How To Survive Review Review
Microsoft Xbox 360Also available on Nintendo Wii-U, PC and Sony PlayStation 3
There seems to be no end to the relentless procession of zombie games hitting the home entertainment market. If you’re not stealthily working through dramatic, award-winning action-adventures, making heart-wrenching decisions in dramatic, award-winning point-and-clicks or fighting off zombies with creative flora in sequels to hilarious, award-winning tower defence games, then you’re wading through the undead remnants which range from mediocre to atrocious.
How to Survive firmly straddles the last two categories: an isometric action RPG, which is light on RPG and heavy on repetitive action. Shipwrecked on an island of the dead - some might call it a Dead Island - your goal is to find a way home by way of creative crafting, careful inventory management, and shooting a lot of zombies in the face. You choose a starting character from three possible options. Kenji is your typical all-rounder, Jack is strong and slow, Abby is fast and weak; we can only assume that EKO Software are big fans of Streets of Rage.
The first thing that will hit you is the poor presentation. Right from the off, the character selection screen boasts the line “Meet the survivors of the these truly fucked up islands” (sic) demonstrating that the game has not been handed a competent proofreader. Similarly, many of the subtitle translations seem to have been handled by a completely different company - and possibly country - to the voice work. The style they are aiming for is clearly “wacky”, with a Russian guide named Kovac presiding over the survival guide gameplay tutorials with all the subtlety of a spike through the eye socket. Some of the animations are amusing but they jar tonally with the overall game, which remains steadfastly po-faced throughout.
There are four islands in total to explore; three of which are fairly small and will take about an hour to get around, whilst the final one is roughly double in size. It isn’t a huge game, but it feels much smaller because there’s simply not much to do. After starting up and learning the basics of crafting - namely, finding objects and combining them to hopefully achieve something of use - your sole objective will be to go on fetch quests to retrieve items or people, usually on the other side of the island from where you receive the task. Starting out with a stick, you’ll smash your way through zombies via a clumsy, unalterable control system which inexplicably maps the attack function to a bumper button. Thumbsticks are used to move and aim, whilst the left and right trigger buttons are mapped to quickslot items and running respectively. Why the trigger wasn’t used for attacking is beyond us and we were still fighting with the controls through to the end, caused in equal parts by the fatigue system and inventory. You have a stamina bar which prevents you running for more than a couple of seconds once full, and it refills too slowly for you to leg it from any incoming zombies with any degree of success. Furthermore, you can switch between items of the same type (for instance, a stick and a machete), but if you want to equip a bow or a gun you’ll need to go to your inventory and equip one of them. This then allows you to switch between ranged weapons, but not melee. You can happily pick off stragglers from a distance, but should any come close it’ll be a race to hit the inventory and pick the relevant weapon whilst hoping they are far enough away for you to survive once it’s equipped. It’s a frankly bizarre control layout which serves only to frustrate rather than challenge.
There is very little challenge to the game, at least not until you hit the last of the four islands. The preceding three contain very few missions, which are variations on the same theme: collect an item or person and return it to a survivor, only for the survivor to tell you that something else is needed. The NPCs are one-dimensional, and the voice acting is uniformly poor. Boss fights, such as they are, revolve around you dodging out of the way whilst they charge at you, and hoping that you can get a few shots off in their general direction. There are about four different zombie types, some of which need two shots to the head, some three, and some bloaters which blow up causing area damage if you shoot them enough times or get too close. At night you’ll get attacked by a tougher, more annoying variant which shies away from torchlight, á la Alan Wake.
The visuals are just about passable, assuming you like cookie-cutter forest, beach and village areas. Whilst small, the animations of the characters are fluid - it’s just a shame that they’re hindered by the stamina bar which makes your running look spasmodic and causes no end of difficulties when faced with more than three enemies at once.
The crafting system isn’t particularly deep, but it is fun to collect items you discover on your travels and see what you can combine them with. For instance, you can combine pieces of fabric with either health plants to make poultices or bottles of petrol to make Molotov cocktails. It’s a shame, then, that the inventory system is limited to such a small amount of items relative to the number of craftable collectibles available. More often than not you’ll find yourself dropping goods all over the place just to free up enough slots for you to assemble all of the pieces of a new weapon you need in your inventory, before retrieving the dropped items again. It turns an enjoyable aspect of the game into a laborious task, and once you’ve settled on a weapon of choice it’s unlikely you’ll be bothered to try and create anything new further on down the line - it’s just far too much hassle.
The RPG element comes into play through combat. Each kill provides experience points which will eventually push you up to the next level and provide a point to spend on your character’s skill tree. These range from basic skills such as fire lighting and improved aim through to character-specific skills such as building scopes and crossbows. However, the more of these skills you acquire the easier the game becomes. The proliferation of ammunition means you’ll never want for bullets, and only the harder Iron Man mode will present much of a challenge.
Since it’s a survival game, you’ll also have to keep an eye on three specific stats: hunger, thirst and tiredness, each of which will cause a detrimental effect to your character should you let their respective bars drop too low. You can collect and combine food items to stave off the first two needs, but the third can only be addressed by finding a secure shelter, clearing out any residing zombies, and getting some shut-eye. Annoyingly, opening a shelter door triggers an alarm which brings all zombies in the immediate area over to you, so if you haven’t got enough ammunition or you’re weak from tiredness, hunger or thirst, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be an easy meal. There are regular checkpoints and if you die you’ll get half your health back, but some of the checkpoints place you back in the middle of an awful encounter such as a boss fight - the fourth island in particular is guilty of this - and you’ll stand little chance of survival.
If you can convince a friend to play you can team up for offline co-op which is reasonably fun but suffers from the exact same issues as single player (and with added resurrection duties if they fall), or offline challenges which range from fighting through hordes of exploding zombies to fighting through hordes of zombies with a chainsaw. Online multiplayer is the same, but with strangers who are as likely to carve you up with a machete as they are the zombies - possibly in an attempt to liven up the tedium.
The odd thing is, How To Survive is playable. There’s something satisfying about turning zombies into flaming pincushions with incendiary arrows, taking down a deer and roasting it with mushrooms, and clearing an area of zombies with a well-timed shot at an explodable bloater. The problem is that it isn’t enough to keep you engaged. All of the elements - the crafting, the RPG levelling, the combat itself - feel half-done, and the story is non-existent. In trying to encompass so many game mechanics in such a short title How To Survive ends up feeling rushed and unfinished, a perfunctory title that never manages to rise above adequacy.