THE BEGINNING OF THE END
This is my collection of plastic bags.
In years past, my mother and father kept such collections under our kitchen sink; collections that would turn into warehouses of plastic bags, of every conceivable shape, size, color, and brand. I never saw the point to it when I was young. Until I got older, that is. Until the time I was caught in the rain and the water soaked through the bottom of my backpack, destroying my precious school notes and textbooks. Or that time in grad school when I desperately needed a way to ferry my heaps of dirty clothes to the laundromat.
Or, that time when I stood in the middle of a forest, naked and shivering under my hospital gown, deciding on what I was going to carry out with me: several days' worth of smoked meat, or two plastic bottles filled with fresh water? My God, I wished I had a plastic bag.
That is my most vivid memory of NEO Scavenger – a crowdfunded game released in December 2014. The memories of desperation and plastic bags. I don't remember breaking out of a cryo facility, my identity as enigmatic as my new surroundings. I remember neither fighting off the charging wolfman, nor the bittersweet feeling of coming across a once-beautiful house, ripe for the looting. Just the craving desire for a plastic bag. And a desperate willingness to do anything to get one.
NEO Scavenger is one of the latest in what could be called the “survival genre”. A game where the mere act of staying alive is already a winning condition. It's a genre that's been an engine for innovation in how games can tell stories and interact with players. However, it's also arguably a video game genre as tired as zombies, World War II, or The War on Terrorism. With the prominence of games like Don't Starve, The Long Dark, 7 Days to Die, and DayZ, newer titles need to go far to stand out among an increasingly crowded market. So how far does NEO Scavenger go?
The first thing noticeable in NEO Scavenger is its very simple presentation. Players move their pixelated low-fi 16-bit-ish avatars about the world on a turn-based 2D hex grid. Arrival at a hex tile allows for various possible actions, be they resting to regain health and fight off fatigue, or the use of precious physical energy to search for items. These actions in turn have consequences that can be contingent upon your past actions, while determining your future circumstances. A scratch gained while rummaging through the ruins of a destroyed building can become infected, and lead to your downfall if ignored...but who knows? Maybe the rifle and ammo you found could help you find a first aid kit. And maybe that first aid kit can help you keep going just a little bit longer towards the enigmatic glow in the distance. Maybe.
Actions in the game's world are performed through a combination of a “choose-your-adventure” format where you can select what you do from a set of possibilities, and a building block system where you can take specific verbs and objects and link them together. The result is a very elegant and ingenious way of interacting with the world. In addition to that, NEO Scavenger thankfully gives you access to a centralized and extensive set of basic crafting recipes that you can – and will – use to stay alive. This was a really welcome feature that I feel will go a long way to lower the difficulty curve for new players. More advanced and esoteric recipes are, of course, out there in the wider world for players to discover.
Taken together, the crafting system and its recipes give players an impressively intuitive and logical way to make items, and it leads to some surprising options that would make perfect sense in a real word post-apocalyptic survival scenario. That hospital gown you're wearing? You can deconstruct it into dirty rags, which you can in turn use to make a crudely effective weapon with glass shards from a broken window.
It also means that your skills truly matter, as you can actually use your skills as “ingredients” to create items that would make logical sense, yet also reward creative and clever thinking on the part of players. For example, consider the freshly fallen body of the feral dog you just beat to death with your fists. Combine it with your Trapping skill, and skin it using the glass shard you took from the Cryo facility. Then take the ashes of the campfire you made last night. Combine that with the dog's meat. With another lighted campfire and a branch, you've got a readily accessible source of preserved food. Food that may last long enough to help you find water to fend off dehydration, or get to a nearby forest and grab some wood to make a spear.
If you're lucky, you may find water which you can use to boil your dirty rags. Clean rags will be invaluable for use as bandages for the inevitable injuries you will sustain – injuries that may not even come from combat. Damage to your body can just as easily occur from the inevitable toll on your body from scavenging, as it can occur from a life-or-death struggle against a feral dog. After all, in a world where civilization has crumbled, even things as mundane as rusty nails or dusty cupboards can contribute to your demise.
THE GREAT DESTROYER
Speaking of which, a bleak post-apocalyptic game isn't complete without combat, and NEO Scavenger's combat is one of the most interesting takes on combat that I've seen in a while.
Fighting enemies is a turn-based affair, and it takes place entirely within the game's use of building blocks and choose-your-adventure-styled interactions with the world. Things like range, terrain and physical condition (both of you and your opponent) are all of vital importance. Fighting in an urban environment may give you more strategic opportunities to use cover to your advantage, but at the same time poses tripping hazards that can leave you vulnerable to even the most basic enemies. If you're out in open terrain, pray that the figure in the distance heading towards you doesn't have a scoped rifle.
Results of your chosen actions are given in the game's bottom message window – a scrolling list of text that describes what happens in the world around you. Combat feedback is brutal and visceral in its descriptiveness; launching an opportune blow can smash an enemy's skull or cave-in their chest cavity. Blood and organs are spilled in equal measure. Equally visceral are the options that open up to you as combat progresses. A tackle may leave you sprawled on the ground open to attack, but may be the one move that's the difference between your life and a messy death. A staggered opponent can be taken down with a leg sweep, or perhaps you'd rather drag them down instead so you can finish beating them into a bloody pulp. Through the use of well-written text and the right range of options, the game cleverly lets the player's imagination – arguably the most powerful game engine in existence – engage in a combat scenario that's as bloody, unrelenting, visceral, and violent as any you'd find in a big budget AAA title.
THE GREATER GOOD
The world itself is given to the player in little breadcrumbs scattered about in the various houses and neighborhoods that invite exploration and scavenging. Newspaper clippings and other media scattered about the game's universe tell a tale of our modern world slowly unravelling itself under tensions all too familiar to the 21st century, post-recession audience. There is an ascendant China, its growth shadowed by its punishing toll on the environment. There are plagues, famines, poverty and war. In one article I found in an abandoned house, there was a report about protests against local plans to convert paved roads back into gravel – an eerie echo of news reports and cries of concern I've read over the state of public infrastructure in the United States, as well as the growing inequality of income between urban and rural communities. It all paints a picture of a world that didn't so much as abruptly crash into oblivion, but rather, gradually and subtly settle into it, almost as an inevitability. Perhaps the apocalypse isn't some far-off abstract catastrophic event living in the minds of writers. Perhaps all along, it was closer and more mundane than we ever imagined.
NEO Scavenger may be an excellent game in terms of its gameplay, but it's not a perfect game by any means. Its first failing comes in its UI. In my opinion, the interface can be unnecessarily oblique and vague at times when it comes to inventory management; at several moments I left valuable items behind even though I was certain that I was carrying them with me. As it turns out, I had to go back to my item screen and equip them in my hand to be certain that I had them on my person. When camping, it sometimes wasn't clear how to use items like the sleeping bag to ensure that I didn't wake up shivering. The mapping of keyboard shortcuts can also lead to some confusion. The all-important items screen is confusingly mapped to both “q” and “i” (Wouldn't it make more sense to map “q”or “q+modifier” to an option screen to quit or save the game?). The main menu is mapped to F1, not ESC as is common in many other games. More than once I instinctively pressed ESC to bring up the game menu, only to find myself unceremoniously booted out of fullscreen mode.
However, the UI issues are a minor quibble compared to the game's biggest drawback: it's based on Adobe Flash. While performance isn't an issue, the game's Flash-based nature is likely the source of its UI quirks, as well as other irritating inconsistencies: often, it failed to remember my settings for full screen, defaulting to full screen windowed mode with a tiny 4:3 UI. Saved games don't reside in ~/Library/Application Support or ~/Documents, as with most games, but in Flash's own saved data folder. When I cleared my saved website data and cookies to clear up an upgrade issue with my Flash install, all of my in-game progress, from a week's worth of gameplay, was deleted along with them.
In the end, NEO Scavenger is simply an outstanding game to play. Despite its failings from being a Flash game, Blue Bottle Games has succeeded in crafting a compelling, immersive and engaging post-apocalyptic game that stands out among a crowded market filled with me-too imitators. It's a well-written and realized game world with a novel interaction system, and its brutal combat all make it a game that is a joy to play, despite its crushing difficulty. On top of all of that, it enjoys an approachability that will keep new and casual players coming back for more. Without a doubt, NEO Scavenger is a game that belongs in everyone's game collection.
- Extremely atmospheric and immersive
- Visceral and brutal combat
- Approachable and engaging with a unique interaction system
- Based in Adobe Flash
- Some UI Inconsistencies