I fed a reality TV show star to a dogman yesterday. Which, I suppose, is a little messed up but someone needed to pay for Paris Hilton's god-awful The Simple Life. Plus, I really, really didn't want to be wolfed down by some passing mutt just seconds after consciousness. It was only much later, as I shivered in the embrace of a shadow-dappled glade, that I'd regret my decision. Had I the right composition of skills, I could have totally gutted the dogman, stripped him of his hide and built a reservoir of accessible protein.
Sigh. Hindsight is always 20/20. I died of thirst in the next hex.
NEO Scavenger is a single-player, turn-based survival RPG that isn't so much mean as it is simply .. callous. There is nothing actively malicious about the setting, no endless waves of enemies to strive against or any real scarcity in resources. If you're lucky or very sly, you can go for days without tangling with another resident of this dystopian Michigan. But hell isn't necessarily other people and sometimes, it's good to greet and make meat of new bodies -- especially if they have shoes.
It's almost frightening as to how quickly NEO Scavenger conditions you to adopt the world's sociopathic pragmatism. You'd think that no sapient life is worth a pair of blue jeans but the ever-looming threat of hypothermia makes it surprisingly easy to bludgeon a screaming, half-dead looter to death for his Levis. Fights in NEO Scavenger are seldom heroic stand-offs. More often than not, they're desperate and clumsy, laced with awkward falls and missed blows. Even the process is slightly clunky; battles are conducted via a menu interface where you can choose to do everything demand surrender to tackling someone to the ground. The results of those actions are telegraphed with minimal text, leaving your imagination to draw up the scenario. Both you and your opponent break down in stages. Wounds build. Cuts can transition into ragged, seeping wounds which must later be attended to in order to circumvent shock or infection. In NEO Scavenger, it's entirely possible to die choking on your own blood.
What's interesting about NEO Scavenger is just how much of it is presented in efficiently delivered prose. The post-apocalyptic simulation, which practices permadeath like any good survival game, neither wallows in florid, indulgent descriptions of puddled entrails nor does it skimp on required detail. Animation is thriftily utilized, graphics normally restricted into a single, scene-setting picture or barebone imagery on the world map. NEO Scavenger's audiovisual presentation is utilitarian, at best. But that's okay because this post-apocalyptic survival simulation isn't about looks, it's about complex systems and difficult choices.
From the moment you're first released from cryogenic sleep and into the world, dressed in nothing but a hospital gown and your bewilderment, you're confronted with decisions. What do you do when the dogman comes for you? From there, you move to determining the optimal method for scavenging for food. Is it worth taking time to hide your tracks? Should you keep to abandoned infrastructure or make the most of the wilderness? Will consuming that hunk of raw flesh kill you from infection or save you from starvation? Where do you make sleep? When do you sleep? There are layers upon layers of complexities in the game, many of which are drawn from real life. Whiskey will numb pain but decrease hydration. Self-administered first aid requires clean bandages, not dirty rags. Camp fires actually demand effort. NEO Scavenger even features sensible pockets, which is both frustrating and gratifying - who knew you could miss those stupid, wonderful, magical, 24-slot inventories which can fit entire dragons and oversized sleeping bags?
And it keeps getting better .. or worse, depending on your appetite for such things. Though sometimes described as a role-playing game, NEO Scavenger lacks traditional character progression. There are no levels to gain, no attribute points to judiciously split between waiting receptacles, no new perks to unlock. Right at the start, you're given a single opportunity to select up to four pivotal skills for your avatar. It's possible to load up on more, of course, but only if you're willing to be, say, myopic insomniac in exchange for unrivalled prowess in the electro-mechanical world. Your call. Just bear in mind that these skills are central to your survival. Being a gifted botanist is great when you're alone in the wilderness and desperately need to know if those mushrooms won't kill me. Not so great when a pack of wild dogmen, who rarely ever are vegetarian and as such cannot be bribed with poisonous blueberries, is closing in.
Somewhere, crowded behind the daily imperative to survive just one more night, there's a narrative. If you survive the first night, you're informed of a distant glow, a light which may represent security and warmth and shelter from the elements -- a delicious prospect, given the alternative is hanging around the sticks with nothing but marauding looters for company. Occasionally, you'll find newspaper clippings as well, telling of some apocalyptic event or another, hinting of what transpired while you laid in gaseous suspension. Not that you actually need to proceed forward. It's entirely possible to settle in and pretend you're a post-Fallout (Boy) Tarzan.
NEO Scavenger has a ridiculously generous demo over here which you should check out if you want to spend a few hours being killed. The game, which is currently in Steam Early Access, can be purchased for $9.99