Games What I Like: Neo Scavenger

This weekend I finally got around to picking up Neo Scavenger. I have fiddled around with the demo a little in the past, but never got too far. So, I finally took the plunge and picked up a copy on Steam. Neo Scavenger is a single-player survival game set in the aftermath of some unspoken apocalypse. It features a semi-randomly generated map, a decent crafting system, turn based combat and movement, and a lot of inventory management along the way. I’m currently on my best ever playthrough having survived about two weeks so far (EDIT: I just died at exactly 14 days).

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There are many ways to die in Neo Scavenger. Wounds from combat, a scratch obtained whilst looting a building becoming infected, sickness caused by drinking unsterilized water, starvation, thirst, a roof falling in on you whilst trying to scavenge for plastic bags, hypothermia and so on. It can be a little hard to get started in the game, as it always starts the same way; with you waking up in a cryo facility with a mutant creature trying to reach you through a broken door, with nothing to your name except a hospital gown. If you don’t find some decent clothing very quickly, you are at risk of dying of exposure before your adventure even gets going. However, like a lot of survival games, things do become easier the longer you survive and the more resources you acquire along the way.

Storage is a major gameplay element, and new characters can only carry what they can put in each hand. There are many containers available in the game, but finding them can take a bit of time. I currently sport a children’s backpack, a plastic carrier bag, and whatever I can fit into my pockets. You will frequently face dilemmas about whether to hang onto that multi-tool, just in case it’s useful later, or to pick up some wood which could be used to start a fire, so crucial for sterilizing water and rags for first aid. The game utilises a Tetris style inventory system, with players able to rotate things to maximise the available space for items. I’m personally a fan of games which encourage tough decisions, and I’m finding that Neo Scavenger’s loot system is excellent at it.

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The map is divided into hexes, and symbols indicate when there are items to be picked up or scavenged in each hex. Scavenging produces the best items, but takes time to complete and carries some risks too. There are certain events that can sometimes be triggered during scavenging, such as a roof fall, or the rotten floorboards giving way beneath your feet. These are usually survivable, but due to the games fairly in depth medical systems, can cause problems later. Perhaps a small wound will fester without antibiotics for example. I’m currently playing a character with skills in botany, so I am able to visit areas of the wilderness and scavenge for edible berries or mushrooms. If I had picked trapping instead, I would presumably be able to seek out game whilst scavenging. But, as I mentioned, this all takes time, or in Neo Scavenger, turns.  Everything is turn based in Neo Scavenger. Crafting, looting, scavenging, all take turns to complete. There is also a day and night cycle in the game, and when night falls visibility drops, so you’ll want to try and find a building to hunker down in for the night, preferably with a tent or a sleeping bag if you’re lucky enough to have found one.

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Combat too, takes place in turns. But combat in Neo Scavenger is not a neat and tidy affair. It is desperate, clumsy, and panic inducing. The game provides you with a fair few options during a combat encounter, including the abilities to run or hide from your opponent, which may be wise if they appear better armed than you. However should you decide to fight, then I feel the game does an excellent job of portraying people who aren’t very good at killing trying to kill one another. Perhaps you’ll take a swing at someone with a crowbar and miss, falling to the floor. You try to get up but are hit by your opponent who also falls down. You crawl away, get up and manage to hit them this time. The blow to their stomach causes them to start coughing up blood and choking on it, leaving you to mercilessly beat them to death. It can so easily go the other way though, and because of this combat encounters are usually quite exciting affairs.

I’ve always been a big fan of survival games, and so far Neo Scavenger is looking like one of the best. You can find the game on Steam, or check out the demo available from Blue Bottle Games here.

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Games What I Like: Dark Souls

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Dark Souls is a strange game. A very strange game in fact. Most players when they first begin simply find it difficult, and occasionally frustrating. You die, a lot. However, Dark Souls is a game which requires a slight shift in attitudes, in that death does not really represent a failure state as it does in so many games, but rather it represents an opportunity to tackle the same obstacle again, but this time armed with the knowledge gained from your last attempt.

Once you begin to be at peace with death, Dark Souls becomes an amazing experience. You are the chosen undead (or are you?), freed from a prison where you were fated to spend all eternity, and told only to ring the bells of awakening, and discover the fate of the undead. Dark Souls may seem a little light on story, but this in fact not really the case. What it is light on is exposition. There are NPCs scattered around, but they are few and far between, and not all that they say is to be trusted. The world of Lordran is a mysterious place, and deducing very much about it is left to the inquisitive minds of players, as is puzzling out the lore of this strange land.

First and foremost however Dark Souls is a third person action game, which specialises in brutally hard combat, requiring great skill to overcome the more difficult enemies in the game. Even the run of the mill grunts you encounter early in your adventure can easily kill you very late into the game if you become cocky or overconfident. It is also an RPG, and you level up your character with souls collected from vanquished foes, or occasionally as loot, and these souls are also the games currency, to be spent at merchants and blacksmiths. But, if you die, you drop your souls. Make it back to them again without dying, and they can be reclaimed. Die en route however, and those souls are lost forever.

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Another important mechanic to grasp is humanity. Humanity is a semi-limited resource and a consumable item. When humanity is used and players ‘reverse hollow’ at a bonfire (the checkpoints you return to upon death, and also where you level up) they cease to appear undead, and become human instead. Die, and the humanity is lost, and the players returns to their undead state.

Humanity leads us on to another of Dark Souls’ most interesting features, its online capability. You see, in Dark Souls, other players are always on the periphery of your experience. You sometimes see ghostly figures running through your game, which are in fact other people playing their own game. Touch a bloodspot and watch how another person died, sometimes providing you with vital clues of upcoming surprises or what not to try. Players can also leave messages for others to read. Sometimes these are messages of hope, “praise the sun”, “I did it!”, “hope”. Other times they are clues about what’s coming up ahead or secrets you may have missed “illusory wall ahead” or “boss”, and many others. Other times the messages are more dastardly, pretending there is a secret wall ahead, or to try jumping off a ledge.

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Players can also interact with one another in a much more concrete sense. You may leave a summon sign on the ground outside a boss, then other players will see that sign and can summon you to engage in some jolly co-operation, and maybe finally get past that boss that killed them 50 times, and you may summon other players into your world too. It is also possible to invade the worlds of other players, or to be invaded, for PvP battles. But all of this can only happen when you are in human form, so there is a trade off to be made. Being human allows you to summon help, but you also run the risk of being invaded.

I could wax lyrical about the map alone for hours. Dark Souls has the most incredible level design I’ve ever seen. It is a huge world, and one that initially seems disparate, with little connection. However, as you progress through the game, you realise that all of it is interconnected. Everything links back up through shortcuts, lifts, ladders etc. It has to be played to be experienced, but route planning is one of my favourite parts of the game.

There has been a tendency to represent Dark Souls as an almost Flappy Birds like experience, as if it is difficult just for its own sake. As if it is just designed to be hardcore, and deliberately obtuse. This does the game a great disservice. It is a game about problem solving. Is your heavily armoured knight too slow against certain enemies? Try coming back in full leather rather than plate. Keep getting your halberd stuck in the walls in a certain section? Try it again with a shortsword. Lack of ranged attacks getting you down? Try learning some pyromancy magic. The character creation is free form, and souls can be farmed if need be. You can solve any problem put before you with a little thought and persistence. Sure, the game doesn’t pull any punches, and you will have to puzzle out most of its systems and mechanics, but, that is part of the journey of discovery.

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Maybe its just a Stockholm Syndrome like phenomen, but Dark Souls is a game that really becomes more enjoyable the longer you play. That’s partly because you simply become better at the combat system. It can be a cruel task master, but crucially it always remains fair. However, I like to believe that you simply begin to understand the game better; what the joy in the experience is I suppose. That solving that problem, killing that boss, finally getting through Blightown feels like overcoming the odds, about achievement for its own sake being rewarding enough. It also becomes a lot less linear later, as the ability to warp between bonfires makes tackling things like additional bosses, and non-essential areas more appealing (and trust me there are many).

There is a good 70 hours or more content in this game in your first play through if you try and see everything, and it can usually be picked up fairly cheaply. It is an extremely deep and complex game, with many mysteries to be uncovered, and it improves the longer you stick with it. It is one of my favourite games, and I implore you to give it a try sometime, if the price is right. You never know, you might just fall in love too.

Games What I Like: Cart Life

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In the first of a (potentially) regular series in which I write about games that I enjoy, I’m going to cover a lesser known titled called Cart Life. Cart Life was released in 2011 by Richard Hofmeier, and is ostensibly a retail simulator in which the player picks from one of three street vendors, and attempts to make a living whilst slowly improving their stall. Yet it ends up being so much more than this.

The game is black and white and has a very basic, but not unattractive low-fi  ‘retro’ graphics style. It entirely suits the mood of the game, which shares something with the bleak, authoritarian, and highly lauded Papers Please.  It also has a great sounding ‘retro’ style soundtrack. A limited version of the game was available for free, in which two of it’s three playable characters were available,  and it is this version which I experimented with (although the full version is now open-source and free to download and play).

The first character I played with was called Andrus, an immigrant to the USA, all alone in the world except for his cat Mr Glembovski. Andrus wants to open up a newspaper stand, but first of all he has to pay for a permit to do so. Then, having no place to live, he has to shell out almost all of his remaining funds on a motel room for the week. Andrus is also a smoker, and needs to satisfy his craving at regular intervals or he begins coughing and has difficulty completing simple tasks. Andrus must also keep himself fed throughout the days.

Running the newspaper stand involves a series of repetitive but occasionally stressful mini-games. Putting the newspapers on the shelves for example involves cutting off the cords which bind them together. This is tackled by typing out messages which appear on the screen, and any mistakes result in the scissors slipping and some papers being ruined, eating into your already tiny profit margins. Even serving customers is a mini-game, which involves making sure you get their orders correct, and give the correct change. All of which can be hard work when you know that time is ticking away, and before long the customers dry up for the day.

When not working you navigate your way around the different parts of the city either by walking (free but time consuming), bus (you have to pay, but get there quicker), or by taxi (very expensive but you get there very quickly). You must visit the supermarket to buy food and cigarettes, but you can also go out for meals, or stop by a bar for a beer.

In case it hasn’t become clear already, what Cart Life really is, is a reality simulator. One which celebrates the tiny interactions between people and loved ones that make life worth living, all set against the backdrop of the crushing mundanity of day to day existence. I grew to love Andrus. This simple man who attempts to teach himself English by translating Ukrainian poetry. Who loves his cat, and worries about him incessantly. Who tries to make friends, but stumbles with his poor language skills. It’s beautiful and it’s heartbreaking at the same time.

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This is only Andrus’ story. There are two other characters which bring their own unique situations to the game. There’s the woman who must balance running a coffee stand with bringing up her daughter, trying to find time to take her to school in the morning and home in the afternoon. Who has to attend court hearings and prove to a judge that she can maintain custody of her child, whilst living in her sisters attic. Or the man in the throws of a severe caffeine addiction, desperately trying to claw his way out of a poverty that only wants to suck him down deeper into the depths. Cart Life really is a beautiful and tragic game.

The thing that really struck me as the most poignant metaphor for life though, was the various available options for upgrading your stall. As Andrus, I had grand plans to begin selling coffee and other odds and ends at the newspapers stand. This is possible, but would require buying a coffee machine, and regular trips to the supermarket to pick up cups, sugar, milk, and of course coffee. However one thing becomes clear after a time: you’re only ever going to have enough time and money to just about get by. To live hand to mouth moment to moment, day by day, as so many do in real life, for all their grand ideas and hopeful plans.

Cart Life really isn’t the easiest of games to explain, but I hope I’ve at least gotten across that there’s a lot of human depth to this ‘retail simulator’. It’s available for free now, so you have absolutely no excuses for not giving it a try. Even if you don’t like it, I doubt you’ll have played anything else like it before.