I’m running through a dark, narrow tunnel as fast as my little legs can take me. The last time I ran so fast for so long, it was because I stepped into a slime-covered chamber, heard a deep rumble, and saw a glowing centipede the size of a jumbo jet crawling toward me out of the darkness. I turned and ran and didn’t stop until I had all the way back to my base.
This time I’m running because it’s my first time finding a carrot and I can’t wait to see what new dishes I can cook with it. In Core Keeper, I may be terrified in the dark, but I’m also comfortable enough to look forward to a stew.
Core Keeper is a co-op survival crafting sandbox that takes place deep underground where sentient slimes, giant maggots, red-eyed goblins, and airplane-sized boss insects stalk the streets. But at the same time, it kind of has a cosy, comfy, warm, and happy Stardew Valley feel to it. I may be in a cave with dirt walls lit only by torches, but inside this cave I have a small farm that grows nice, chunky veggies and a cooking pot that lets me combine them into delicious meals. I’ve built bridges across dark, bottomless chasms and slit open chambers full of wriggling larvae only to find the perfect quiet fishing spot in an underground pond.
And after killing a giant boss monster made of orange goo, a little bearded man with a hat emerged from the beast’s slimy remains. I built him a small room with a bed and now he lives with me.
I don’t usually like darkness in games. At the start of a horror game, if I’m asked to adjust a slider so that the logo is barely visible, I’ll move that damn slider as far to the right as it will go. In open-world games with a day-night cycle, I jump into bed when the sun goes down and fast-forward to morning. I don’t like caves, I don’t like mines, I don’t like darkness. That doesn’t apply to me in real life, but in games I’m just an outdoor person who’s out and about during the day.
So I’m surprised at how comfortable it is to be constantly underground in Core Keeper. Part of that is the charming art and animation, as well as the dynamic lighting effects. The game begins in the darkness of the core chamber, but set up some torches and clear out some dirt walls with a pickaxe, and soon the room will be bathed in warm light. Plant some seeds and bright flowers will grow and light up everything around them. (Nibbling on a glowing flower and your character will glow for a few minutes, too.) Even in the darkest of places, lightning bugs swarm in packs, hidden ore deposits glitter in the darkness, even the slime trails of disgusting monsters offer a welcome bit of enlightenment.
That’s not to say there aren’t really spooky areas and spooky moments. There are ominous off-screen noises when you approach one of Core Keeper’s bosses. Breaking through a wall and suddenly realizing you’re on the edge of a massive chasm is alarming, and building a narrow bridge across it doesn’t feel comfortable at all (even though you can’t actually fall into it). When I first saw glowing red eyes blinking in the dark in one of the more distant biomes, I got so panicked that I ended up wielding a Berry Pudding from my inventory instead of my sword. Tunneling into a new area surrounded by pitch blackness and only clearing a path wide enough for yourself can be spooky and claustrophobic.
But soon this narrow tunnel is lit with torches, side chambers have been found and faint light pours in from all sides, and I flit back and forth through these passages as if they were just another happy, familiar road leading home.
And there’s nothing that makes me feel so at home in a game like fishing, farming, and cooking, and they’re all great in Core Keeper. Fishing works almost like a rhythm game, with each fish fighting to its own ‘beat’. My first few attempts were failures and the fish snapped the line and escaped, but I eventually got the hang of it. Reel when it’s resting let it run while it fights, it’s really about spotting the beat asap and then tuning into it. Fun!
And I have a nice patch of dirt where I can sow seeds, I’ve dug a long trench from a pond to my base so I can fill my watering can without having to venture outside, and I even have a patch of rock to put mine on grow new carrots (they’re actually called carrots because they only grow on rocks). Instead of giving you recipes and telling you what ingredients you need, you just take two ingredients – any two ingredients, even two of the same ingredient – throw them in the pot and see what comes out. Fish, veggies, flowers, and even a gem-encrusted crab I fished out of a pond turned into a nutritious, stat-boosting meal. No place can feel really gloomy as long as I can make sushi and kebabs.
Sure, Core Keeper horrified me when I ripped down a wall and a bunch of squirming, squeaking larvae jumped in my face. At least this time I managed to swing my sword and no pudding. But after that, I ran through brightly lit tunnels as fast as my little legs could take me, and now I’m cooking up some glowing larva steaks.
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