By Adam Smith on January 17th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.
It seems like only a few days since the last write-up of an RPG created by former Bioware developers. Neo Scavenger is actually the work of a single man, Dan Fedor, and it’s a less lavish production than The Banner Saga. This is a brutal game about survival in a harsh world. It’s also one of the best single player turn-based RPGs I’ve played for a long time.
Neo Scavenger has a large and generous demo. I’ll be hugely offended if you decide to go and play with that instead of reading all of these words but I’ll be sure to remind you of its existence at the end.
Unlike a reality television star, I mostly die from exposure rather than a lack of it*. Every playthrough of Neo Scavenger begins the same way – you awake, confused and afraid, in a small room within a medical facility. There’s a monster clawing at the other side of the door. Far from being a metaphorical depiction of terminal illness or the deadly price of health insurance, the monster is a bipedal canine. The claws that it is using to claw at the door also fail to be metaphors. Neo Scavenger has only just begun and already, something wants to eat you.
Your tissue-thin garment won’t protect you. It doesn’t even protect your dignity, being one of those bum-revealing tissue-thin gowns that cause me to childishly giggle at even the bleakest hospital-set dramas or apocalyptic horror-shows. Neo Scavenger explains the dire situation with a couple of paragraphs of text and a couple of images, and then it leaves you to make the first choice of many.
How will you survive?
That question is never far away and because the game is fastidiously turn-based, there’s plenty of time to ponder your answer in any given situation. Will you attempt to flee from the mutant with the soft, swollen cranium, or will you try to burst its bonce by lobbing a rock? Is scrounging for supplies in the ruins of a multi-storey office building a worthwhile risk or would it be better to head into the wilderness? Will eating the unidentified blue berry turn on your rear-tap until you don’t have any blood left?
It’s a cruel world but, as the first encounter elegantly demonstrates, your character isn’t entirely useless. To escape from the dog-man, you’ll use one of the skills chosen when creating your character. A hacker might reroute a security code to lock the door, for example. Skills can be used during specific encounters but they also boost abilities, such as combat, identification and scouting. Extra slots can be created by selecting detrimental traits as counterweight and if you’re a masochist of the first water, you could design a character with no positive attributes at all. A short-sighted insomniac with a metabolism that burns away the energy gained from a meal before he’s managed to swallow the last mouthful.
There’s no need for that though. Neo Scavenger’s world inflicts enough pain and suffering to please even the most zealous follower of Loricatus. Monsters aside, that hospital gown is your real enemy. If you don’t find clothes by sunset on the first day, you’ll probably freeze to death. If it rains and you don’t find (or make) shelter, you’ll probably freeze to death. As I remind myself before leaving the house every day, it’s time to find some trousers.
Wandering around on the world map, you’ll come across settlements but it looks like civilisation went on a massive drinking binge and fell over while you were sleeping. Everything’s in bits. The map is semi-randomised, with certain story-specific locations always located in certain regions and (I think) a degree of balance in the layout. I’ve never floundered about for too long before finding water, woods and a few buildings.
Scavenging takes time and carries a degree of risk. It’s noisy and might attract hunters, and buildings are hazardous. I’ve had characters cut themselves on a shard of glass while looting an abandoned house and never recover. Like gazelles in a herd, people in the world of Neo Scavenger must avoid any display of weakness because predators will identify the weak, pounce and feed on their remains.
Even though combat is turn- and text-based, the approach of an angry bare-foot bandit wielding a broken whiskey bottle is quite terrifying. Even more terrifying is the realisation that you are quite excited about the prospect of beating his brains out with a rock because he is wearing a hoodie and you would very much like to be the one wearing the hoodie. I killed a blind man because I wanted one of his shoes. He tried to run away when he heard me approaching but I dived at his legs and we rolled around on the floor, punching and kicking, until he choked on his own blood.
I only had a boot for my left foot, you see, and the other was bare. Turned out his shoe was for a left foot as well so it pinched a little on the right, but I was happy to keep it. And besides – I didn’t get a receipt.
That all makes Neo Scavenger sound a bit like an offline, turn-based DayZ. An Isolated Bastard Simulator that condones or congratulates terrible behaviour, but it has more in common with Fallout, Unreal World and Robinson’s Requiem.
Ending someone’s life in order to take their clothes might seem like a horrible thing to do, but while Neo Scavenger is brutal, killing isn’t cold and calculated. It’s desperate and frantic. Fights are clumsy and messy, characters falling as they try to flee, or pleading for mercy and offering to give up their possessions as a lucky blow breaks their arm. If you’re lucky enough to find a gun, many would-be assailants will back down if you raise it and threaten them.
I’m not much of a marksman myself. I once found a gun and would have happily traded it for a carrier bag. That’s the kind of odd situation that Neo Scavenger’s grim realism invites. Inventory management often involves cramming berries into pockets, water bottles into plastic bags and hoping to find a spare wheel for a broken shopping trolley so that you can reattach it using some twine and become the king of the road.
My main criticism is a lack of variety, in terms of the items that I find and the enemies that I encounter. That’s after more than ten hours of play though, which ain’t bad for a game in Early Access. The good news is that there’s more to come, in terms of creatures, items, crafting and story events. This chart gives a good oversight of the additions that are on the way and before you shriek at the idea of votes driving development, do read the disclaimer at the foot of the page.
I’ve avoided talking about the story, partly because I don’t want to spoil any surprises and also because I haven’t explored a great deal of the late(r)-game content yet. There’s a large shift following the first significant discovery, which the game hints at when the player survives a single night. However, as with all my favourite RPGs, simply exploring, surviving and experiencing the odd rhythms of the setting is a legitimate option. Indeed, my one major concern is that Neo Scavenger may become less interesting when the player discovers even a modicum of safety and shelter.
That would be a shame but it’s also kind of irrelevant. If Neo Scavenger were never updated again, I’d still revisit every once in a while. Where else can I feel the guilt of stripping the trousers from a dead man and then the delight of finding a cigarette lighter and a few twigs in the pockets? It’s a world of many mucky wonders.
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack sleds on fire off the side of the road. I watched glass shards glitter in the dark near the barricaded gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like – hang on. Can I drink rain? Or tears? Time to thrive.
*with thanks to Nick Cave