Review: How to Survive

Not Recommended: There's some fun to be had in How to Survive and the titular guide has a lot of character in its appearances in the game, but if you were looking for the zombie survival type of game that the title promises, then you are going to be disappointed, and the game has a lot of jankiness that comes with a poor console port and some equally-poor design decisions.  There's just not enough to this game and too much frustration at points to recommend.

Review: How to Survive
Date published: May 30, 2014
2 / 3 stars

How to Survive is a pseudo-isometric action RPG published by 505 Games.  It has the typical premise of many recent zombie games: you are one of three survivors who end up marooned on a desert island after a non-specific disaster and have to survive the zombies that infest the island.  While the premise of the game and its design promise a sort of tense and realistic survival experience, what the game actually offers is a hack-and-slash game in the vein of Diablo or Titan Quest, centered around a tongue-in-cheek comedy tone that varies from cringe-worthy to humorous.

You may have noticed the blurriness of the screenshot used in the boxout - that's just as blurry in game, more so in fact since its scaled up.  The art assets for the guide segments haven't been resampled or anything for the PC version, so I hope you enjoy a game with blurry image compression.  It's a shame really, since those are definitely a part of the game I actually enjoyed and found kind of funny.

Many of the design decisions are indicative of
a poor console port

A lot of the problems I do have with How to Survive seem to be a result of design choices made for the console version, but some of these choices don't seem smart even for a console game.  For example, to continue your previous game, you have to counter-intuitively go to the same way you create a new game, select your character as if you are starting a new game, and then and only then, you can load the previous game.  Why there isn't an option to continue the last played game is beyond me.  Some might say it's a console thing, but that doesn't seem right, plenty of console games have no problem with getting you into the game much quicker.  Moreover, can anyone else remember the time when playing on a console was just plug in a cartridge and go?  I sure do.

The UI in general is a lot clunkier than it needs to be, requiring you to click through a lot more than is necessary.  And there's not much work put into the PC port in terms of actual PC options.  Graphics options are literally non-existent, the controller bindings can't be rebound, and controllers other than the XBox 360 controller (such as a Retrolink) suffer greatly for not being able to be rebound when they don't seem to have trouble in general.  The framerate seems limited at 30 FPS which isn't as big a problem for a pseudo-isometric game, but it feels jittery sometimes as a result of the limiter.

Console design choices aren't limited to simply UI problems however: the ranged combat features an auto-aim system that considers an enemy at fifty paces just as important as the zombie munching on your jugular.  In the moments where the game remembers it has to challenge the player and throws a horde at the player, there were more than a few times that I died not out of not having supplies, being out-maneuvered, or such, but simply because the game decided that I was going to be shooting at enemies at the back of the pack rather than the one that was about ready to eat me.

Melee combat is well-executed but fairly bland and generic,
while ranged combat suffers from a poor auto-aim system

Fighting is what you'll be doing the most of in the game, and the fact that it is as average and generic at best as it is, is what mostly contributes to the feeling of mediocrity that the game gives.  The melee combat is very familiar to players of any hack-and-slash RPG, clicking away at enemies, but without much variety to it.  It features basic attacks and finishers and that's about it, there isn't any real variety of skills to be had to make a samey combat mechanics seem varied or interesting.  It's functional, but it isn't stellar, and the range combat becomes a huge problem in larger groups because of the auto-aim mentioned above.

Difficulty in the game really is non-existant or controller-tossing, there isn't any middle ground.  Every time you get to a supposedly-safe house they'll clown car fifty billion zombies into your face and you'll be expected to get past.  Fail?  Back to checkpoint.  Again and again and again.  It's not insurmountable, but with how you can't disengage to heal effectively - or heal mid-combat, it's no surprise that this is where pretty much 99% of the game's deaths are.  Since just getting hit by even the mildest attacks knocks you back, any number greater than two or three zombies will kill you no matter how unthreatening they are.  It might be in keeping with the zombie genre I suppose, but you can't combine a spectacle-fighter ish combat system with instant death without giving much better dodge and maneuvering options than there are present.  The amount of times I got pissed off at the game as a result of that was too damn high.

There's a few neat Steam and PC-centric touches such as Steam achievements, trading cards, and seeing where online players died with tombstone markers, but they seem like easy afterthought PC bits which don't detract from the fact that the game is a fairly poor port.  A stable port, mind, from what I've seen, but the jankiness of that console port really carries through every aspect of the game.

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The Final Word: Not Recommended - How To Survive is a game that is carried by the comedic tone of its weird Dead Rising sort of take on subverted zombie survival.  It doesn't offer too much in way of challenge or new ideas, but if you can get into the humour, its a middling game with some decent fun to be had.  If you were looking for a gritty survival game, though, this certainly is not the game for you.  With combat that's bland and uninspired at best when that's what you're doing for most of the game, there just isn't enough here to recommend.