How To Survive‘s defining moment comes about a third into the game. Having been tasked by a frantic woman barricaded in a shed to find her missing daughter, and ploughing through literal rivers of gore, I eventually found the kid perched precariously on a branch overhanging a cliff. I find a length of rope and toss it to her – only for her to slip and fall to her death on the rocks below anyway. I shoot and hack my way through another couple hundred of zombies to give the mother the bad news, prompting a heart-wrenching outcry of grief (With almost painfully intense voice acting) and the mother basically collapsing dead of a broken heart.
‘Yeah, bummer’, thinks I. ‘Anyway, gotta go, I have to make lunch for a talking monkey’.
How To Survive, a zombie-infested ARPG from EKO Software, can’t decide what it wants to be. On the one hand, it’s a grim, intense gorefest that sprinkles grit hither and tither as if from the world’s largest salt shaker. On the other hand, however, it can’t resist big, loud bursts of the wacky, mainly courtesy of vaguely Russian survivalist Kovac and the survival manuals he’s drizzled throughout the cluster of islands on which you’ve been shipwrecked. These manuals are delivered through jokey cutscenes that jar cringingly with the depressingly ominous atmosphere they yank you out of, then throw you back into. It feels like they’re gunning for Shaun of the Dead-style black comedy, while completely misunderstanding how that film’s blend of horror and comedy worked. Instead we get uninspired dialogue and NPCs so broad and poorly voice acted they come across as joke fodder even when they’re not meant to be funny.
And let’s not forget the monkeys, who have not only been trained to speak but also apparently to join in with everyone in throwing tasks at you. The missions come thick and fast, ranging from the essential (‘Find battery for this plane so we can fly out of here and not die’) to Howard Hughes levels of urgent superfluity (‘Cook me lunch using this very specific type of flower because… I don’t know, I’m a monkey and we’re already past the looking-glass on this one’). Though the missions are of the kind you’d expect from an open-world game, How To Survive is an ARPG through and through, with level design that is often noticeably linear even for that genre. While the game often promises an experience that sounds an awful lot like exploration, with safehouses and the various herbs and bits of junk that become the currency of survival in your adventure scattered around the largeish maps, you soon twig that the level and mission design has very clear ideas on when you’re meant to find this stuff. While you technically could go on scavenging runs to concentrate on crafting and gathering supplies independently of where the story pushes you, the cramped environs and constant flow of enemies (I know that zombies are meant to be multitudinous, but do we still have to do the infinite respawning thing?) make it more stressful than it’s worth. Even the story missions, with their constant ‘go here/grab this/come back/fetch something else’ pacing, soon devolve into huge, ugly slogs from one end of the map to the other in search of the latest maguffin.
A sense of routine sticks to How To Survive like molasses, and not just because of the endless fetch quests. While the ‘survival guide’ aesthetic of the game suggests something unique, the actual crafting isn’t anything wildly different from anything we haven’t already seen. If you imagine a slightly more in-depth version of Dead Island‘s crafting system, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect, but apart from picking and mixing the odd bit of flora there’s very little that really feels like a true survival skills-based game.
This would at least make the game as acceptably cheesy as your Dead Islands if the actual gameplay were fun, but sadly How To Survive, while not being flat-out bad to play, falls slightly short in several key areas. While the dual-stick pad controls work well, with the left assigned to movement and the right to aiming, EKO have made the odd decision of trying to replicate the same system for keyboard, with WASD for movement and mouse controlled aiming, using a rather sketchy-feeling cursor. It never feels entirely comfortable, suggesting that the game was designed for controllers and making one wonder why the time-tested ‘click to attack’ method of your Diablos and Torchlights wasn’t utilized. Perhaps EKO were wanting to keep a sense of frantic aiming under pressure, but it simply doesn’t translate to mouse and keyboard where traditionally, control should be at its strongest. The game’s auto-detect system also ‘lost’ the wired 360 controller used for review on a couple of occasions, despite that issue supposedly having been patched out just after release.
Other than that the actual mechanics are reasonably solid, though the infinite respawning of zombies does eventually become oppressive, and not in a fun way. The combat system is heavily reliant on careful aiming at individual zombies to ensure critical hits, making it a methodical process that emphasizes a steady approach rather than going in guns ablaze. While there’s nothing wrong with this in and of itself – in fact, it can be quite enjoyable once you get a rhythm going – it does require patience, something that is not always plentiful when you’re having to run across the map, with freshly respawned zombie hordes, to fetch the umpteenth object. It’s also very poorly suited to the faster, more intense ‘horde attacks’ the game regularly throws at you; trying to aim immediately means getting instantly overwhelmed, meaning that they become a drawn-out, prosaic process of backtracking constantly to let the throng thin itself out enough so you can dispatch them effectively.
These horde attacks generally come up while you’re trying to secure one of the safehouses littered across the islands. These, of course, being ‘safehouses’ that are packed full of zombies, actually attract more of them when you open them, and thanks to one annoyingly regular bug, which zombies can occasionally still spawn inside even after you’ve shut the door. Inaccurately-named as they may be, they’re vital as they’re the only places you can sleep, your level of restedness being something that needs careful management along with your hunger, thirst and health.
It’s an interesting concept that ultimately results in even more crap to juggle in your already stuffed to bursting backpack, what with weapons, medicines and crafting materials already making space management a challenge. You can cook and/or prepare some foods with herbs and flowers to make new and more effective foodstuffs, a kind of culinary crafting system that oddly only applies to food – if you get thirsty, your only sources are the cleanwater pools littered sparsely around the islands (So this place has been inhabited by survivors and military personnel knocking around for some time, you can’t walk ten metres without tripping over harpoon grips, bolts and armoured vests… But nobody packed bottled water?). As you level up, some of the perks you unlock slow the depletion rate of these ‘needs’ ultimately making them an occasional annoyance rather than anything of any real urgency.
Besides, at first you’ll be too busy trying to figure out the save system to pay attention to your needs readout. For some strange reason, the game will only save on the completion of missions and not at more traditional/sensible points, such as sleeping in safehouses. It doesn’t really need much explaining as to why this is not just an uncommon decision but a silly one, but suffice it to say that big chunks of progress were lost more than once before realizing that you need to knock over your current mission, with all its attendant legwork, before it will save. If you’re a parent, or are busy enough to need to be able to save and quit out of a game at short notice, you may well find that How To Survive doesn’t like you very much.
This is emblematic of How To Survive‘s gameplay – it’s not a bad game per se, it’s just full of these unfortunate little touches that makes the experience of playing it a touch too much work than it feels it should be. Mixed in with bad writing and the inconsistent tone, it makes for an experience that not only fails to stand out from the multitudes of zombie-themed games in the market, but just makes you miss the better ones.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars