Survivalist – What We Think:
Survivalist is an open-world zombie survival RPG on XBOX 360 in which you begin as a hedge fund broker emerging from his bunker a year after a global apocalypse has rendered the world a generally more hostile place than it already was. Your 365 day supply of rations having now run dry, you are tasked with immediately finding sustenance and making contact with others with whom your very existence may become inexorably entwined.
Perhaps one of the best looking XBLIG titles I have seen (and I used to review XBLIG titles for three years over at XBLIGR.com), Survivalist is bursting with promise, despite the fact that it cowed to the ubiquitous zombie trope for its villain. I do wish more survival games would just allow the mere fact of survival to be the enemy.
Personal preferences aside, what surprised me about the undead in this title is that they are not slow walkers; in fact they come tearing at you out of nowhere and don’t like to let go once they have glommed on. Everything you do saps your stamina – herein depicted as a fatigue bar that fills up whether you run, punch, kick or essentially do anything physical.
Alive and Kicking
Though the tutorial doesn’t reveal it (and it should) I discovered that the kick attack, used by pressing the “A” button, is one of the most successful ways of getting those speedy zombies off you at first blush. It does notch up your fatigue substantially, but better that than to get bitten, which then requires an Antigen that matches the color of the zombie type that bit you; there are green zombies, red zombies, other colored zombies which I won’t spoil for you, but they all have different effects, some far more dire than others. And supplies of said Antigens are scarcer, the more dire they are.
Shortly after you get through the basic tutorial phase, you are joined up by a new player character – a member of your “Community.” You will eventually meet more personalities, and you are able to trade, and toggle between them in various ways, taking control of any person, and thus rendering the other characters AI units that will feed, water and heal themselves, and, most importantly, shoot zombies with you, provided they have ammo. Having everyone well equipped and ready to fight makes taking down the “Infected” substantially easier.
Shooting a gun isn’t a simple act of pumping the trigger either – you must take aim by holding the left trigger until the reticle closes in and turns red to assure a good steady shot. This is particularly hard to accomplish when the Infected are upon you. Not aiming at all will cause your limited bullets to fly randomly past your mark. I am going to nitpick here and state my wish that – in keeping with the survivalist’s integrity – wish that reloading wasn’t such a quick and easy affair. If you’re going to make me take insulin for diabetes and monitor my glucose levels, then at least make reloading a weapon in the heat of battle a little more realistic and time-consuming.
The Needs of Many
As I have noted, the character Alice has Type I diabetes and needs a steady supply of insulin to stay alive. In the same vein, you must be sure to rest, eat, drink and so on, and patch those wounds up, lest you perish. The only thing missing here is a sanity meter, which, in a game I was developing that holds astounding similarities, was a vital factor, as it is in Klei Entertainment’s outstanding title (and IGR’s 2013 GOTY) Don’t Starve.
The screenshot above is from the developer’s diary, demonstrating the variables being metered for your various characters throughout the game. It may be an example of the developer overreaching a bit, but it’s actually a nice touch. Read more about the history and development of Alice’s special requirement at the devlog.
Characters also level up skills and stamina, farming and so on bringing a nice RPG element to the game. There is no skill point allocation, rather it works like in Oblivion where doing stuff makes you better at it. It isn’t comprehensive, but it is sort of amazing that it’s there at all. At times your party may need to split up, and you can jump into “Command Mode” by pressing the “Y” button and give any of your Community members a location to venture off to. You can even hold down the trigger to speed up the rate of movement across the map. Another nice touch, among dozens of nice touches.
Drop Dead Gorgeous
The 3/4 isometric view looks fantastic, with true 3D objects and even ragdoll physics for the good and bad guys and a subtle cel-shaded style that doesn’t feel like a Borderlands ripoff. No sprites here. Lighting is also nicely done, with long shadows being cast as the sun rises and sets, and the glow of the moon as you maneuver through the abandoned city streets at night. In short, the lighting effects are very polished and the color palette shows some palpable understanding of mood, color theory and cinematography.
A rather unusual and interesting HUD element is the choice to include three boxes on the right side of the screen – the bottom shows your vitals, the middle a live map of your location and points of interest, but the top one is really something of a stroke of genius – it offers a kind of close up view of the object of interest, whether it is your active characters’ face, or the building you are looking at, or even a gory side view of the monster you are attacking. And this is not some provisional affair – in fact, your currently active character changes dependent upon their state of health. If they are dying they look ragged, if they are infected, they take on a grayish pallor. It almost functions as a live storymode box.
To be honest, I have never seen anything quite like it except perhaps in older adventure games, but never quite like this. If you have, please let me know where in the comments below.
The music is abundant, meaning, you don’t hear the same track over and over, but instead various different themes – some are better than others. I like the ambient rootsy stuff better than the tracks that sound like 1980’s VHS power workout videos. Overall though, it adds a sense of scope and dynamism.
The sound design is good for the most part – most things make sounds when they should and some cues even reminded me of effects from Fallout: New Vegas. There is one important sound cue missing though – when swapping weapons in your inventory, there should be an audio cue to note that you have equipped a new weapon or item. It took me a few tries to figure out what weapon I had equipped, until I finally spotted the graphic changing on my character profile on the lower right hand box. It’s all about the little details…
Supply and Demand
Along the journey, you can salvage useful stuff from cars and buildings, and, while the former is a simple matter of pressing the “A” button, going into buildings takes a few extra steps: first you have to enter the building through its door – and if you are not standing at said door, then your character will go into autopilot mode and slowly walk towards it before fading under its opaque roof. Once inside, you can either Exit, Reload your weapon or check your inventory. if there is something to salvage in the building, you can take it.
You can also leave things in the building in case you want to store it there for a while. Indeed, there are larger items that you may not wish to carry around, like wooden planks and chicken wire that can be used to actually build things. While I understand the various steps involved, I found going in and out of a building a bit more tedious than it needed to be and wish it could be simplified or smoothed out a little bit. It’s a tiny bother that I am happy to forgive and forget as I perceive it more as a design choice than a flaw in the design.
Yes, your storage space per character is finite, but it can be increased by carrying a surprisingly large backpack. I found the backpack to be a little forgiving in this regard, but again, I am being a stickler for relative realism here.
Eventually, based on a response you give one of your community members, you will be given a whole list of objectives that reveal the end game. It is no small task to accomplish, and I was a little surprised to learn it at first. But it also made me realize just what this title is ultimately about – building a sustainable community with a viable, future that satisfies the needs of the soul, beyond just living hand-to-mouth. Holy shit.
And All That Rot
Survivalist has been compared, the developer admits, to State of Decay (published by Microsoft Studios and built on CryEngine 3), but I actually found Survivalist far more engaging and playable from the outset. I should qualify that glowing praise, however, by admitting that it took me three or four very frustrated restarts to get the hang of things. That is when I learned to use the multiple Save slots liberally, and also that not everything will be obvious or explained before you actually need to know about it.
At first I faulted the developer for this, but then I got to liking this discovery, and the uncompromising scenario. It had a little of the old Dark Souls to it that all the kids are talking about these days. Well, minus all that spirit world stuff. In Survivalist, dead means dead. You’d better have saved!
Having also played every episode of Telltale’s Walking Dead series several times, I can also say I was rather surprised at the level of dynamic narrative dialogue going on between the characters. Putting your active character near another of your community members spawns a decision tree in a dialogue bubble from which you can select various discussion points or actions between them with the D-Pad. It is smooth and seamless and I found it more enjoyable to deal with my NPCs here than I do in Skyrim.
I am not sure if the game is completely balanced, but it is incredibly well-crafted for a single person enterprise and on XNA at that. It is a little sad to know that the game was developed on an excellent platform that Microsoft will no longer support in a community that it will no longer support, at least not in the same way. If you still have an XBOX 360 and still have it plugged in, Survivalist is one of the best XBLIGs I have ever played, and I urge you to support the developer and give it a shot. It’ll cost you a fiver.
Bear in mind, I am likely overpraising it a little because of the context in which I found it – it is difficult to say if I would give it the same praise on Steam alongside the other titles to which I have compared it, so my score is based on what it is, for what it is and whence it came. Regardless, I may change my mind about that some day and realize that it really is just a great game in any context.