(Xbox 360 Review) How to Survive

Developer: EKO Software
Publisher: 505 Games
Genre: Action / Role-Playing Game
Players: 1-2
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: George Damidas

Overall: 7 = Good

Having crash-landed off the coast of an island located on the outskirts of a remote archipelago, a dazed survivor awakens to find a wounded man asking for help. There are others who can help them, he says, but there are also horrors on the island: hordes of the living dead. Making their way across the island will mean fighting every inch of the way. But if they can survive long enough to piece together transportation to get to another island, they might find a fixable airplane—and their ride back to civilization. That’s the situation that Abby, Jack, or Kenji find themselves in, and the premise of EKO Software and 505 Games’ latest monster-filled action RPG, How to Survive.

As one of the three survivors, players will have to comb the beaches and hack their way through the island in order to find the items they need if they are to last beyond their first night. How that plays out depends to some extent on the chosen character: Abby excels at running with her exceptional stamina, Jack is the strongest, and Kenji has the greatest precision. Experience is earned as items are collected, missions accomplished, and monsters defeated, so these early advantages level out as new islands are reached and survivors met. The experience nets not only physical improvements, however, but also points towards another deviating factor: separate skill trees.

Each skill tree begins with the ability to ignite a campfire but then deviates to several expanding branches of offensive and defensive capabilities. By unlocking abilities and picking up pages from a survival guide left by one of the more prepared and longest-surviving islanders, Kovac, players will be able to construct poultices, panoplies, chainsaws, boomerangs, arrows, and a variety of guns. Their skillsets eventually expand to include the ability to create performance boosters that range from improving aim to allowing them to go longer between having to eat, drink, or sleep.

The basic needs should be addressed right away in order to prevent deteriorating performance so that shots won’t miss or legs won’t give out in exhaustion as a horde of zombies close in. Neglecting any of their needs, even after a few skill upgrades, can lead to trouble. Each need depletes at a different level, and each affects the character differently: hunger lessens strength, exhaustion limits sprint duration, and thirst affects precision. The effects of ill health are felt tactually because of the game’s use of the analog sticks to move and aim and shoulder button to attack, as holding down the attack button then makes bashing less effective and aiming requires holding the right stick on the targeted enemy even longer to acquire a headshot. This is a simple but well-implemented system, and it makes having a stocked backpack critical.

Fortunately for the characters, the islands are littered with plants, animals, and knickknacks that can be put to good use. There’s almost too much, given the game’s theme of survival and the many trials that lie therein. Empty bottles and canisters can be used to store water or gasoline, sticks and branches make bows, machetes cut branches into arrows, and fire cooks picked plants and hunted meat into something edible. Some items have secondary uses as well, such as raw meat serving as a zombie/piranha lure, and gasoline being used in Molotov cocktails rather than for powering chainsaws. Choosing what to create is made more difficult by the limited space within the character’s backpack. Multiple item types can be stored at a time, until a general weight limit is reached, but there are so many combinable items that it’s easy to become frustrated at having to constantly juggle items around. The player’s best bet is to establish a sort of basecamp to drop off items for later use.

There are a number of serviceable spots strewn throughout all of the islands, such as dilapidated buildings, roofed sheds, overgrown campsites, and some protected shelters, courtesy of Kovac. Ensuring that a location is relatively secure is important for not only storing items but also to keep the nighttime creatures at bay, as they scurry about after the sun goes down and serve as a constant threat to those who stray away from a steady light source. The safest place to stay, and the only place to sleep, is in one of Kovac’s holdings. As handy as those are, with an area to rest and a secured door to keep out the undead riffraff, they must be cleared before being usable. After unlocking the door, zombies stream out of both the sheds stored within and, in response to the blaring alarm and flashing lights, come shambling in from the surrounding area. These become more difficult to clear out as time goes on, with zombie types coming in increasingly deadlier forms, including fast-moving zombies, explosive juggernauts, armored ex-troops with bulletproof vests and sturdy helmets, and mutated animals that are surprisingly tough. Once safe, they can still be overrun as time goes on, but not to the same extent as when initially cleared. It’s very easy to become overwhelmed during these moments, but fortunately, slain characters will respawn nearby with a sizable chunk of health.

Cutting a path through the many zombies is addictive, but the game can settle into a monotonous routine after a while. One of the reasons for this is that the characters’ skill trees are far too mundane for such a far-out game (see: Kovac’s funny guides, his interactive quizzes during loading screens for bonus experience, colorful use of the word “shit,” and the often bizarre dialog); this leads to the same attacks being used to clear one site after another. Sure, the odd explosive arrow, experience boost at night, or attractive Molotov cocktail are scattered throughout the skill-tree branches, but for the most part, the unlocks are dominated by humdrum abilities, such as making strength boosters, creating improved buffs, and being able to hold one or two more of a specific item. The three trees are also very similar. Granted, the differences can be pretty cool—Kenji has “Daryl Style” to make crossbows and Jack can create handmade scopes—but the character-specific skills are typically are of as little interest as the general ones. Separating out the skills dilutes their pool to the point where, even though it’s likely the game will be completed before everything is accessible, there is little incentive to continue playing to unlock everything. A create-a-character system would’ve been a better fit, allowing characters to customize the general type but also have access to all of the interesting skills. Instead, everything is split between three lifeless characters whose backstories are forgotten at the main menu.

Having one central character would’ve also given some weight to the game’s Challenge Mode. Characters share experience between Challenge and Story, even when playing online, so being able to carry one created character over would’ve been a much more compelling experience. That’s not to say that the challenges aren’t worth playing through, however. In Challenge, players retain the armor, skills, and experience they earned while playing through the story, but they have nothing else; instead, they must make their way to a vehicle while scavenging for as much as possible while tackling a themed difficulty (e.g., greater numbers of undead fauna, holding back waves of zombies from a set location, etc.). Playing these online is especially fun, even though it exacerbates the offline mode’s occasional slowdown due to the increased number of zombies and possibility of latency. The options are pretty basic, though the only real limitation is who gets to play which character. Still, going through the trials with a friend or random stranger makes the game much more tense and shows an enormous amount of potential. The story can also be played through locally with another player. Reviving a friend before the next attack, or seeing both do melee finishers at the same time—standing back to back in puddles of zombie guts and goo—are some definite high-five moments. The story certainly has its moments, but it ends up serving better as a primer for the challenges, single or co-op than for its own tale.

How to Survive might not have the most exciting cast, but it can certainly deliver some satisfying zombie-slaying combat. A slightly repetitive story and lackluster skillset isn’t enough to bring down an otherwise action-packed adventure whose hints of role-playing elements and persistency warrants the attention of any gamer who enjoys surviving off the land and taking down the undead hordes with friends. After all the innards have been wiped off the machete and teeth plucked out of the boot soles, How to Survive isn’t a bad way to spend $14.99.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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