System(s): Xbox 360
Release Date: October 23, 2013
Publisher (Developer): 505 Games (Eko Software)
ESRB Rating: “Mature” for intense violence and blood and gore
How to Survive is a game about killing zombies while trying to survive and escape an island following a mysterious shipwreck. You’re not a badass that’s armed to the teeth only concerned with how much damage you can dole out to the undead hordes. Instead, How to Survive forces you to watch your hunger, thirst and even sleep when needed. It’s all very intriguing and a fresh outlook on a genre that feels pretty stale, but the problem is that it just isn’t very fun.
You’re (Mostly) On Your Own
How to Survive starts out by throwing your character onto an isolated tropical island with nothing but the clothes on his or her back. If you want to survive, you need to be resourceful. Your brains are just as important as your brawn in this game. Items you pick up around the island can be combined with others to create new weapons, armor or food. It’s a fun concept.Whacking a zombie’s head off is more fun when you do it with a weapon you made yourself.
But while you’re on your own in How to Survive, you’re not exactly alone. There are other survivors on the island: some of them have apparently been there for quite some time. Some of these survivors will want your help, and some of them just want something from you. Then there’s the mysterious Kovac who leaves chapters of his book, also called How to Survive, scattered around the island.
There isn’t much in the way of story in How to Survive. You get stranded on an island, but you’re not really sure what happened to get you there. Immediately you’re told that there are mutant zombies on the island, and before you know it, you’re in the middle of a string of fetch-quests that you have to complete so you can escape. That’s about as much setup as you get out of the gate.
A Muddled Experience
It doesn’t take long for confusion to set in, and not in a fun, mysterious way. The game world feels gritty and realistic. You’re told the deck is stacked against you. It’s you against the undead horde. But then you pick up one of Kovac’s “How to Survive” chapters and the game starts playing a silly animated cutscene that’s supposed to serve as a sort of tutorial. Once it ends, you’re right back in the doom-and-gloom of the game. It’s a jarring transition that utterly destroys the fourth-wall and left me scratching my head. “How am I supposed to be feeling right now?” The music is scary, the survivors I met are barely clinging to life, and then out of nowhere the game is cracking jokes and I’m collecting fruit to give to a monkey and his talking parrot friend? It doesn’t work. At all.
Even more frustrating is the fact that the guidebooks are pretty redundant. The earliest missions you undertake already exist as a tutorial. By the third or fourth guide I picked up, I wanted to skip them just so I could get back to the game. Does the importance of drinking water really need to be explained over the course of ten minutes? Probably not.
The gameplay itself is fun enough and I found myself thinking about the game for hours after I stopped playing it. Call me crazy, but I really enjoy games that force me to manage an inventory. I liked the freedom of creating new things out of the bric-à-brac I found around the island. It works here because the combinations make sense: sharpen a twig with a machete and it becomes a rudimentary arrow. Attach feathers to the end of that arrow and it can be fired with better accuracy. Dip that arrow in gasoline and it becomes an incendiary arrow. That works for me, and I discovered it on my own. But the thrill of discovery was ruined when I eventually found a recipe for making flaming arrows elsewhere on the island a few minutes later. Sure, I stumbled onto it myself, but the game would have just told me about it anyway. The same goes for the tutorial sequence with Kovac that teaches you how to fashion homemade guns out of the random trash around the island. It’s a really cool sequence, but it happens far too early in the game. Why do I care about improving my handheld weapon when I have a gun that was basically handed to me less than an hour in. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so defenseless anymore, and the game just felt like a grind.
Sometimes the lack of a defined narrative works for a game. Players are left to create a story for themselves. But How To Survive gives you too much information to really let you make your own story and not enough freedom to play the game like you want. My character was a strong, but chubby male. He couldn’t run for long, but was very strong in hand-to-hand combat. But less than an hour into the game, I had a gun in my hands that would kill zombies in one shot. I wasn’t going to use a weapon that made the game harder just to be true to my character, so that detail just felt pointless. On top of that, the story is painfully linear. Early on in the game, you’re told to get an object from one character and give it to another. You’re told specifically that the first character is dying and will become a zombie, so and you should get the Macguffin from him by any means necessary. So when the dying character told me that he’d only give me what I wanted if I got him some food by hunting some elusive wildlife, I had no desire to actually do it. Why not just kill him and take what I wanted? The game told me he was going to die anyway! I had already spent enough time fetching things for other characters I didn’t care about. I just wanted to get on with the story, not play through a tutorial about hunting and tracking wildlife. But that’s not how How to Survive works, and it feels like a real missed opportunity.
A Bad Imitation
Ultimately, How To Survive fails because it doesn’t know what kind of game it wants to be. It feels like it’s trying to be a survival horror game, but it’s always cracking jokes a la Borderlands 2. You can make new weapons out of things in your inventory like in Dead Rising, but you quickly stop caring about making new stuff when you feel strong enough. You’re supposed to feel overwhelmed and under-equipped like in Day Z, but after a very short time your weapons are overpowered and ammo is abundant like in Call of Duty. The game’s premise is that you’re on your own and fending for yourself, but it holds your hand through every step of the learning process.
How To Survive is decently fun if you’re okay with “grinding” as a core gameplay mechanic. But grinding is only fun to me if the rewards are spaced out properly and they make you feel like you’ve accomplished something. How to Survive feels like it tries to crib too many notes from too many different kinds of games, all of which are vastly superior. At the end of the day, I found myself wishing I was just playing those games instead.