By: Justin Redmon
The worst part about any zombie apocalypse always seems to be the fact that everyone is caught unawares by the whole ordeal. One minute you’re eating a quesadilla at Taco Bell, and the next you’re running from a bloodthirsty hoard of brain-dead monsters, desperately wishing you had taken those trips to the gym you’ve been putting off for so long. How to Survive, from 505 Games, looks to take the advantage back from the zombies by offering a crash course in zombie survival for three unfortunate castaways stuck on an archipelago. With hunger, thirst, sleep, and a boatload of zombies to worry about, survival won’t be easy. More importantly, though, will it be fun?
Having both an isometric perspective and a twin-stick shooter setup, How to Survive tries to set everything up to be as convenient as possible. Beyond basic movement and aiming, the only real trick up your sleeve is a handy sprint that lets you escape approaching hordes — although it functions more as a dodge than a sprint. Aiming is handled with the right stick, and depending on your weaponry, a handy line will appear to show where you’re aiming.
Lock on to enemies for a bit and you’ll score a headshot, a skill that becomes an almost necessity later in the game due to armored enemies. Melee weapons are aimed much the same, with the added ability of charge attacks for critical hits and beheading on tougher foes. The only other caveat to the controls comes in a quick select bar on your HUD, allowing you to choose health, food, or off-hand items like Molotov cocktails on the fly to use against zombie hordes.
Controls overall feel somewhat sluggish, though, and the lack of a proper dodge function outside of sprint can frustrate due to zombies tendency to swarm and trap you in place with no chance to escape. The absence of an aiming guide on certain weapons also becomes a pain later on, as ranged AOE weapons and the boomerang both suffer from the omission. Even with the guide, the somewhat odd perspective the game chose for its view sometimes makes aiming more difficult than it should be, causing a fair bit of fiddling to find the sweet spot for headshots or just general accuracy.
One thing How to Survive does somewhat well early on is pumping character into the world. Most collected pages of the in-game survival guide come with their own mini-tutorial video, each absolutely teeming with a humor and style reminiscent of the film Zombieland. The author of these stylized guides appears in the game as well, easily becoming the story’s most interesting character.
Past these short videos though the game doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself, and the tone is played far too close to the chest, taking itself so seriously that moments of tragedy can only be laughed at.
It doesn’t help that voice acting is pretty atrocious, and the graphics generally fail to impress with character and zombie animations often appearing robotic. The isometric perspective has a tendency to hide much of the action just off screen or in the corners, making you wish it was pulled back ever so slightly so that everything fell into view. Instead it hides the danger and makes aiming weapons somewhat of a pain.
How to Survive starts in the best way possible, setting you up as a shipwrecked survivor on a mysterious island. It quickly becomes apparent there’s more to worry about than meets the eye, as you find yourself facing down hordes of zombies in a fight for survival. In its opening moments, How to Survive sets the stage by slowly teaching you about each of its systems: how to get food, where to get water, and how to scrape together makeshift weapons to clear out shelters and get some rest. When it all works perfectly, How to Survive feels like a fight for (you guessed it) survival, where failing to care for any of your basic needs leaves you dangerously unprepared for the dangers you’ll face.
The star of the show, however, is the crafting system, allowing players to scavenge a multitude of items that can be combined in interesting ways to create makeshift weapons. From armor to homemade air compressed guns and healing poultices, there’s a bevy of items to create. Unfortunately, it seems like overpowered early items discouraged the need to try and create more, as after I had created the tri-stick flechetted boomerang, I had essentially won the zombie apocalypse. While playing through the experience alone is passable, playing in co-op is where it’s at, letting you and a friend tear through the islands in true survivor style — a system of play supported by the in-game leveling system where each starting character can be given skills that directly benefit their co-op companion.
How to Survive quickly runs out of ideas though, and quests never evolve past the expected “Run though this gauntlet of zombies and grab this item I need.” Enemies seem to suffer from the same problem, where aiming for headshots start as a bonus and quickly becomes a necessity due to the frequency of armored adversaries. Variety is certainly lacking as well, with How to Survive trying to make up for its copy-and-paste enemy design through sheer number. This approach often drops the frame rate in the process, as well as making cheap deaths due to enemies swarming and trapping you.
For a game so focused on its crafting system, your inventory is at odds with the multitude of items you’ll find. You’ll quickly fill up what seems to be a plentiful inventory allocation with no way to expand it, forcing you to micro-manage already limited spaces for when quest items are added to your collection. This is made even more maddening by crafting items’ seemingly limited lifespan on map, where dropped or unwanted items disappear forever, and although certain items are replenished via drops, you seem to be given few chances to craft many of the game’s weapons and items.
Zombie killing falls flat very early on, and although trying out new weapons helps out in the kill fest, How to Survive just doesn’t offer enough depth to really make the entire experience fun; thanks to its halfhearted fetch quests and uneventful conclusion, which has you facing off against waves of zombies in an enclosed area. Challenge maps offer up some change, pitting you against custom challenges without your story mode gear, but even these don’t really fill the need for a true survival mode, something How to Survive unfortunately finds itself without.
How to Survive sadly never lives up to the promise its opening tutorial creates, being an experience that starts out strong and runs out of steam far before its disappointing conclusion.