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Monday, February 19, 2024

Co-op survival game Core Keeper gets the mix of cozy and creepy just right

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I’m running through a dark, narrow tunnel just as fast as my little legs will take me. The last time I ran this fast for this long it was because I’d stepped into a chamber coated with slime, heard a deep rumble, and saw a glowing centipede the size of a jumbo jet scrabbling out of the darkness at me. I turned and ran and didn’t stop until I’d gotten all the way back to my base.

This time I’m running because I found a carrot for the first time and I can’t wait to see what new meals I can cook with it. In Core Keeper I may be trapped in the dark with unspeakable horrors, but I’m also comfortable enough to get excited about making 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 slither. But at the same time it’s somehow got a cozy, comfy, warm and happy Stardew Valley feel to it. I may be in a cave with dirt walls lit only by torchlight, but in that cave I’ve got a little farm growing lovely, chunky vegetables and a cooking pot where I can combine them for yummy meals. I’ve built bridges over dark, bottomless chasms and slashed through chambers filled with wriggling larvae only to find the perfect serene fishing spot in a underground pond. 

And after killing a tremendous boss monster made of orange goo, a little bearded man with a hat popped out of the slimy remains of the beast. I built him a little room with a bed and now he lives with me.

I usually don’t like darkness in games. When prompted at the start of a horror game to adjust a slider until the logo can barely be seen, I move that damn slider as far to the right as it’ll go. In open world games with a day-night cycle, I’ll hop in bed when it gets sun sets and fast-forward to morning. I don’t like caves, I don’t like mines, I don’t like gloom. This isn’t true of me in real life, but in games I’m just an outdoorsy, daytime person.

So I’m surprised how comfortable it is being perpetually underground in Core Keeper. Part of it is the charming art and animation, along with the dynamic lighting effects. The game begins in the gloom of the Core chamber, but place a few torches and clear out some dirt walls with a pickaxe, and soon the room is bathed in warm light. Plant some seeds and glowing flowers grow, illuminating everything around them. (Munch on a glowing flower and your character will glow for a few minutes, too.) Even in the darkest places, lightning bugs circle in packs, hidden ore deposits glitter in the gloom, even the slime trails of disgusting monsters give off a welcome bit of illumination.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t genuinely spooky areas and scary moments. There are ominous, off-screen sounds when you get close to one of Core Keeper’s bosses. Breaking through a wall and suddenly seeing you’re at the edge of a massive chasm is alarming, and building a narrow bridge across it doesn’t feel comfy at all (even though you can’t actually fall in). The first time I saw glowing red eyes blinking in the dark in one of the more distant biomes I got so panicked I wound up swinging a berry pudding I had in my inventory instead of my sword. Tunneling into any new area, surrounded by pitch-black darkness and only clearing a path wide enough for yourself can be creepy and claustrophobic.

But soon that narrow tunnel is lit with torches, side chambers have been found and dim light spills in from all sides, and I’m scampering back and forth through those passages like they’re just another cheery, familiar road leading back home.

And there’s nothing that makes me feel more at home in a game than fishing, farming, and cooking, and they’re all great in Core Keeper. Fishing works almost like a rhythm game, with each fish struggling 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 struggles, it’s really about recognizing the beat as quickly as possible and then matching it. Fun!

And I’ve got a nice dirt patch where I can plunk down seeds, I dug a long trench from a pond all the way to my base so I can fill my watering can without having to venture out, and I’ve even got a patch of rock set up to grow my new carrots (they’re actually called carrocks, since they only grow on rock). Rather than 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, vegetables, flowers, even a crab crusted in gems I fished out of a pond turned into a nutritious, stat-boosting meal. No place can really feel gloomy as long as I can make some sushi and kebabs.

Sure, Core Keeper horrified me when I knocked a wall down and a bunch of squirming, squeaking larvae jumped in my face. At least I managed to swing my sword and not a pudding this time. But afterwards I ran back home through brightly lit tunnels as fast as my little legs could take me, and now I’m cooking up some glowing larvae steaks.

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