgiving survival mechanics. Something shiny to get your attention. Not with The Long Dark, though. In the Quiet Apocalypse, it’s you against the elements, and the only goal is to see how long you can deny the inevitable.

Developed by Hinterland Studio Inc., The Long Dark was originally released on Steam in 2014 as an early-access title that featured a Survival mode. In 2017 it left early access with the release of Wintermute, a story mode with two episodes out of a planned five. Since 2017, The Long Dark has seen updates to not only Survival mode, but also a third and fourth episode of the story, as well as various Challenges and special in-game events for players to dig into. Over the years, The Long Dark has trickled out onto more platforms, including the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.

First steps

I sat in this car for hours waiting for that bear to bleed out.

The bread and butter of The Long Dark is its Survival mode. A starting map can be selected, or one can be picked randomly. Difficulties include Pilgrim (easy), Voyager (normal), Stalker (hard), Interloper (ouch), and Custom in case you want to curate your own experience. Whether it’s worse weather, less loot, or removing food poisoning, almost every setting can be tweaked to give you an experience tailored to your tastes. This includes a growing list of accessibility settings. Each custom configuration can then be shared with other players through a unique code that’s generated.

Once the game settings have been locked in, you’ll either be dropped into a random spawn on a map you choose, or a random spawn on a random map. The latter is suggested if you’re playing for the first time. Being lost in the frozen Canadian wilderness is one of those rare gaming moments you won’t soon forget. There will be time for maps and guides later, but ask any veteran player of The Long Dark, and they will tell you about how they wish they could go back and experience it for the first time all over again.

Even if you start on an easier difficulty, expect to die frequently at first. There is no hand holding in Survival mode. There are no objectives or tutorials popping up telling you what to do. There is only cold, hunger, dehydration, fatigue, and the constant threat of potentially hostile wildlife. You must depend on your instincts to survive, scavenging or hunting for food. You'll need to find water, shelter, fire, and tools. These needs are complicated by the fact Hinterland has done a masterful job of designing maps that aren’t terribly big by today’s standards, but which still manage to convey a feeling of being hopelessly lost. I’ve hunkered down during a blizzard, barely surviving the night as I struggled to keep my fire going, resting an hour at a time so I didn’t freeze to death in my sleep. When the blizzard cleared and morning came, there was a cabin not 30 seconds from where I nearly died out in the cold. I’ve spent the night wrapped up in my sleeping bag in a car, avoiding a patrolling bear, and even wedged onto the side of a cliff I was pretty sure the wolves I could hear below couldn’t reach. Death is everywhere in The Long Dark.

Certain death

The Camp Office in Mystery Lake is one of the most iconic locations in The Long Dark.

It should be stated that The Long Dark isn’t for everyone, but one way to ease into the experience is to try the story mode first. The story mode has some tutorials to teach you the basics. I have friends who appreciate what Survival mode does and love hearing my tales but stick to only the story mode themselves. A single save in Survival mode can take from minutes to months. My current game is 407 in-game days long, which equates to dozens of hours and long breaks between. During that time, I’ve meticulously explored each of the game’s 11 maps, which are all connected. I’ve climbed to the Summit of Timberwolf Mountain, camped out in an ice fishing hut for 19 days on Mystery Lake, and fallen through the ice in Forlorn Muskeg. While each of these experiences are laced with danger and potential death at a moment’s notice, they are what draw you into The Long Dark. In Survival mode, nobody is telling you where to go, what to do, or how to feel. You’re given a sandbox and some tools and set loose to create your own experience.

The story mode in The Long Dark is more narrative driven. It follows Dr. Astrid Greenwood and Will Mackenzie. The latter agrees to fly Astrid to Great Bear Island, although she isn’t forthcoming with why she urgently needs to make the trip. During their flight, a geomagnetic event causes their plane to crash, and the two are separated. The four episodes flip back and forth between the two characters and, although slightly more focused on storytelling than open-world survival, each takes place on one or more of the maps available in Survival mode. Story mode introduces NPCs to the world. These are typically quest givers, making the gameplay of story mode unique in that you must balance open-world survival with completing quests and pushing the narrative forward.

While Wintermute is great, the hands-off approach is the appeal of Survival mode in The Long Dark. When most open-world games still come with dozens of quests and markers polluting the map, it only has a map if you visit the in-game locations and draw it yourself (or Google it). The current objective is your most pressing need. You could be dehydrated, exhausted, and freezing all at the same time. It’s survival triage. Figure out what will kill you first, deal with it, then move on to the next problem.

Describing The Long Dark as a breakneck survival experience isn’t accurate. There are frantic moments, but it’s referred to as The Quiet Apocalypse, and peace and calm make up about 95 percent of your time. Days and weeks can pass without anything coming close to killing you. While some people would call this boring, I find it inviting. After a long day, walking outside my door at Trapper’s Homestead to hear nothing but the crows and the wind is wonderful. I’ll often just stand and enjoy the view, which is almost like being in a watercolor painting.

Nothing but time

Trapper's Homestead is one of the best places to hang your hat in the entire game.

It seems silly to say this, but The Long Dark does have a bit of an end-game problem in Survival mode. There is no win condition. You play until you die, and some of us are quite good at stretching our resources and not dying. I said it's silly because I think any game that can entertain you for a few dozen hours in a single save has done its job. What more did you want? Well, since you asked, I’d like a reason to walk outside my cabin on day 407 and go back to a region I’ve already been in. The problem (for lack of a better term) is loot is finite in The Long Dark. It doesn’t respawn. Once you’ve cleared a region of all its loot, there’s not much to go back for. As I walk outside my cabin on 407, I lack the motivation to do anything but eat, drink, pass time, and sleep my way to 500 days, which is a specific in-game achievement.

There is plenty to do in The Long Dark. It's not void of content by any means. There are 11 fully developed regions to explore and loot, and looting is highly rewarding. Every house you enter or cave you explore might give you that one item you've been missing. Nothing beats finding a Mackinaw Jacket or a can of Tomato Soup. I always save a single can of Tomato Soup for a special occasion in The Long Dark, like making it back home after a couple of months on the road.

While you're out looting and exploring, you're leveling up your skills. When you shoot a gun, cook some food, or do any number of other activities, you'll increase your proficiency and unlock some bonuses. You could grind these skills out rather quickly, but just playing the game naturally it will take a considerable amount of time to fully level them. Live long enough, though, and you will run out of things to do.

To stay motivated, I come up with my own objectives. I’ll go moose hunting and won’t come back until I bag one, cook all the meat, and eat it. That’s at least a month right there. I’ve often set myself goals, like surviving 30 days in Hushed River Valley without leaving. That was very challenging, but worth it. Being self-motivated is key to The Long Dark, but each long Survival run brings me to a point where I need to dig deep and find a reason to continue. Where I’m at with this 407-day run, I could stay within a stone's throw of my cabin and coast to 500 days. That's what I grapple with the most; wanting something to do late in a playthrough, but also appreciating that I must find that reason myself.

Not like this

Organizing my cabin is one of my favorite things to do to pass time in The Long Dark.

While The Long Dark is possibly the best pure survival game going today, it’s not without its flaws. I avoid the cabin fever system at all costs, which punishes players for spending too much time indoors by not allowing them to sleep inside for a period. To skirt it, I configure custom games, which allow me to crank the difficulty while leaving the cabin fever setting turned off. I’m not against the concept of cabin fever, but its implementation isn’t great. It feels like it was designed to stop players from manually passing time to achieve long runs, whereas I like to spend a couple of days organizing the loot in my cabin, crafting, and cooking. Knowing that I'm not cheesing the system, then seeing the cabin fever warning pop up, is irritating.

When I do go adventuring, I’m occasionally tormented by the sprain system. In the 407 days of my current save, I’ve suffered a total of 44 sprains, some of which I deserved. Still, the system is in direct conflict with the idea of exploration for me. I need to know what is on that hill, or if I can get up on that rock. Other ailments are much more rewarding, like broken ribs taking days to heal and reducing both stamina and carrying capacity. Meanwhile, you can pop a pill and wrap a bandage over a sprain and you’re good to go. There is gear you can find to reduce the risk of sprains, but when you do get one it doesn't feel meaningful in any way. I’d like to see sprains become rare, but significantly more difficult to deal with.

More to do

In The Long Dark, you must clean and cook what you kill before you eat it. Well, you should.

Beyond Survival mode, The Long Dark features the Wintermute story mode, which just saw Episode 4 release. There’s one more to go to wrap up the story of Astrid and Mackenzie, the game’s protagonists. There are eight challenges that you can take part in. These are more objective driven, requiring players to visit certain in-game locations, escape (or hunt) bears and other threats, stock up for an incoming blizzard, and more. These challenges alone provide dozens of hours of content and are a nice break for us folks on 407 that need a change of pace. For those that like to grind, there are feats to unlock that can then be applied as buffs when starting a new Survival run. These include warmth bonuses, better chances of starting a fire, or gaining more research XP from reading. There’s quality and value in each of these side activities, but Survival remains the tree trunk that all the branches are connected to.

To live forever

This wolf was bleeding out and close to death, but I needed that arrow back. One shot could feed me for a month.

The Long Dark flies in the face of giving you instant gratification and holding your hand. It puts you in a position that is beautiful and peaceful one minute and terrifying the next. It forces you to contemplate why you work so hard to keep Astrid or Mackenzie going when there’s nothing telling you why you should. Great Bear Island doesn’t care if you survive. Hell, it’s normally trying to kill you.

The Quiet Apocalypse isn’t without problems, but Hinterland's commitment to adding new content, while refining the experience over the years, has positioned The Long Dark at the top of the survival genre’s pecking order. The Long Dark is a must-play for anyone who is even remotely intrigued by it.

Co-EIC

Bill, who is also known as Rumpo, is a lifelong gamer and Toronto Maple Leafs fan. He is known for his guide writing and, unsettlingly enough, enjoys grinding out in-depth collectible articles. Tweet him @RumpoPlays if you have a question or comment about one of his guides.

Review for
The Long Dark
9
Pros
  • Like living in a watercolor painting
  • Highly customizable settings
  • Looting feels very satisfying
  • 11 regions to explore in Survival
  • 8 challenges to complete
  • Story mode is a great entry point
  • You get out of it what you put into it
Cons
  • Astrid and Mackenzie have weak ankles
  • The pandemic proved I'm immune to cabin fever
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