Survivalist ($2.99) will be notable for two things. The first, sadly, will be its higher cost (*It was $4.99 at the time of this writing). Gamers are a risk-adverse bunch when money is involved, specifically when it comes to XBLIGs. To some, spending five dollars on an indie game is tantamount to dropping sixty dollars on an unproven retail title. Most will simply never take the chance. To those that do, the game’s second notable quality will apply: Survivalist is one of the most impressive XBLIGs ever produced.
The game puts you in the top-down viewpoint of Joe Wheeler, a rich snob (with his own private desert bunker; how nice) turned reluctant savior, trying to live in a world that has been decimated by several different strains of a terrible zombie infection and society’s subsequent collapse. Think of it as a cross between Fallout and last year’s excellent State of Decay. Survivalist follows in that latter vein, putting the emphasis more on building / being part of a community and securing relationships, over the undead and outright gunplay.
Even with overwhelming firepower, combat is dangerous.
Though killing zombies is a part of it, for sure. The mid-western United States never looked so desperate and sparse, and in-game, it’s a large open-world wasteland teeming with trouble and treasure. Singly, the undead don’t pose much of a threat, but in packs, they can catch you off guard and overwhelm. Depending on the strain of infection (green is mild, white is instant death), traveling unprepared and alone into unknown territory (the map fills in as you explore) is generally not advised.
The good news is, you won’t have to, as the game features a robust economy based on gold and a cast of hundreds willing to do anything for you provided you have said gold. Or medicine. Or weapons. Or just a safe place to crash. You’ll carry out plenty of story missions and side quests in your time, but basic survival is the goal. To do that, you’ll recruit other survivors, scavenge (and scavenge, and scavenge some more), and build a functioning home base, complete with buildings, crops, and protective fencing as you see fit.
The characters that you meet and team up with, too, are a complicated sort. They each have their own motivations and desires, and actually react to you and remember the decisions you make. Show you can handle yourself in a firefight, and people will take notice, looking to you as a leader and joining your community if you ask them to. Threaten a trader or a townsperson, and be prepared to get the cold shoulder from your constituents. Take on a former looter after you’ve killed his friends, and of course the dude will harbor a deep hatred for you. This kind of interaction (and their consequences) within the world of Survivalist happens regularly, and it’s truly awesome to see it all play out, dependent on your choices.
Missions can be dealt with in a number of ways. You can go solo, or roll up with your entire posse if you so wish, to even the odds. Play it smooth, or as a chickenshit, and you can avoid a fight altogether. Don’t like your current quest or your benefactor? Lure them away from town, then kill them and loot the body, if you so desire. You may be at war with an entire town afterwards, but it’s your choice. The human condition is reduced to its more feral form in Survivalist. Zombies play host to the game’s overall storyline, though they are hardly the real enemy.
Like The Walking Dead has prophesized before, the real danger in any post-apocalyptic scenario is the people around you. Traders won’t take pity on you or your concerns, and villagers won’t automatically trust you or readily give you work. Zombies are capable of plenty, but looters, often surly and well-armed, can take out your entire party in a hail of gunfire if you don’t play nice and / or have the proper loadout. Bandages are your friend, yes, but having party members with higher skills in medicine, weapons, etc., is just as valuable.
Conversations can play out multiple ways.
So if it seems I’m painting a somewhat romantic portrait of this apocalypse, be forewarned— Survivalist is a massive undertaking, a game of extremely-incremental progress. Food, water, medicine, and supplies are always at the forefront of your community’s mind, and are absolutely essential to its survival. Residents will set off in search of these items as they are needed, though it’s always helpful to send search parties out to gather whenever possible (you can direct them to known stashes via the map). The vast distances between viable supplies, towns, and missions, though, can make this a risky proposition.
The game is difficult. Death waits around every corner and barren desert outcrop. Humans and zombies alike will track you and pursue you across the land. Staying put and resting on small successes is just as deadly. Both you and your people need constant upkeep (there’s a character that needs insulin on a regular basis), and that perpetual foraging means the game can start to feel unfair and more like a chore of micromanagement than actual fun.
Of course, it could be argued that this IS the end of the world as we know it, so, naturally, life would be unfair. And I guess you could always banish the weaker links from your community, because choices, man. That said, I would have liked the constant fear of starvation, thirst, and infection to be a little less, well, urgent. There’s plenty of other things in Survivalist that can kill you just as easily. Why spoil all that fun?
Looking past all the hardship, this is easily one the best survival-focused zombie games I’ve played. Save for some fairly-minor hiccups and technical issues, there is not a single serious reason to balk at the price. Survivalist is an intense experience, one of the most content-packed, feature-rich games on the indie channel. It is not to be missed.