Survival horror is one of those genres that has lost itself over time. Where’s the tension? Where’s the desperation? Most of the genres flagships have embraced third person shooting and explosions as the new things-that-go-bump-in-the-night. Allow 505’s How to Survive to be an example of the necessity for horror games to embrace the days of yore; not only is there very little horror and paltry survival, but it’s made more frustrating by just how good it COULD have been. Instead, it stands next to its really solid building blocks, swaying aimlessly like one of it’s own brainless zombies.
The twin stick shooter formula is a pretty hard one to mess up, and thankfully How to Survive takes cues from the many titles that have come before it. It isn’t as tight or demanding as Dead Nation, but adequate, and full of Diablo-style loot gorging. There’s plenty to find and take – maybe too much – and more often than not the things you find are just a component of something bigger and better. Which becomes one of the most interesting, yet at the same time most frustrating parts of the game: its crafting system.
Putting things together to make cooler things is often a rewarding experience, and one that may give you end results that you didn’t expect. This spurs you on, motivates you to pick each of the games islands clean of their wasteland resources in order to create the next really cool surprise. Some of these things are incredibly useful, like flint and iron panels (to enhance things like weapons and armor), but these are horribly scarce in comparison. Instead your inventory gets stuffed to the brim with helmets and wild fruit, all useful in moderation (helmets and armor only useful if you can somehow craft them into something better than what you have equipped) but rarely becoming anything but burdensome after a while. As you progress, you will even find yourself crafting items that almost remove the difficulty of the game completely. Mix that with an oddly small inventory that prohibits collection, and the games best mechanic shoots itself in its own decaying foot.
The story is a meaningless way to send three characters (one of which you select to play as) to a chain of zombie islands, and the plot and missions could almost be ignored for the content entirely. Some of the voice work is passable, but the quest givers are shallow attempts at dressing up the meaningless errand-pushers they really are. The games attempts at humor are often flat, but the quirky-ness of the games tutorials – presented as edutainment based on a survival guide that is a running gag in the game – is a welcome addition. There are other little gems here and there, but nothing impressive enough to overlook the many times it fumbles.
Zombies act like you expect them to, and will prove to be child’s play for anyone who’s played a game about killing zombies before. When nightfall approaches, a more feral form of undead approaches. The game spends a lot of time warning you about them, and when you finally encounter them you can’t help but feel underwhelmed. They should be super dangerous, but with their crippling weakness to light and your flashlight that has unlimited life, you really only need to stare at them to remove their challenge completely. These encounters almost really speaks as a metaphor to this game’s really big drawback: it stops itself from being interesting.
I could run into combat with a stone hatchet I pieced together from things I found, but I don’t have to, because I built a shotgun and the ammo for it drops on 80% of the things I kill. I could stock up on food and water, as there are hunger and thirst systems in place and I need them to survive in this harsh environment, but both are so easy to locate I never have to devote bag space to it. In a game that is attempting so hard to make your stay on these islands a struggle, the only real conflict that’s present is between your will to see how it ends, and the want to put this down and never touch it again.
It’s a shame that How to Survive doesn’t really double down on what makes the idea a cool one. It’s almost too afraid to be brutal, and with this fear cultivates an experience that may bore you to death before you finish it. It’s hard to accept a survival game that doesn’t deliver the core survival game experiences that come with the genre: challenging enemies, scarce resources, interesting plot, etc. Leave this one at the graveyard.