The Long Dark: A perfectly moody winter survival experience
The Long Dark finds itself following many of the expected survival game tropes. Crash landing, minimal supplies, deadly environment, and hostile wildlife. That being said, there is so much more that The Long Dark has to offer beyond face value. The unique art style, emotional impact, and overall mood of this game give it the honor of being among our all-time favorite survival games.
However, The Long Dark won’t be for everyone, regardless of our feelings about the game. Without flashy graphics or terrifying monsters, does The Long Dark provide a tense or interesting enough experience to be worth your time?
This review will cover what The Long Dark does well and highlight areas where the game might fall short.
Story and concept
There are a few separate routes in which The Long Dark tells its overarching story. However, the game’s centralized story mode is told through an episodic series called “Wintermute.”
In this story, you play first as William Mackenzie, a tenacious bush plane pilot suddenly contracted by his estranged wife, Dr. Astrid Greenwood, to fly her out to a remote part of the Canadian wilderness. On the way there, a blizzard kicks up, and a mysterious geomagnetic storm shuts off your plane’s engine, causing it to, of course, crashland in the middle of nowhere.
With minimal supplies and no idea where Astrid has gone, players are tasked with surviving the frigid Canadian north in a world where the lights have gone out for good. Along the way, players must protect Astrid’s mysterious locked case, deal with legendary and monstrous wildlife, and ultimately find out the truth behind the silent apocalypse, Astrid and William’s backstory, and the connection between it all and the awe-inspiring auroras that now brighten the night sky and drive animals mad.
For a survival game, The Long Dark has a surprisingly nuanced, emotional, and involved story. Though the story doesn’t take center stage among the game’s other factors, it creates a wonderfully developed theme and mood that makes surviving feel more purposeful.
Story objectives are varied, focusing mostly on navigating to the next location. That being said, the obstacles preventing your progression are different and interesting, requiring players to find new ways to adapt and survive if they want to persevere. What’s more, these objectives have characters and backstories supporting them that make them feel necessary and involved
There are even side-quests and open-world objectives for players to find unique equipment or just learn more about the world. There aren’t many of these objectives, but we feel that their inclusion incentivizes players to explore without succumbing to the open-world grind.
Most story elements are restricted to succinct environmental features and the occasional note. We greatly appreciate the more subtle storytelling features in a game like this rather than relying on notes full of blocky text. That doesn’t mean this game is without side characters and cutscenes; it integrates both elements well.
The world of The Long Dark is absolutely oozing with unique artistic style. The hand-drawn comic-book theme for the game’s graphics not only helps it stand out among other games, but we feel it fits marvelously with its bleak but beautiful atmosphere and overall storytelling style.
Not everyone will find this graphical style to their liking, and players looking for hyperrealistic graphics won’t find them here. That said, the developers had a vision of what they wanted the game’s world to be and put in the time, effort, dedication, and care required to make it a reality. Longtime gamers can tell when a developer cares about their game, and it’s clear to us that the folks at Hinterland loved making this one.
Not all environments are unique, and it’s not hard to tell some assets were reused many times. However, those facts are never glaringly obvious to the point of being disruptive to the experience, nor does exploration become repetitive.
The use of color and dynamic light is impressive and gorgeous. It would be a crime for players not to stop once and a while to take in the beautiful hand-painted sunsets, waterfalls, and auroras. Even the light from a burning flare reflected off the snow of a blizzard is stunning in its own way.
Sound and atmosphere
The true beauty of what The Long Dark achieves over other survival games is its atmosphere. This highly immersive experience encourages players to feel what their character is feeling, even in survival mode. The oppressive silence and calm loneliness are a beautiful pairing for the game’s desolate landscapes and bitter cold.
Despite not being especially scary, this game offers more horror-inspired atmospheric elements. Even without supernatural demons or horrifying flesh mutants, the dark and spooky environments of caves, abandoned industrial complexes, and dense forests can all be genuinely creepy at night, especially when an aurora occurs.
Everything about the game’s sound is fine-tuned to make it feel as real and present as possible. The sound of the wind, the crunching of snow underfoot, and the sound of your character’s breathing and shivering almost make it feel as if the player were the one walking through the snow. As someone greatly familiar with the feeling of walking through a snowy forest, I have to say this game is as close as I have felt to that reality.
Even the sound of your equipment in your backpack changes to account for what you are carrying. If you have a lot of water in your inventory, you’ll hear sloshing, firewood clanks together, and metal pots ding as they bump into things. This cacophony could irritate some, but we feel it sells the immersion.
Additionally, sound is more than just an artistic element and is directly tied to practical gameplay. The sound of wolves will alert you to danger, crows can help you find animal carcasses, and the sound of wind blowing against your walls tells you there is a storm outside. Plus, it makes you feel nice and cozy inside with your fire.
Simple background music isn’t common in The Long Dark, but it’s a wonderful addition to the experience when it does kick in. The in-game soundtrack is focused more on a wonderful selection of emotionally stirring and thought-provoking Folk/Orchestral tracks that sometimes kick in as players explore and survive. Non-background music is reserved mostly for title sequences and cutscenes and includes some great pieces from decorated Folk artists, such as The Lion’s Roar by First Aid Kit.
Like many other survival games, The Long Dark tasks players to manage their character’s needs in a dangerous setting. Cold, starvation, dehydration, and exhaustion are all facets that players will have to consider as they explore and make use of the game’s other systems.
These survival elements are just the basics, however. Players won’t be growing crops, building structures, or laying down massive rows of spikes to keep back zombies. Instead, you’ll compete with dangerous wildlife for food, search for warm clothes, and frantically try to start a fire before your fingers freeze completely.
Much of the gameplay focuses on resource management, including calories, time, ammunition, and fuel. In addition, careful consideration about what and how much to carry and an in-depth clothing system adds additional layers to winter survival beyond simply “don’t be away from the fire for too long.”
Though there is a fleshed-out crafting and even a forging system, players won’t spend much (real-world) time crafting, as it isn’t normally a required system. Most craftable items require a specific workstation and a proper set of tools, restricting crafting to players who feel it worthwhile to locate them. That being said, knowing how to make an antiseptic wound dressing from moss is a huge help when a wolf rips off a chunk of your leg.
The biggest complaint players will likely have with this game is its lack of excitement. Overt and immediate threats such as wolves can be few and far between, depending on what difficulty you are playing on. There is a lot of time when players will be just walking from place to place, but we hesitate to call it a walking sim as the incredible background art and atmosphere make the traversal more akin to that of a game like Firewatch. Plus, The Long Dark makes up for what it lacks in adrenaline with tension in spades.
The Long Dark is an incredibly replayable game for its story, core gameplay loop, and rewarding exploration. The broad map, additional game modes, and optional challenges add elements for returning players to enjoy.
The game utilizes a static map, which is huge and divided into several distinct regions. Each region offers different survival opportunities, challenges, and points of interest to explore. Randomized loot spawns and vast variations in weather and wildlife are just a few more elements that make each run feel unique.
Survival mode is what we feel will draw players back the most, as permadeath and highly customizable options make it an addicting concept to try and survive just one more day in the frozen wilderness. Additional survival challenges and variable difficulty settings are available for hardcore survivors to test their skills, while a beautiful world to explore may fascinate more casual voyagers.
Even the story offers a great deal of replayability, allowing players to replay any completed episode in the story to try out different paths or simply to experience it all again.
Final thoughts on The Long Dark
We can’t express enough how beautiful the world of The Long Dark is. As bleak as the apocalyptic setting is, there is always an underlying feeling of hope and serenity accompanying the bitter threat of extinction.
The game’s mechanics are immersive and fit very well with the game’s overall style and message. The unique style, immersive gameplay, and emotional impact all tie in to make this an incredible winter survival experience.
Whether you are a hardcore survivalist looking for a serious challenge or are more interested in the incredible atmosphere of the quiet apocalypse, we strongly recommend trying out The Long Dark for yourself. For good reason, it’s one of our favorite games, and we hope it can become one of your favorites too.
If you decide to brave the wilds, make sure to read up on The Long Dark: 10 Tips for Getting Started.