Computer Savings Time: “How To Survive”

After a brief vacation-style foray into the worlds of stand-up comedy, nerd cons, and recreational unconsciousness, The Conquistadork has returned! And I’ve returned with a new style of article that I like to call “Computer Savings Time”.  Inspired by a PVP strip by Scott Kurtz about the effects that aging and marriage has on a gamer’s availability for play, “Computer Savings Time” will be about games that have been available for a little while, but I’ve only just gotten around to playing and thinking about.

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And the strip it’s based on is 14 years old, so even the inspiration is appropriately dusty.

I’m not married, but the theory remains the same: I’m old, I have a full time career outside of this blog, and sometimes it takes me a while to try out new and exciting game candies.

So get off my back, you abusive children of mine!

Today’s game isn’t even all that old, having been released in the fall of 2013.  And trust me–they’re going to get a lot older than that. So let’s begin:

How To Survive is a 3rd person action-adventure/survival horror game published by 505 Games, the fine folks behind the very amazing and wonderful Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons (one of my favorite games of 2013). In it, you play one of three survivors who find themselves on one of a small cluster of tiny, zombie-infested islands. Your reason for being there is unclear, but you don’t have time to ponder that: your mission is to collect supplies, craft gear, and escape hordes of the undead with your meaty parts intact.  With the help of the mysterious Kovac and his bizarre book, How To Survive will have you creating elaborate homemade weaponry, repairing boats, and stuffing dead tabbies.

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*What* you stuff the tabbies with is really your business.

It’s a simple game with a morbid sense of humor, and its setting and crafting system immediately brought to mind Dead Island. And while it’s fairly short and far less elaborate, I actually found myself preferring How To Survive to its first-person-slasher cousin. Its thirst, hunger, and sleep meters really made you feel as if you were fighting not only the undead, but your very nature. Your speed is betrayed by exhaustion–your accuracy degraded by thirst. You hunt and gather to survive, all while tearing your way through zombies, infected stags, and horrible abominations. It’s an intense experience, and actually pretty satisfying.

That’s not to suggest that it’s without flaws. My biggest gripe with How To Survive has to be the controls. Available for PC, Playstation, Xbox, and Wii U, I chose the console route, so I can’t tell you if using a keyboard and mouse makes it any better. But I found that some of the button choices defy logic.  Why, for example, is my attack button the right bumper? Doesn’t it make sense to equip my trigger finger with an actual trigger? Instead, the right trigger corresponds to the dash command, which can really screw up carefully laid plans. Caution is highly advised in this game world, so you can understand my frustration when I place a bead on a zombie, take careful aim, and then run headlong into it (I presume I would be clanging an actual dinner bell if I could fashion one out of twine and vulcanized rubber).

This and other perilous control choices (left joystick to move, right joystick to aim) give combat a pretty hefty learning curve. However, as you progress and gain experience, you get the hang of it, and even learn to appreciate the challenge. One of the first items I was taught to craft was a bow and arrow, which I assumed I would never use. Hours later, I was sniping zombies with glee, like some sort of cackling, bloody-mouthed Oh Jin-Hyek.

That's right: I went with some other famous archer, you elfie pantywaste.

That’s right: I went with some other famous archer, you elfie pantywaste.

Which brings me to the crafting system. How To Survive impressed me by going beyond the usual “a stick and a knife = an axe” that we’re used to with many other survival games. There are herbs to gather, medicines to create, engines to fuel, and even diving-tank propelled bullets to fire. There isn’t a massive catalogue to put together, but it’s certainly unique, and each of the three characters you can choose from brings his or her own craftable goodies to the table. There’s lots to collect–so much, in fact, that I found myself bellowing in frustration on many occasions. You only have so many slots to fill–and later in the game you’ll find yourself spending a huge amount of time weighing the value of one item over another. The good news is that if you drop an item, you can always come back to retrieve it–assuming you can remember where you left it.

Issues like these could have been solved with a feature that I was honestly surprised that a survival game like this was lacking: some sort of home base system. You sleep in various secured locations throughout the four islands in How To Survive, but none of them have anything to do with you. Despite having to clear the safehouses of small armies of zombies, they’re not what I’d call “yours”. I would have loved to have seen some sort of housing system–perhaps complemented with traps that you could craft. And while you were at it, you could have a safe place with specific spots to store loot.

Just need a "Home Sweet Home" needlework and we're good .

Just need a “Home Sweet Home” needlework and we’re good .

There isn’t much to talk about regarding the audio-visual aspects of How To Survive. The graphics are serviceable, in a Diablo-esque sort of way. The music (what little there is) is decently atmospheric, even if it stops and starts rather abruptly. Nothing about either really wrecks the game, though. Even the odd voice acting and occasional misspelling I can forgive for the sake of How To Survive‘s overall delivery of a “get in and slash” survivor game.  It’s a flawed game that happens to be really fun with some worthwhile challenges.  And while I wouldn’t really recommend paying full price for it, you could definitely do worse than to pick it up during a Steam sale or your console’s gamer-capitalism equivalent.

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