GAME REVIEW: NEO Scavenger

‘Shoes!’ I realise that I’ve said it aloud and that my voice has all kinds of joy wrapped in its usually dulcet tones. Remembering I am alone and that my image is preserved, I look back at the screen and ponder that I must be playing one heck of a game if it can make something as simple as shoes so exciting.

I’m playing the beta version of Blue Bottle GamesNEO Scavenger, a post-apocalyptic survival game that sees your character awaken in an abandoned facility with no food, no water and no idea of who you are or what has happened. Your task is to stay alive long enough to find out. That is no easy feat.

When you start a new game, you can choose various character skills to tailor the game to your own taste or to give yourself more of a challenge. These include things like Lock-picking, Metabolism and Hacking. You can also add human traits into the mix. These actually hinder you and include traits such as Myopia and Feeble. The first hinders your character’s vision on the map, the latter means you can’t carry much and are less capable in fights. There is also a handy randomise button too, which rolls the dice and gives you a character make-up that you may never have chosen yourself.

NEO Scavenger Screen 2

The game itself is a hex-based turn-based affair with the player character given a certain amount of moves to do things with per turn. These are many and varied, from moving around the world to scavenging, hiding and covering your tracks. The game does explain these things pretty well when you first encounter them and also what the icons on the map mean. There is also combat and the ever looming threat of death by exposure, thirst and malnutrition. The harshness is increased by the game’s use of a permadeath state. If the character dies, that’s it! Start again buddy!

I am most impressed with the attention to detail and the effort put in to model things in a realistic way. Gone is the type of inventory in which you can store hundreds of items. In NEO Scavenger, you will be lucky to find a plastic carrier bag which can only hold a few items. You might find an empty whisky bottle but take five turns before you find some water to fill it with. You will find all sorts of items in the world, from stones to gummy bears and screws. These are all great fodder for the game’s crafting system, which you can use to turn useless stuff into essential stuff.

Graphically, the game has a lo-fi retro look about it. It does do a good job of making the game world feel bleak and cold though. The sound and music is of a similar type, ambient and small swellings of soundtrack accompanying the actions of the player.

NEO Scavenger Screen 9

The game is still undergoing constant updates and refinements, meaning things can change from one update to the next. Blue Bottle Studios was set up by Daniel Fedor, formerly of Bioware, a self-confessed RPG nerd who also loves the science fiction, post-apocalyptic and fantasy genres. The developer regularly posts some very well written explanatory posts to the development blog, explaining what has been done or will be attempted and giving some great insight into the thought processes involved. As an example, the user interface is functional and a little clunky, but it doesn’t take too long to suss out. The U.I has recently been given more tweaks and design alterations, so it is good to see the process unfolding. The rough edges aside, this is a fun, but grim game.

I could go in to more depth about the ways the game simulates the harsh world: realistic wounds and metabolic rate, desperate combat moves, hunting/trapping animals and the semi-random nature of the world each time a new game is started, but I won’t. The game is one of my favourite kinds. It is a game that will generate stories for you to tell your friends or reflect on later. My very first character was almost doomed from the start. Every piece of loot was a pebble or a shard of glass. My character was roaming the world in just a thin hospital gown with no other items of clothing. Hypothermia set in, I was attacked by a man with a club and wounded, I found no water but got drunk on whisky. I finally died of exposure, still almost naked. The game informed me my character had survived for just over seven hours!

NEO Scavenger Screen 3

My next attempt was more successful. I managed to avoid combat. I found a plastic bag to carry stuff in (without it, you are limited to just your hands unless you find clothing with pockets). I also found water, successfully scavenged for food and joy of joys, found three shoes (thankfully two were a pair), some jeans and a t-shirt! This was the event that triggered the ‘Shoes!’ exclamation to burst from my usually tight lips. I felt more satisfaction finding a pair of shoes than finding some stonking great sword in another RPG! It was at this point that I realised I had bought into the game and was gripped by it. I’ve long been a fan of survival and zombie horror, and though different, felt that I could very well have been playing a Walking Dead simulator. This made me very happy. Humans are not the only threat in NEO Scavenger.

You will know by reading this review if this is your kind of game. If you can picture what life might be like trying to survive after the apocalypse, the freedom, the pain and the depressing weather. If that makes your heart soar at the possibilities, then buy this game! It might seem complex and you will die many times, but as you learn the lessons that the world teaches you and become part of it rather than fighting it, you will find a great sense of grim joy with each and every moment your character lasts.

NEO Scavenger Screen14

The game is available from Steam in it’s early access section, Desura, and the developer’s website (which has various backing options too). It is available for PC, Mac and Linux.

Rating: 4/5

Reviewer: Casey Douglass

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