Set in the wilderness of the fictional Great Bear Island north of mainland Canada, the first two episodes of The Long Dark set the story of how a strange geomagnetic storm hit and plunged the world into darkness. After much anticipation, the story continues with episode three’s release, titled “Crossroads Elegy”. Taking the role of Dr. Astrid Greenwood, you continue the story of the Quiet Apocalypse, delving deeper to solve the mysteries found in The Long Dark.
Hinterland Games delayed the initial release of episode three when they gained new talent and technology after Capcom Vancouver’s closure. Wanting to use their new assets, the studio made the decision to go back and rework the first two episodes. Visual enhancements, streamlined gameplay and crafting a more fluid narrative experience, Hinterland strikes a balance between adding something fresh to the story whilst remaining true to what made The Long Dark what it was in the first place — a thoughtful and challenging survival game.
Episode three takes us on a journey through Dr. Astrid Greenwood’s eyes not long after she and Will were separated in the first episode. The game thankfully does away with holding your hand in how to survive and swiftly introduces new mechanics which are unique to Astrid’s story. We quickly learn that this is no longer just a game about personal survival — your skills as a Doctor are required and the needs of others begin to play an important part in the episode. With the oaths that come with her profession, it is in her nature to help those around her.
Finding survivors is paramount in this episode. One of the new mechanics mentioned revolve around diagnosing survivors. Opening a status screen similar to your own, you’re able to check for any ailments that may be affecting them. If Astrid has in her possession the means to help them (water for dehydration, for example) then the “treatment” action will become available.
A straightforward mechanic, but very effective in making Astrid feel different to play compared to Will. This encourages players to think not just about Astrid’s well being, but the well being of others in The Long Dark when it comes to inventory and resource management.
It’s an addition which refreshes the game for long-term players. This duty of care takes an interesting turn when you face off against Timberwolves for the first time. Tougher, stronger and more intelligent variants of the standard wolves from earlier episodes, their harrowing howls, and the uptake of frenetic percussive music stirring in your ears, combat with wolves takes a new, near cinematic turn.
Some may find these encounters easy to deter, but the surprise and the rush of trying to figure out which way an attack is coming from, and the best course of action in deterring the wolves, breaks up the labour of carrying a survivor to safety. Whilst there is a combat component in the game, this isn’t a game about fighting and gunplay. When a pack of wolves have your scent, the sense of survival becomes more apparent. You have to decide how to handle the encounter, as combat is usually (but not always) the last resort as survival is paramount.
With survival comes a lot of planning and walking, both of which are key activities in The Long Dark. The challenge lies in managing your personal condition and deciding what to pack, figuring out what you need to help you stay safe, and tending to the needs of those you encounter. Carry too much and you can’t travel as fast, maybe leave the rifle at your base and free up space for any food or medicines you come across.
With scalable difficulty, the challenge is there to keep you comfortably on the edge of your seat whilst enjoying the story. The journey has the feel of an adequate level of effort and interest, without feeling bogged down. Some may find The Long Dark to be too arduous — the weather can take a turn for the worse, for example, forcing you to wait it out and slowing down gameplay and the fetch quest elements even more.
It’s these moments, though, that lead to real test of survival. Poor time management and resource usage could lead to freezing to death on a venture for supplies. Panic can lead to bad decisions when you hear a howl in the distance, forcing you to take a more perilous path and spraining your ankle, slowing progress further. No matter how urgent, it’s never a good idea to sprint uphill. The Long Dark is encouraging you to think smart and survive. Sometimes the best route is the long way round, especially with a heavy backpack and with wolves on your tail. This slow style of play may not be for everyone, but with slowness, you notice the finer details of the world, and the desire to explore grows.
As mentioned, the biggest activity is walking, and the map of Pleasant Valley is expansive. You may notice smoke on the horizon, marking a distant campfire. Or perhaps a building has caught your eye which could hold a stash of needed supplies. Even the sound of crows could lead to vital tools. All of these are cues sparking interest and the urge to walk and explore, guiding a player through an expanse of white snow and wilderness.
Players are encouraged to enjoy the wilderness with the minimal user interface. There are no obtrusive way points on screen, and health bars and the like can be set to fade out after a time or be turned off completely. Coupled with an intelligent sound design, you feel like The Long Dark gives you a sense of a world existing around you, and you existing within it. Some may find the lack of a standard user interface jarring, others would argue an elegance in its minimalism to draw focus to other facets of the game design.
Details like the shuddering of Astrid’s breath and teeth tell you it’s getting colder without looking at the temperature gauge. The moment of stillness when you’re tracking a deer and you hear it’s soft scuffling in the bracken. A cue which you use and follow if you need to hunt. The combination of silence and sound holding a place of importance in understanding and surviving the world of The Long Dark.
Ambient sound and silence all add to the sense of loneliness as you walk through The Long Dark. As you go out once again in search of survivors, the sudden onset of music punctuates the sounds your ears have grown accustomed to. Elegant and simple, the score is a mix of steel string guitars, flourishes of piano and slow swells of violins. The soundscape, paired with the beautiful, unique art style, creates a wonderful and moving sensory experience.
It’s clear a lot of time, love and care went into creating this episode, and the game as a whole. Hinterland are creating an intriguing story and “Crossroads Elegy” adds to the mystery established in The Long Dark — a mystery that leaves you wanting more. It’ll be interesting to see where Hinterland takes us in the next episodes, and I’m eager for the story to continue.