Being a fan of horror and of zombies in particular, I can get my fix of scares of brain-munching undead just about anywhere nowadays. The proliferation of the iconic undead monster has caused a massive flood of media ranging from movies to video games to books just itching to take a piece of the zombie pie. So much so that even myself, an avid fan of zombies, have become jaded in the face of whatever new medium comes along toting “zombies” and “zombie mode” and every other alteration they come up with. So I will be honest when I say that I did not have high expectations when I started playing Survivalist by “Bob the PR Bot” for the Xbox360 (via XBLIG). I went in expecting a low-fanfare slog through another aimless game; am I glad to say that I was dead wrong (pun intended) in that assumption.
Survivalist is an isometric 3D sandbox RPG zombie survival game, with great emphasis on the survival aspect. You begin the game as Joe Wheeler who has been hiding in an underground bunker in an attempt to avoid the spreading zombie virus. Supplies have run out after a year, thus you must venture out and procure food and water in order to keep on living. Simple enough, until you realize that there are zombies running around and civilized life is all but wiped out. What follows next is your daily struggle in the search for food and supplies in order to keep you alive and safe from the hazards of a devastated, zombie-infested, gang-ridden land. This being an open-world game, you are free to roam anywhere you please in the search for more supplies. The further you stray from the safety of your bunker though, the more dangers lurk around every corner.
Survivalist focuses on a more realistic tone to the genre than most games do. While you do have the usual gunning and scavenging aspect as seen in similar games such as DayZ, the core mechanic of Survivalist focuses on community and humanity as a whole. When exploring Survivalist’s desert wasteland setting, you will often come upon other survivors of the zombie uprising. Each encounter can easily shape the outcome of your playthrough as every person you meet has their own personality, relationships, and personal goals and needs. Your actions upon meeting this person can easily determine whether they are a friend or foe, and they will remember your choice as well. Rob a passerby early in the game and later on in your next meeting they will remember your face with a seething look of hatred pointed your way and possibly the barrel of a gun as well. Begin friendly trades with a well-armed group and they will welcome you happily to their camp for further use and trade. The amount of work put into the AI to simulate a living and thriving community among the NPCs was simply amazing to see. The fact that I can slowly work my way into the good graces of a community by buttering up one or two members and see the results of my goodwill spread among the rest of the members left me amazed.
Speaking of community, it is not solely limited to pre-established NPC clans. The option is there to build your own community as well. With enough supplies, manpower and skills, you can build your very own fortress to house yourself and any friends you make on your travels. One key member you will come across very early in the game is a woman named Alice who is a diabetic and requires a daily dose of insulin in order to keep her alive. With her among your group, not only do you need the basic necessities but you also need to procure a regular supply of her medication. In a world devasted by a zombie plague, modern medication such as insulin does not come readily available, with the few caches coming in at a steep price. Do you keep her with you and attempt to save what humanity is left, or do you simply abandon her, leaving her to a grim fate?
In my playthrough, I decided to let her tag along with me and did the best of my abilities to keep her regularly supplied with her much-needed medication. I will have to admit that this hit a lot closer to home than I was expecting from a game. I come from a high-risk group of people for diabetes and my family does have a history of the condition. The fact that I got a small glimpse of what I may have to resort to if the collapse of civilization actually occurred, left me in contemplative silence. Not many games I have played have managed to evoke a feeling like this from me, it is both humbling and frightening when I think about it.
The gameplay itself is broken down into familiar action-rpg style mechanics. You have skills ranging from fitness, guns, farming, and construction. Each one can be leveled up by using that particular skill, with successive levels adding more benefits for your continual survival. More fitness for example can allow you to run further and carry heavier loads; better gun skills will allow you to aim more accurately, taking down zombies with ease. The zombies, while not as deadly as the human threats you may come across, are no pushovers themselves. Zombies in Survivalist come in various strengths which have been thoughtfully color coded as virus strains. The virus strains infecting the undead hosts range from a mildly annoying green, stronger blues, dangerous reds, and a rumored instant-death white. With skills you can manage each one with various difficulty, greens offering the least amount of danger and whites the most. Thankfully all the viruses save for the white strain can be combated with syringes called antigens in order to cure yourself of viral bites. These of course will further add to your list of much needed supplies. Getting bit by a zombie will mean death if the required antigen isn’t applied soon, so always carry a syringe or two while out scavenging.
I have to say I love this game. It’s a robust game filled with moral and physical obstacles while giving a grand look on the narrative of humanity and the choices we make. The graphics, while not the best looking, did the job well of playing out a world devoid of modern civilization. Abandoned towns looked eerie and foreboding, the game’s day/night cycle made you welcome the sun. Zombies looked grotesque and dead as they should; the interface offering multiple views and providing vital info when needed. The music in game added the appropriate amount of atmosphere, some more than others I might add. Having an easy, synthesized guitar track guide you along as you explore the vast desert inexplicably changing to a strange electronica tempo just felt jarring. Thankfully the majority of them fit right in and it didn’t distract me too much from the immersion of the game.
The game is so close to being perfect, it has all the aspects I ever wanted in a survival game as well as adding in zombies and a well-defined “living world”. The sheer depth it offers with the narrative separates itself from the other similarly-themed games. With it’s glowing gameplay and mechanics I do see a rather major problem coming up during the endgame, that problem being a gentle downhill slope into repetitiveness. In my playthough one of my endgame goals was to have at least one survivor with maxed out skills. Once you form a basic community and you have people cordoned off and specialized to do certain work, you begin using those members solely for their best skill and rarely anything else. I had one member who was the main builder of the group while I was a skilled marksman and scavenger. I would need to grind construction skills with useless buildings and dwindling supplies just to be able to “win”. Thankfully I have yet to experience this part of the game, perhaps it may not be as bad as I think when I eventually do get to that point. Either way this is a cause of concern for me as using timesinks in order to win does not seem enjoyable in the least.
Despite that, I think that Survivalist is great beyond all expectations and it has become my favorite game among all the titles being offered on XBLIG. It is nearly perfect and it outshines any other title I have played with the survival-horror-sim aspect. If you want a great survival game for a low price, get Survivalist as soon as you can. I guarantee it will keep you busy for hours. While it may not be as eye-opening to others as it was to me, I assure it will give you much food for thought.
This game was reviewed using a copy provided by the developer for that purpose.
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