NEO Scavenger (Beta), Blue Bottle Games (P)review
By Tom Hooper aka Atomp
Allow me to begin this with a caveat; this game is still in development and therefore should be viewed as such, the game however is very playable, updated regularly and development purchasing is available and will be explored in more depth later. As ever, beta is beta.
NEO Scavenger is an interesting game to behold upon first look. The start is a typically RPG-esque offering a variety of skills to choose from, with the option to gain better skills through accepting attribute worsening options such as short-sightedness. Following this is a text-based decision making problem introducing the player to the mechanics behind the action system of the game and how this system handles player skills. Following this short introduction the player is given a free-reign of turn-based movement over a hex-based map, with certain tiles allowing resources to be scavenged. It is on this hex-based map that the reality of the task becomes apparent; The left side of the game screen displays a series of bars showing the most feature complete set of requirements I’ve ever seen in a survival game, everything from the now standard food, thirst and encumberment through to temperature and an unrelenting immune system have been simulated. Movement over the grid is as you would have guessed by now; turn based. The distance travelled per turn is determined by a series of factors including weather, encumberment, health and choice of footwear.
The first aim is to find ruins or abandoned buildings on the map and attempt to scavenge some gear. Necessary as following the starting sequence the player is typically in a situation not unlike Jim in 28 Days Later, in a hospital gown with a plastic carrier bag. The chances of success on this first scavenge will depend upon what the randomly generated map has dealt you nearby, the nature of the hand dealt and not attracting attention. A good scavenge will typically provide the player a decent haul of maybe some boots, a backpack and perhaps some tinned soup or ketchup packets. A bad scavenge will either attract the attention of a passing hostile human or worse, or it could prove to be an unlucky scavenge providing the player with nothing but an injury. The consequences of attracting a hostile are predictable, the rogue-like nature of the game means that you’ll probably be back at the skill screen shortly.
The combat system is worth discussing though. It is an interesting concept to see nowadays; a combat system where options are given to the player depending on how the combat is going (drag down opponent if you happen to be on the floor for example) and the actual progress of the fight is followed through descriptive text. Whilst this may seem crude compared to the exciting and action-packed combat of modern games such as Dishonoured and Arkham City, the nature of the detailed health system and the brutality of fighting tooth and nail to protect what little resources remain and your single life can provide some violence easily as shocking as anything the graphically gory Dishonoured can provide. Knocking down a bandit and kicking him until he falls unconscious, has a cardiac arrest or just plain dies can be shocking. An effect amplified when upon looting he has died to provide perhaps a boot, a shirt and some ketchup packets. Or coming across a bandit seemingly well equipped with a rifle, making the call on whether or not he actually has any ammunition for that thing. Even a fight won can prove fatal, it is not uncommon to find a fight is barely won and the player falls unconscious from exhaustion, or a wound becomes infected. As with any rogue-like, it is these moments and the tales that they spawn which make those respawns worth it. As mentioned even a fight won may provide an injury, as with a scavenging attempt failed and the game makes these potentially very interesting.
The game does an amazing job of simulating the immune system. Typically an untreated injury in the wild, especially without shelter, food or warmth will lead to a single fate; infection. NEO Scavenger is no exception to this rule, and unless some form of treatment can be scavenged or fashioned your character could become very ill indeed. That desperately scavenged food will become hopeless as it comes back up, untreated water may be drank to assist in the dehydration, probably worsening the problem, and movement can become slow and troublesome. Of all the ways to die in this game (and in general I suppose), infection is probably the worst, so stockpile antibiotics and find a way to make bandages.
This leads on to the crafting system implemented into the game. Recipes for crafting are found littered around the game world as scraps of paper, however they can also be found through experimentally combining items. For example, water combined with sauce pan combined with campfire provides sterilised water, very logical. Crafting can be quite clunky and time intensive due to the nature of the GUI, however note that it is possible to auto-craft by clicking on the saved recipe, it will save a great deal of time extracting water from bottles.
Built on top of this survival element the game also has a story element set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic setting which the player can, but isn’t forced to, explore. This element is the less than finished and I personally have been reluctant to explore the story to a great extent until it is fully fleshed out and finished. I would love to give much more detail but this is the unfortunate nature of writing on an unfinished game, so I have attempted to focus more on the survival elements and game engine.
Beyond the actual gameplay the game has some interesting traits. To begin with it is, and don’t jump the gun here, browser/Flash based. I am well aware of the stigma that Flash games have but do not judge it as a Flash game, because it is considerably deeper than could possibly be anticipated. It is also worth considering the nature of Flash as a cross-platform enabled plugin, meaning equal experiences across Linux, Mac and Windows. The game is not necessarily browser based either, with Flash-based standalones available for all three of the aforementioned platforms, however the browser based experience remains good and provides some fantastic opportunities for playing away from your normal or home machine. (Not while the boss is looking though). The advantages of Flash are certainly evident and the choice of producing a full game on the platform whilst unorthodox makes a degree of sense. However it is also worth questioning the validity of having a game run on Flash, software which Adobe is actively trying to kill. The most comparable example would probably be Don’t Starve, a more cartoony yet similarly difficult survival game built around the Chrome/Chromium app engine. As a development platform this seemingly has more future, if not being restrictive in terms of browser choice. Whilst an odd choice of engine Flash does prove fully capable of providing everything that the game requires on all platforms. The chances are that the developer is far more familiar with Flash, hence the choice, which should provide a much smoother end product in the long term. Perhaps however an alternate route could be considered for any future projects.
Aesthetically, the art is intentionally retro with pixel art being prevalent throughout. Graphics junkies may not have the greatest time over this, but anyone that isn’t a twelve year old with a super-PC his parents bought him should be able to appreciate the simple aesthetic and the Mariana Trench depth that lies beneath it. The sound similarly is well matched to the game, providing an engrossing and rich experience that draws the player in. There is immersion here, especially in combat, which is entirely yet pleasantly unexpected of the genre.
As mentioned in the introduction, this game follows an increasingly popular trend of in-development funding through a beta purchase scheme. This method of development for an indie is a great opportunity to maintain a steady income before release providing the time needed to finish the product. The game that really popularised this method; Minecraft, saw huge success through it, and NEO Scavenger as a cross platform browser embedded game is technically somewhat similar. The key problem with the model has been, and certainly was for Minecraft, a disconnect between what the developer was adding to the game and what the paid-beta community wanted. This is probably the principal reason for the burgeoning modding community that Minecraft acquired and is evidenced at least in part by older mod names such as “Better Than Wolves”. Blue Bottle Games seem to have found a solution to this issue in the form of a feature voting system for beta-purchase customers. This is a neat idea, with the different pay scales on the website ($10.00, $13.00 and $25.00) providing differing numbers of feature votes (1,5 and 5) to be used on the feature voting page. It is worth noting that this is not a contract for feature completion, but it does provide a formal system for feature request whilst also providing more value to the process of beta-purchasing.
Purchasing the game can happen in two ways, with a third awaiting approval. The game can be purchased from the developer’s website (link at the end of the article) as one of the three options mentioned above providing instant beta access, 1 to 5 feature request votes, the final game when released and a Desura code. This will provide a login allowing for access to the in browser beta as well as downloadable standalones for Linux, Mac and Windows. The three web-based options are priced at $10.00 (£6.25), $13.00 (£8.10) and $25.00 (£15.60). There is also the option of buying directly through the Desura service for $12.80 (£7.99), however personally I see little need for this option as purchasing through the developer’s website provides a wider range of price points and Desura access anyway. Perhaps the option is there for those that feel more comfortable paying through a service such as Desura rather than a website based payment, it’s your choice. The third option I mention would be Steam, NEO Scavenger is currently on Greenlight and the developer has commented; “The game is still not done, so I’m not in a rush to get votes just yet.” An honesty over beta-products on Greenlight that is not quite as prevalent as it should be, however if you do enjoy the game and want it on Steam then give it a vote because it would be nice to have the complete version on Steam, with all the potential sales that it may entail.
There is a free-demo available, and being Flash-based it is among the most trouble free demos you will ever come across. The demo is noteworthy in the amount of content it opens to players and it absolutely open enough to provide a view as to whether you may want to buy the game. This is an indie developer so if you like the game, buy it and support the developer.
In conclusion, this game may not be to everyone’s taste however trying it out costs nothing and even the demo will give some heroic tales of survival against the odds. The planned feature list is extensive and there is real potential here for a great survival game, with a story to boot.
Developer Website: http://bluebottlegames.com/main/
Ringod123 Playthrough: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZT73Oy6tBDM