The Bestest Best Combat Of 2014: NEO Scavenger

A lot of games contain an onslaught of right hooks, high kicks and hot lead, but few manage to make each individual encounter with violence meaningful, tense, exciting, important. NEO Scavenger manages to do all of the above through a turn-based RPG with permadeath, and it has offered more memorable fights than any other game this year.

Graham: I could happily give every one of this year’s awards to NEO Scavenger.

It’s one of the best RPGs I’ve played in 2014, owing to an inventive skill system and the wealth of meaningful decisions packed into every playthrough. It’s one of the best written games I’ve played this year, revealing itself over hours to not just be a systemic, permadeath survival game, but to also take place in a fascinating, Fallout-style world of cults and cannibals, quests and questions. I’m not sure how I’d justify giving it Best Collectible Card Game, but I’d find a way.

If I had to pick just one award, Best Combat is perfect. Its brawls aren’t smoothly animated like in Middle-earth – they’re not animated at all, described only via text. They’re not designed to make you feel skilled and powerful, like in Revengeance. Instead, NEO Scavenger’s fights are what would happen if the staff of RPS got drunk, took off their shoes, and decided to fight to death in a muddy field.

They’re one of the only game fights I can think of that are grim, messy, clumsy, desperate – and as a mechanic, combat in NEO Scavenger is a nexus point for every other idea the game is trying to express.

You start every game by waking up in a cryo-facility wearing only a hospital gown, the survivor of some unknown apocalypse. You wander out into the world to find out where you are, who you are, what’s gone wrong, but also in search of some trousers, comfortable shoes and a plastic bag to carry food in. This is the Scavenger part of the title. You’ll find materials in fields, in mobile homes, in collapsing office buildings, in dust-filled storage lockers, and in the pockets, bags and on the feet of other Scavengers wandering around the mostly barren landscape.

Those Scavengers will sometimes come for you and sometimes you’ll go for them. If you meet, you’ll enter a combat screen telling you what you know about your opponent – can you see them, are they hurt, what are they wearing, how far away are they. The actions you can perform during each increment of time are context-sensitive. If you can’t see them at night, all you can do is search for them or swing blindly in the dark. If you’ve taken the Strong and Melee skills at the start, maybe you’ll get an extra attack move allowing you to headbutt your opponent.

In most instances, your moves will be the same: punch, tackle, kick while on the ground. The roll of a dice will determine whether you hit, whether you trip and fall over, whether the rifle your opponent is carrying has any bullets or whether it’ll only be used as a club to beat you with.

Very, very occasionally, with enough hiding, sneaking and luck – and a heavy weapon in your hand like a wrench – you’ll end a fight in a turn or two. The rest of the time it’s a slog. They’ll swing and swing with a tree branch they found. You’ll punch and kick with your naked fists. You’ll hit their head and crack their ribs. They’ll pummel your arm and you’ll drop your plastic bag full of pebbles and novelty tshirts. They’ll bleed internally and try to crawl away. You’ll finish the job, you need their shoes.

Even if you win, it’s unlikely you’ll come away unscathed. Maybe you’ll be able to nurse your wounds with another stolen tshirt, a bottle of water, some painkillers. Or maybe some small scratch will become infected and you’ll die screaming three days later from fever. NEO Scavenger puts you on a knife edge between life and death, and small things can tip you over that edge so easily. Simply being exhausted after a fight will make you vulnerable.

NEO Scavenger has the Best Combat in 2014, then, because it makes you want to avoid its combat. Better to not fight and run away, and live to find trousers another day.

Adam:

NEO Scavenger can make you feel like predator or prey, depending on the circumstances. And circumstances can change in a moment.

In this case, as in life, being a predator isn’t a case of stalking, hunting and getting a target in your sights. To survive for any length of time, a predator needs to pick prey carefully because retaliation can be fatal. It’s all well and good to take down a wildebeest but even the slightest graze received during the struggle and the kill can lead to infection, weariness, weakness, exhaustion, the inability to hunt the next time hunger scrapes at the innards. Starvation, death.

As a hunter, your task is not simply to kill, it is to kill while remaining intact. Self-preservation is a case of putting food in your belly today and retaining the ability to put food in your belly again tomorrow. NEO Scavenger is one of the few games that treats the hunt and the kill as potentially irreparable disasters. It’s never enough to stalk and corner your quarry because as they lash out in self-defence, they have the capacity to end your life – not then, in the moment, but the next day or the day after, when a wound starts to fester or the need to rest leaves you sleeping on sodden grass, soaked to the bones and surrounded by snarls in the darkness.

The hunter must determine whether the reward matches the risk and, in NEO Scavenger’s blighted world, that’s rarely the case. It’s bad enough having to break someone’s bones to earn your daily bread, but when all they’re carrying is a handful of pebbles and twigs, it’s enough to make you deflate so rapidly that you give up the ghost by accident. A punctured balloon wheeling into an empty sky.

As prey, your task is to survive. In some ways, it’s an easiest task than the hunter’s struggle. Punch, kick and stab with that shard of broken glass and your assailant is likely to think twice about the wisdom of attacking you. You’re not necessarily aiming to kill, just to make a statement – “You can strip the meat from my bones but you’ll be walking with a limp for the last miserable days of your life.”

Survival is a struggle, and whichever side of the struggle you find yourself on from one hour to the next, NEO Scavenger will make you dread the consequence of your actions. How often does a game make you want to back down from combat, holding your hands up and demonstrating that you mean no harm, hoping with all that your heart can summon that the stranger at the other side of the street will agree to do the same? How often does combat feel like a last resort rather than the primary solution?

The mechanics of the combat occasionally fail to match the vision, but since such a large part of that vision is clumsy desperation, imperfections easily fit the fiction.

As Graham says, NEO Scavenger is the top contender for many of our named categories but the combat is almost entirely unique and its beats are the pulsing heart of this particular shade of dark.

Want to read more about NEO Scavenger? Try Adam’s diary or Graham’s obituaries.

Back to the complete bestest best PC games of 2014.

45 Comments

  1. Shardz says:

    Wow, this was a surprise! I bought into this game for $1 when it first came out and have watched it grow into epic proportions in size and depth over the years. The game has quite a bit to offer, as well as quite a bit your character can suffer through the course of the game. Some of the grizzly types of deaths one will endure are almost comical in nature if you are a fan of dark humor. I look forward to seeing this game grow even larger as it appears to be the labor of love of a single developer. Congratulations!

  2. Monggerel says:

    Nah, it’s actually Revengeance. Your opinions are false.

  3. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    I tried out the demo about 18 months ago or so and thought it was interesting. How has it grown since then – worth checking out then?

    • Lagran says:

      Most definitely. There’s been a major overhaul to the starting stats — now it’s points-based and the better ones take more points. The full story with an end-game should be all in place, and there’s been many more options for loot and enemy encounters added in. It’s currently on version 0.9952 (main)/0.9960b (beta branch) so it’s exceptionally close to a 1.0 release.

      • pund says:

        Heh, I just bought it. You pulled me over. I’d been postponing this purchase for far too long anyway :)

  4. Premium User Badge

    Aerothorn says:

    And to think, you guys didn’t even do a Wot I Think!

  5. Zafman says:

    Combat doesn’t get grittier than this. Who needs fancy graphics and animation when the mind is quite capable to process the given information. Imagination is a powerful tool after all. Will you “kick them while they’re down”? Of course you would, if you have the opportunity and it gives you an advantage and secures your survival. Honour has no place here! If you’re wondering why sometimes combat seems to be over quicker than usual, consider what weapon you were using at the time. Yes, and now imagine the injury your meat-cleaver would have caused to someone’s lower abdomen. Even slashing around in the dark can lead to unexpected results.

    • Gesadt says:

      actually it does get grittier than this – dwarf fortress adventure mode.

      • Silent_Thunder says:

        Last time I played DFventure, I battled a necromancer, got my arm hacked off, and then was strangled to death with my own reanimated arm…

        good times.

      • Zafman says:

        Ah, I forgot about that one. Good point.

  6. SlimShanks says:

    Here’s an interesting thought. We hear of a game about incredible suffering, the destruction of the ethics we live by, and ultimately, miserable death. We go, hey that looks really fun.
    Now think of a “survival” game set where you live, in the present day. In a normal life like yours. Survival means going to work and then to the store for groceries.
    But the thought of playing such a game is genuinely horrifying.
    Games are interesting like that. Anything but boredom, I guess?

  7. sinister agent says:

    Wait, you guys wear shoes? Well la de dah.

  8. jonahcutter says:

    Though I’ve bounced off NEOscavenger several times (it’s too abstracted for my tastes at the moment), the combat does manage just what you say.

    “They’re one of the only game fights I can think of that are grim, messy, clumsy, desperate…”

    Excellent description. I only wish I was more in the mood for the text-based gameplay, because I think it’s likely one of the top two or three survival and combat games. Just such rich detail in everything. The strength of text, I suppose.

    Also if you’re looking for an animated, 3d game with combat that can summon up “grim, messy, clumsy desperate” pretty damn well, look into Sui Generis. Its combat is physics and player-skill-based. Each fight feels like it’s balanced on a knife edge between graceful dance and desperate brawl.

    • seamoss says:

      “They’re one of the only […]”

      Dear God do I hate that abomination of a phrase…

      • TokyoSuisei says:

        this should help
        link to motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com

        • Luke says:

          Except in this case:

          “They are one of the only” – they plural, one singular.
          This is a mistake. There is nothing wrong with the phrase one of the only.
          But to pluralise it, it should become “They’re some of the only game fights I can think of that are grim, messy, clumsy, desperate…”.

          Edit:
          Or possibly “They are one of the only game’s fights which I can think of …” with the possessive to make it clearer that it is the game that is singular and not the fights? Although I’m not really sure that works either. It’s clumsy. Attempting to use the singular I would go with “It is one of the only games, whose fights I can think of that are…”

          • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

            It’s perfectly correct (and cromulent). These fights, collectively, are one item in the list of video game fights that etc.

    • Fanbuoy says:

      Sui Generis is still quite a ways off though, right? I backed it, mainly because I was impressed by the technology, but haven’t really kept track of it much.

      • jonahcutter says:

        There’s a combat demo out for beta backers. It has you square off against increasingly difficult opponents. If you take to the combat system, it offers quite a bit of replayability.

        There’s a more extended dungeon crawl “prelude” out for alpha backers.

  9. sheldonbartleby says:

    Love this game, though constant save-game freezes on “hexes loading”, especially after leaving Saginaw. Doesn’t seem like much support for this on the forum. Am I alone?

  10. Barberetti says:

    The only game that allows you to carry a sleeping man in your inventory. Awesome.

    • Raoul Duke says:

      You could carry dead or unconscious team mates in XCOM way back in 1851 (1991?).

  11. daphne says:

    This and Dragon Age: Inquisition are my two GOTYs this year. To think that I hadn’t played either of them two weeks ago…

    I was expecting this to show up for Best Survival, though. I have not played a game that represents survival better than this. It makes the Fallout universe look like some happy-go-lucky joke (compare, say, the inventory space provided to the player in both games). All of its narrative and systems are subjugated to the survival theme, and the combat, as you describe here, is just one of those systems.

  12. trjp says:

    So I tried the demo, purely on the basis of this piece, and – erm…

    OK – I can see the appeal, except that I was pursued constantly by enemies who seemed reluctant to attack but also reluctant to let me get away from them…

    Which isn’t how I imagine the apocalypse to be – really…

    • Aninhumer says:

      It makes perfect sense. Attacking you would be dangerous, so they’re tailing you, waiting for you to fall asleep or mess up or something.

      • Martel says:

        Yeah, I would say that’s actually more real than instant attack or completely running away. Scavenging at its best.

      • trjp says:

        Except that I’m usually unable to move – often unarmed – sometimes undressed – are they waiting for me just to kill myself and save them the effort

        It’s not really very obvious WTF the game has in mind at that point – we’ve been playing for minutes and I’m engaged in some of ‘press buttons randomly with minimal effect’ game!?!?

        • HothMonster says:

          I’d recommend reading the manual. It can be hard to figure out how everything works through trial and error.

  13. Lionmaruu says:

    this game was my game of the year last year and probably the year before, and this year it even grew bigger in scope. hope it sells very well so the creator can maybe dedicate himself to make a even bigger, better game!

  14. geldonyetich says:

    You guys rave about Neo Scavenger alot… and, as I’ve played it, good on you: Neo Scavenger is worth raving about, it deserves “best combat” in my book, and probably a few other “bests” as well. But, in terms of “depth in a survival post-apocolyptic game,” there’s four little words I’d like you to Google: “Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead.” (And no, I’m not involved in that project, so this isn’t self-promotion.)

    • ender1200 says:

      My thoughts exactly. I haven’t played Nescavenger yet (I should remedy this) but reading this article made me wander if RPS staff aren’t talking about C:DDA by accident.

    • Phendron says:

      Ugh, CDDA sounds amazing but the interface is even clunkier than dwarf fortress for me.

  15. malkav11 says:

    Is it done, or at least close enough that you’re not likely to hit the bits that aren’t yet because you’ll have died horribly before you do? That’s the main reason I’ve been holding off despite having picked it up in a bundle I bought specifically for Neo Scavenger. This sort of game is certainly much more playable during the development cycle than many others, but I’d ultimately rather spend my time playing games that are finished.

    • Premium User Badge

      Graham Smith says:

      It’s meant to be finished before the end of the year, so you might as well wait at this point. I’ve never hit any unfinished content or dead-ends, but stuff is still being re-balanced or tweaked. The way diseases work was changed just a couple days ago, for example.

  16. SeditiousSolipsist says:

    Kick! Punch! It’s all in the mind.
    If you wanna test me, I’m sure you’ll find.
    The things I’ll teach ya is sure to beat ya.
    But nevertheless you’ll get a lesson from the teacher.

    • Geebs says:

      Grab a fellow’s bowler ’till you split the crown
      Cut a chap’s braces, let his trousers fall down,
      Like Iron Mike, I pity the fools
      Who’ll only fight by Queensberry rules

    • geldonyetich says:

      I see I’m not the only one who spotted the PaRappa reference in the flavor text.