Review: How to Survive

Zombie survival/crafting games have been on the rise for the past year, but the market has largely been limited to PC. Now, 505 Games is throwing their name into the hat with How to Survive for PC and consoles. Given that the company isn’t known for putting out especially top of the line stuff, it comes as a pleasant surprise just how polished so many things are. As someone who’s never played a game like this before, but finds the concept interesting, I’m glad to say that it’s a fairly good game on the whole with few few major issues.

The game begins with your chosen character waking from a shipwreck. Your character choices include an everyman, a fast but physically weak chick, and bulky dude who is slow, but does more damage with each attack. There’s nothing out of the ordinary with those character types, so I decided to go with the everyman and just ramp his stats up whenever possible. It’s easy to earn XP since you gain some for each kill and gain more for skillful kills. When going from place to place, you can earn some with a little quiz that pops up and asks you things about the in-game world that you learn through the training manuals.

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They teach you how to attack, help others, and craft items – skills you’ll need to survive even one night. That’s when a bunch of scarier monsters come out and attack you in groups. Weapon options are few in number early on, but you’ll eventually upgrade your basic stick to one with flames on it, then a rusty machete and other implements of destruction for close combat. There isn’t a lot of enemy variety, but there are some strategies you’ll need to think about going into battle – just clubbing them all to death isn’t an option. Super-fast and bloater-types should only be attacked with a long-range weapon like a bow and arrow or homemade gun because you’ll want some distance between you and them to gain the upper hand. Bloaters can slice your health in half if you’re too close to their death explosions, so be really careful around them. The faster enemies can do a lot of damage quickly, and can trap you in close quarters easily. The in-game rest camps tend to be swarming with these guys, and the overhead viewpoint can definitely make it tough to see where you are in relation to them – so take them out quickly with melee attacks.

The core crafting mechanic is solid and greatly aided by the use of easy-to-understand menus. The hilarious survival cinematics that give you advice on how to craft items and use them are a major highlight, while the voice work manages to take the fairly pedestrian “it’s you versus A BUNCH OF ZOMBIES/CREATURES!” motif seriously and prevent things from seeming like a farce. You do have limited inventory slots, so you’ll want to be mindful to only keep things that can be useful – although if you wind up with too much, you can open up a menu and just drop anything you don’t need.

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The core controls resemble a twin stick shooter to some degree, which should make this a more accessible game. Movement works with the left and aiming is done with the right.Weapon use involves RB, which may take some getting used to, but winds up feeling pretty comfortable quickly. The controls are responsive most of the time, but there can be a hitch in them from time to time. Crafting and combat work together fairly well and you can switch between healing items with the d-pad easily. When things are limited to those things, the game is a lot of fun. However, when your quests go from “survive the night with next to nothing” to ‘find fruit scattered about the area”, things get a bit dull. Like any fetch quest, it’s hard to make such tasks interesting and that holds true here. Fortunately, those don’t kill the story mode’s fun – they just cripple it until you complete the task at hand. The challenge modes outside of it provide all of the fun of the main game, but without that kind of filler, and extend the game’s life quite a bit. Survival challenges can be completed solo or with friends online – which is fairly stable and a lot of fun to do with a friend since you can either work together, or just try to show up your friend by leaving him for dead and outlasting him “for the win”. And get cussed at quite a bit in response.

Visually, How to Survive is impressive, but not amazing. The environments look decent, although some parts (such as rocks) suffer from a plastic-like appearance during the day. Characters look okay, and the lighting effects at night can be downright amazing at times – especially when you’ve got a fire stick as your only light source and are using that to also kill enemies. The screen becomes partially bathed in flames and it’s incredible. However, every attack animation looks a bit dodgy – with just a few frames devoted for them. It results in quick animations that you can time easily, which gives you a better idea of how you’ll fare in a fight, but looks incredibly cheap too.

The voice work is definitely the best part of the audio. While none of the performances are particularly memorable, everyone plays their part well. As mentioned before, that quality helps keep things from coming off as a joke when they shouldn’t. The soundtrack is a lot of dubstep and trance music, which is good, but feels very out of place. Some games can pull off that juxtaposition well, while Hotline Miami, but this doesn’t. The music doesn’t fit the goings-on at all and it never feels right. It is good enough to have me wishing that the OST was available on its own though.

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Closing Comments:

How to Survive is a challenging, but rewarding game. Its combat and crafting mechanics are executed fairly well, and I wound up having a lot more fun with it than I thought I would going in. Unfortunately, the fetch quests kill the flow of the game, and make you thankful for their conclusion so you can get back to what’s really fun — killing hordes of zombies with a sense of danger present at all times.  There are some rough edges with the animation and environments, but the overall package is fairly impressive. The soundtrack is good, but hurt by it not fitting the game at all. Still, it’s worth checking out if the concept intrigues you as and it’s a fine gateway game for those who are intimidated by the survival genre.
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Version Reviewed: Xbox 360 (XBLA)