Review: How to Survive

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When it comes to zombie games, I often find myself dreading playing them. Now that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the premise of a world that has to try and cope with zombies. The struggle to survive, and the human drama that often plays out as a result, makes for fascinating fiction. But most zombie games forgo the details of a compelling narrative and instead focus solely on putting as many mindless brain munchers on screen as possible. Eko Software’s How to Survive offers a zombie experience that tickles an OCD sweet spot while mixing a fun combat experience with a darkly humorous story. Finally I’ve found a zombie game that I enjoy playing!

How to Survive is a fairly typical concept: You play as someone who has survived a shipwreck on a desolate group of islands only to find that they are inhabited by creatures of the undead persuasion. Initially another survivor is found, but he is in grave condition. He asks that you find someone else on the far side of the first island, as that person has the materials needed to make a working engine to help escape. Starting off with just an iron pipe or a rusty machete, zombies require a little finesse and practice to take down. Making it across the island is a bit of a challenge until additional components are collected to make more powerful makeshift weapons. Eventually, Kovac, a lone, welding-masked human, offers aid in the form of rudimentary instructions on crafting armor and better weapons. He also has left random tips and recipes throughout the islands which provide helpful upgrades once all the necessary materials are collected.

In the grand scheme of things, How to Survive is nothing more than a zombie survival game with a heavy emphasis on crafting. What makes How to Survive such a treat is the dark humor and the random encounters that test your skills as a gamer. Played from a top-down isometric view, the game feels a bit like a twin-stick shooter, where the left stick moves your character (one of four survivors) and the right stick controls your aim. Precise aiming is important, especially when trying to take out zombies with headshots to quickly thin the herd and to conserve on ammo. Ranged attacks complement melee by allowing silent arrow kills to not alert other zombies and providing a chance to damage stronger enemies from a distance while avoiding their powerful attacks.

The character you choose will level up in experience and unlock skill points at each stage of advancement. Increasing skills adds to the effectiveness of aiming with certain types of weapons and increases damage dealt, which in the long run helps to quickly reduce large swarms of zombies without too much difficulty. In the latter stages of the game, skills unlock which allow for combining various vegetation found around the islands to make powerful (although terribly short lived) stat boosts. These booster potions can stack and provide a much needed edge when dealing with so many zombies at one time.

The only real downfall to making potions or upgraded gear is the need to scour the islands for the materials. Some materials eventually re-spawn without much hassle, while others are much harder to come by. The limited inventory only adds to this challenge. While items do stack to a certain degree, part of the challenge is determining whether an item is worth keeping around. Some items aren’t needed all the time, but provide a much faster way to dispatch large groups of zombies (fresh meat explosives come to mind). This item in particular adds yet another challenge; fresh meat can be used to attract zombies, but that meat can also be cooked to provide nourishment and health. Tying fresh meat to a Molotov cocktail offers a chance to get zombies to stop chasing you long enough to blow them up while healing yourself, but uses up several materials that could be used in other ways. You really have to think about how you use every material.

As much as I enjoyed the game overall, at times it did feel like one long series of fetch quests while traversing through a deadly minefield of zombies. Slogging from one side of an island to find an item and then battle back through re-spawned zombies, only to do it again several times, becomes a bit daunting. Piling up additional experience points along the way at least rewards you for the extra tedium, but a fast travel system still would have been a nice option to have. Fortunately, the only time all this back and forth travel feels like a real chore is when you have to bounce between islands in quick succession.

Surprisingly, one of the game’s neatest features is the useful implementation of the loading screens. Moving between islands does require a brief loading session, but during the downtime you get the chance to take an interactive quiz based on the survival tips of Kovac. Each correct answer adds experience points to your character’s benefit. This is a great feature and something I wish more games would use. Not that How to Survive has a lot of loading screens (or that they are even especially long), but it is a clever touch that adds to the overall appeal.

In addition to hungry zombies, you must also keep an eye on four survival factors, including health, hunger, thirst, and tiredness. Hunger and thirst can be relieved by eating cooked foods and drinking, but sleep deprivation can only be fixed by resting in cleared out shelters. To clear out a shelter, zombies must first be eradicated. Of course, doing so triggers an alarm which summons even more zombies, but without sleep, aim accuracy diminishes to the point of missing more often than hitting. Exhaustion can also be overcome by mixing several rare items to make an energy drink of sorts, but I found that clearing out a shelter was much more efficient than randomly finding the necessary ingredients to brew the drink.

The day and night cycle factors into survival as well. At night additional ghouls will scamper out of the bushes to try and kill you. Bright light will keep them at bay long enough to take them out, but when they attack along with the normal hordes of zombies, things can get tense quickly. Light illuminates the jungle surroundings in a nice way, allowing shadows to play tricks, which gives the already desolate and creepy islands another level of tension and eeriness.

Tracking down various parts throughout the islands brings encounters with other survivors and eventually leads to a confrontation that is one truly epic boss battle. Every skill and combat trick needs to be utilized to take on the sheer number of zombies that are unleashed at the end. If that final encounter isn’t enough, the game offers a Hardcore mode (which I haven’t tried yet), as well as co-op challenges. (Online story co-op was also recently added to the game via patch.) These challenges start both players off with nothing and simply drop them in a portion of one of the islands with the expectation of survive or die. Having online co-op is great, and the game also includes local team play for those who want to slay some zombies together from the same couch. The only real issue with co-op in general is the fact that the same screen space is shared regardless of playing locally or online.

How to Survive is a real treat to play. Fans of zombie games should feel right at home smashing, slashing, burning and shooting the mindless brain munchers, but even if you usually don’t find yourself interested in the whole zombie survival genre this game is still worth a shot. As I said before, zombie games typically aren’t my cup of tea, and yet How to Survive‘s dark humor and heavy reliance on crafting kept me pleasantly engaged throughout the entire game.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Tons of creative crafting options
+ Online and local co-op
+ Dark humorous situations
+ Fun combat
+ Loading screen quizzes

Cons:
– Inventory management can be a challenge
– Traversal across locations can feel like a slog at times

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also available for PC, Wii U, and Xbox 360
Publisher: 505 Games
Developer: Eko Software
Release Date: 11/5/2013
Genre: Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-2 (local and online co-op)
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.