Isn’t the post apocalyptic genre weird? If there was one survival genre that should be stacking the odds against you, howling for your blood, it seems like it should be the grim aftermath of the world ending. Yet the Fallout series, Metro series (okay, more of a FPS than survival) and perhaps even Wasteland 2 allows you to conquer the wasteland relatively easy if you know how to stack the deck. So what happens when you make a survival genre set in a post apocalyptic genre where you’ll probably die simply out of bad luck and at best just be clinging onto life? NEO Scavenger. A formula that’ll either have you pushing coins into your PC’s USB slot desperately to buy, or keeping the doors locked.
NEO Scavenger is a post apocalyptic survival title by Blue Bottle Games. You wake up from a pod to find the world ruined beyond belief. Possessing only a hospital gown, a necklace and a bracelet, it’s time to go out into the hostile wastelands.
Hang on, let me see if WordPress (Brash’s favourite blog editorial program) will let me try something…
…Nope, can’t write “hostile” in huge bold font with underlines under it. Any less than that, even just underlined and in bold, would not emphasis how absolutely misanthropic the world is. People (who may or may not be hostile) roam the land along with twisted abominations (who totally are hostile). If you stumble upon either one, you’ll end up in a turn-based scrap with it. One that makes up for the lack of visualisation (as the only positioning mentioned is distance) with a surprising amount of options. Do you try to charge so you can kick their shins in and risk tripping over your feet? Do you dive for cover? If knocked to the floor, do you get up, crawl or even roll out the way?
Each combat option is important as each fight can kill you. Sometimes not immediately. That nasty hole in your belly made when someone shivved you with a glass shard as you caved their skull in on a rock? Hopefully it stops bleeding. Hopefully it doesn’t get infected. Either can kill you, and infections are especially hard to treat in a land after civilisation, where all the really useful gear like medicine has been mostly picked clean like vultures ripping meat from a fly-swarming carcass.
So often it pays to avoid fights. Especially as there’s no levelling in this cruel world, so the best you can salvage is gear from the fallen. This includes meat, so you better keep a trusty shard of broken glass to bag yourself some human flesh to munch on. However, there is virtue in just staying away, hoping, pleading, no one approaches you ever and that you can keep retreating from fights.
That said, the memento mori mentality that runs thick in NEO Scavenger does not end with the combat, where even a fight with a stray dog can kill you. It follows the typical survivor spirit of scrounging food and water and stuffing it into the very few pockets you have, along with the rare weapon in case you need to fend attackers off. Something you’ll have to scavenge from finite areas with random chance thrown in if you’ll even find anything, let along something of use. You’ll also have to find time to sleep with no one to watch over you, so keep your fingers crossed no one finds you sleeping as they’ll probably just use your slumbering head like a trampoline.
Then there’s possibly getting ill, either from an infection or from contaminated meat, poisonous wild vegetation or any of the many other ways. Oh, and let’s not forget hypothermia. What? You think NEO Scavenger was going to let you get away with exploring the land in just a hospital gown? I hope you find thick enough clothing within the first in-game day, or at best you’ll be slowly losing a battle with the rain. At worst you wouldn’t see the sun rise as your body collapses from being cold.
There are just so many way to die. The attention to detail of all the ways you will either die or be weakened is staggering, especially how it still remains wieldy. These diverse ways to your demise not only instil a realistic “this is the way things would probably go” but also embraces the grim depressing nature of strolling a land after civilisation has fallen. One where you’re not someone destined to help usher in a new age, but instead likely only destined to be someone’s meal.
This is heightened by the roguelike elements. While certain locations will stay in the same place, mostly everything is randomised. So if you’ll find clothes before you freeze, find the food required so you don’t starve or manage to creep around beasties who can backhand you into the grave is just pure chance. Considering how unforgiving NEO Scavenger is even at the best of times, especially with how in-depth its metabolism and wound system is and how both can snowball hideously, if anything slightly goes awry you’ll end up eating dirt due to one reason or the next.
“Yeah, well, what if I get a run of good luck and get all the gear I will ever need within a few scavenging attempts on abandoned houses.” is something you may ask, which in turn another question is raised: Where are you going to put it? Again, NEO Scavenger follows a very strict approach to what can and can not be done. Can you have a bag of loot? Sure, good luck inventory tweaking to fit it as space is VERY limited. Especially as, for whatever strange reason, rotation is not allowed. You’ll also need to carry it somewhere on your body, likely in one of your hands.
Can you just hoard the best loot? Sure, but that will degrade to reflect the world you’re in so you’ll have to replace it eventually, and even then that assumes nothing else will go awry. Meat will rot, items break and enemies can still munch on your jugular as though it is a water fountain even if you possess the best of the best. So even the best luck at the start will not save you from things going sour. The only thing you can hope for is continuous luck in terms of loot.
Fortunately, there is some agency in all this rather than simply reacting to the randomised events on the dilapidated road ahead. When you build your character you pick positive or negative characteristics. These can affect your statistics (e.g. how slow or fast you heal, metabolise food/water or how well/badly you fight), but can also offer information, choices or crafting options (e.g. botany will tell you which fruits are poisonous, lockpicking can open locks and tracking can lead to making fires). Each positive trait costs so many points, which if you need more as you can’t decide between two traits you love dearly you can pick a negative trait that gives you more in exchange for a weakness.
While your character creation does make a significant difference what you can or can not do, I often found the experience so unforgiving and lethal that if the game hungered for my death rattle then all I could do is roll over and hope it doesn’t hurt too much. Building my character to be a juggernaut in combat (with health and melee skills) did not stop my impending doom usually. That said, I once took a weakness to be frail, and managed to be thumped so hard that I had a heart-attack in one strike by a monster, so I may be completely off.
In addition to this agency, there are also smaller choice moments in moment-by-moment gameplay. Do you quietly scavenge for loot, decreasing the chance of getting anything in exchange of not exciting the local wildlife, or do you just go loud because you really need clothes? Do you use your botany skill to scare off a monster, mechanic skill to lock the door or maybe even your melee skill to fight it off? While luck is a significant force in NEO Scavenger, you always feel like your doom partially came due to a decision you made. This avoids that undeserved cheap death feeling some games can end up providing as it confuses brutality with fatalistic, with NEO Scavenger more interested in stacking the odds against you.
It isn’t to say the entire game is centred purely on seeing how long you can live for, as I admit this review may seem that’s all it is. There is a plot going on in the background, finding out not only who you are but also what happened before the world went wrong. There are also NPCs you can visit randomly dotted about, feeding you more details of how the world is. Just, well, I admit I can’t comment on the full quality because NEO Scavenger keeps finding new ways to give me an agonising death during the early game. Only once I managed to get to Detroit’s gate, and even then an unlucky sleeping time left my character having their ribcage broken open like a chocolate Easter egg and the insides used as a delectable dish for a beastie. Considering every time you die the save is deleted, well, I didn’t get deep enough to discover the quality properly. It did look pretty unusual, feeding subtle hints of the society that now exists, but it is based on a small amount of experience of the narrative.
There’s just one more thing to talk about before we conclude: Aesthetics. Personally, the pixel approach is fine for me really. It is clear whats what, diverse enough to always look interesting and able to convey the grim atmosphere of a setting that hates every moment you live. That said, I do understand if others are turned off by the approach.
The final score of NEO Scavenger is a 6/10. Sadly, this is one of those times when scores are tricky to wield. It isn’t to say the 6 is a reflection of its quality, but rather a reflection of how polarising it is. It is cruel, it is unfair and you will die aplenty. That said, it submerges itself in realism of its setting and it embraces the cruelty a post-apocalyptic world would bring. While this will shove those of faint heart away, those of a masochistic bent will want to hold it in their arms so NEO Scavenger can all the more better disembowel your unprotected stomach with a sharpened stick. If the harshness of a wasteland pleases you, then it is an easy buy. However, if you don’t like dying over and over in an uncaring, unfeeling and apathetic decaying world, NEO Scavenger will leave you yearning for post-apocalyptic power-fantasies like the more recent Fallout games.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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