Like a pack of brain-eating zombies, How To Survive snuck up from behind and took me completely by surprise. This is one of those rare moments where I knew absolutely nothing about the game before pushing start. I hadn't seen a single screenshot or watched a highly-produced announcement trailer; I had no idea what to expect. Little did I know that 505 Games' newest entry in the crowded survival horror genre would end up being one of the most infectious games of the year.
Forget zombies, How To Survive has more in common with Frankenstein's monster. The developers have sewn together the strongest elements from a number of diverse games and genres, including Diablo III, Smash TV and even The Sims. Even the name, which refers to a how-to guide revealed throughout the game's story, feels like it's lifted straight from Zombieland. Thankfully there's no need for torches and pitchforks, because this stitched together Xbox Live Arcade game is actually good.
As the title suggests, How To Survive is a game based solely around surviving a zombie apocalypse. In this case, the outbreak is happening on a series of (mostly) deserted islands in the middle of the ocean. You take control of one of three characters -- Abby, Kenji and Jack -- who happen to wash up on this dangerous island cluster. Unsure how they got there, these survivors are forced to persist through grueling conditions and eventually find a way back to civilization. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done.
Life on a tropical island is more than tanning on the beach and battling zombie hordes, it's also about surviving the elements. Everyday life is a struggle, as players will need to hunt food, locate drinking water and create safe zones for sleeping. Keeping yourself fed, hydrated and well-rested is the key to making it out alive, but it can also be a major struggle to balance everything. And don't expect the zombies to make it easy on you, as the game constantly forces the player to risk their safety for much-needed food or water.
At first glance, How To Survive looks like a typical hack and slash Diablo-clone. But look closer, because this adventure game has more in common with Geometry Wars. Players can move around while simultaneously aiming in a different direction. You still have to pull the trigger (in this case the right bumper), but having 360 degree aiming affords the character a fighting chance against a diverse set of fast and slow zombies.
But just because the game controls like a dual-stick shooter, that doesn't mean you can play it like Smash TV. Surviving the zombie apocalypse requires a lot of smart planning. Sure, you can take on a bunch of zombies at once, but it won't take long before they've completely swarmed you and turned the innocent castaway into an afternoon snack. The idea is to play it safe and never get surrounded. Sometimes that means sneaking past large groups of walkers or taking them out with a stealthy bow and arrow. Running carelessly into unknown territory is a good way to commit suicide.
When the survivor is not battling zombies and hunting for food, they are scrounging the four islands for supplies. Crafting is a huge part of How To Survive, as it allows the player to create everything from armor to weapons to tasty meals. Nearly everything on the island can be sharpened, cut, bound, affixed and upgraded to create something even more useful. With blueprints scattered all over the islands, there are literally dozens of guns, axes, helmets, boomerangs and chainsaws to craft.
It won't take your castaway long to realize that they aren't alone. Not only are the four islands teaming with zombies, but the player will encounter a number of human survivors. Each survivor has a mission they need to complete, which often involves locating a specific item and returning it. The missions aren't complicated, but they do give the player an excuse to search every inch of each island. Along the way they will unlock weapon upgrades that open up new areas to explore.
But don't get too used to other survivors, because most of the island's inhabitants are of the undead variety. Thankfully there is a nice selection of zombies to battle, each requiring a slightly different tactic. Most zombies require little more than a gunshot to the head, but there are a few trickier enemies. There's a fat zombie that will explode, killing anything in its path. There are also armored zombies, which will require players to knock the helmet off in order to get a clean headshot. Sometimes the survivors will need to deal with zombie animals, such as a fast moving undead ostrich. And don't even get me started on the boss zombie, which towers over everything but the trees.
Things get even hairier at night. A brand new enemy type shows up the moment the sun goes down. These zombies are both fast and aggressive and is the kind of zombie that can kill somebody with only a few hits. The good news is that these hostile zombies have a simple weakness -- light. You can send them scurrying off by holding a torch or aiming the flashlight in their direction. No need to shoot, all you need is light.
Surviving these zombie-infested islands requires learning each enemy's patterns and exploiting their weakness. Some baddies require long range attacks, while others are better fought with a chainsaw. In the case of the aggressive night zombies, a weapon isn't even necessary. For a dual stick shooter about zombies, there's a surprising amount of depth to the combat.
And it's not just the combat with surprising depth, but the entire game. There's a leveling system that allows players to customize their character with perks. For example, Abby can add a perk that gives her additional experience points at night or increases the accuracy of her shots. She is also able to fill up jerry cans with water and gasoline, just in case she gets thirsty or needs to create a Molotov cocktail.
How To Survive manages to successfully toe the line between feeling like a zombie killing machine and being vulnerable. Assuming you don't rush into an undead stampede, you'll have no trouble taking out dozens of the smelly creatures. But your luck can change in an instant. The run button only allows for short bursts and the zombie scourge is good at trapping innocent survivors. At least the game has generous checkpoints.
The story is lengthy; clocking in at a good eight hours long (more if you intend to complete all of the side missions, which are presented by a chimp). I found myself riveted the entire time, constantly wanting to see how my survivor would get out of their predicament. I enjoyed most of the supporting characters, even if some of the voice talent is B-rate. I bought into the whole experience, from scrounging for food to outsmarting an island full of zombies.
Unfortunately, there are two minor problems holding How To Survive back. For starters, the four islands aren't all that different from one another. The layouts change and one is decidedly larger than the others, but they all feature the same colors, structures and landscape. It would have been nice if one location had more residential housing, perhaps hinting at why there are so many zombies on a so-called deserted island.
My other gripe involves the missions, which often boil down to simplistic fetch quests. The game does a good job of masking these early on, but it feels like they give up towards the end. One of the final missions has you collecting 20 pieces of luggage for an intoxicated islander. Sure, this sends the player to previously unseen parts of the island, but it also feels like lazy writing. This is the moment the game should be ratcheting up the excitement, not sending us on a boring fetch quest.
Minor complaints aside, How To Survive is one of the most enjoyable games of the year. It's a compelling mix of Diablo-esque role-playing and dual-stick shooting. The deep crafting system keeps the combat fresh and the four islands are fun to explore. Best of all, the game successfully balances the tension of survival horror with the excitement of a shooting game. How To Survive proves yet again that sometimes the best games come when you least expect them.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
It's questionable how accurate this is, but this is all that's known about Cyril Lachel: A struggling writer by trade, Cyril has been living off a diet of bad games, and a highly suspect amount of propaganda. Highly cynical, Cyril has taken to question what companies say and do, falling ever further into a form of delusional madness. With the help of quality games, and some greener pastures on the horizon, this back-to-basics newsman has returned to provide news so early in the morning that only insomniacs are awake.