How To Survive: Storm Warning Edition – Review

Title   How To Survive: Storm Warning Edition
Developer  EKO Software
Publisher  505 Games
Platform  Xbox One (reviewed), PS4, PC
Genre  Survival Horror
Release Date  October 29th, 2014
Official Site

The word “challenging” can be used in a number of different ways. For some, it’s focused largely on overcoming a problem or some kind of adversity. For others, it covers an event or piece of media that makes them question their world view and beliefs. For me, it’s a word I use to describe the act of getting out of bed in the morning. Video games largely provide a challenge of the first flavour, and over recent years it has become important for some developers that this challenge be so insurmountable that only the “hardcore” will see the game through to its bitter end. Dark Souls springs to mind as the pinnacle of this particular class of game, alongside FTL: Faster Than Light, Super Meat Boy, and a host of other, smaller games. How To Survive: Storm Warning Edition would like to be considered a part of this crowd. It should not.

Starting up the story mode gives you the choice of four characters, each with their own bland and weirdly sexist character bios – it is, for example, suggested that if you are nice to one of the female characters then she will sleep with you, no questions asked. Each character has their own stats to make them slightly varied, though the only real difference is the skill tree that your character has, which you won’t find out about until about half an hour into the game anyway, so it’s best just to pick whichever character’s description doesn’t make you ill. Next, you’re thrown onto a mysterious island after your boat runs aground, and it’s up to you to survive.

There is actually a storyline running through the game, revolving around local psychopath Kovac, who has been writing a survival guide to help people fight against the monsters on the island, and your attempts to get out of the archipelago and back to civilisation. As you progress, and the writers lose interest in keeping any kind of cohesive tone, you’ll find yourself working with talking monkeys, saving a young girl from an untimely death, and stuffing a dead cat full of feathers so a senile old woman will give you a plane battery she just happens to have lying around. That last quest nearly made me throw my controller down and quit, and frankly, since the next quest involved backtracking through the entire game, I probably should’ve given up right there and then.

The tone of the game is totally nonsensical. It begins in a typical horror vein, with an injured survivor, an island full of ravenous zombies, no hope of escape, and only a wooden stick to protect yourself with. Within ten minutes of play you find the first of Kovac’s guides, which demonstrates combat through a series of silly 2D animations and a light-hearted voiceover. Then it’s back to being serious, with your fight for survival, then back to a silly survival guide, and back and forth, and back and forth. It’s impossible to know if you should be smiling or shrieking, and the game isn’t particularly good at conveying either feeling, making the whole experience a little limp.

Even the characters you meet, whose only consistency is that they’re all poorly written and badly acted, do nothing to help matters. The old woman whose cat you stuff speaks sweetly to you in one line, before almost immediately calling you a “shit human being“, breaking several hours of a swearing-free environment with no real reason. You’re clearly supposed to care about the other survivors on the island, but interactions with each of them last about a minute in total, and they’re really just annoying barriers preventing you from getting the next item you need.

The bland story and characters would be excusable if the game was actually fun to play, but it isn’t. You’ll spend most of the time running from one place to another, fighting off hordes of zombies, then returning along the same path, fighting off the horde of zombies that just respawned. There’s both melee and ranged combat, both of which have their pros and cons. Melee combat is good because it doesn’t use ammo, obviously, and because it’s broken, allowing for exploitation. Hurting an enemy sometimes gives you the option to instant-kill them by tapping A, which costs nothing, knocks back, damages, and sometimes kills any nearby zombies, makes you invincible during the instant-kill animation, and sometimes causes enemies to completely forget about you and run around you and off-screen. This means you can essentially hammer Right Trigger and A over and over, picking up any loot that enemies drop and also probably launching into the next instant-kill before the zombies have a chance to remember they should be attacking you. This makes the initial couple of hours, which are supposed to be tricky because of your limited supplies, stupidly easy.

Later on in the game new zombies are added, including Bombers, who are fat zombies that explode when they come near you, and are definitely not just Boomers from Left 4 Dead with one letter changed in their name. Obviously this rules out melee combat, so you’ve got to start using ranged weapons, which is fine since the first bow in the game can one-hit-kill the standard zombies if you aim for long enough. You can create upgraded bows to help one-hit the later-appearing, stronger zombies too, and with the right levelling up, aiming time is reduced to about a second, meaning the only thing the game can do is to send more zombies at you, which it does. You can also build your own guns, which come in the form of a pistol, which is pointless because you have a bow; a shotgun, which is pointless because it’s slow and does a tiny amount of damage and you have a bow; and the machine gun, which you can only craft around three-quarters of the way through the game, by which point I’d already given up on guns. The machine-gun is useful when you start getting swarmed by zombies, however, and once you unlock incendiary ammo, becomes a great weapon for clearing out huge numbers of zombies quickly.

But neither mode of combat feels particularly smooth or solid. Melee is clunky and looks ridiculous, with your character waving around their weapon around haphazardly as a standard attack before launching into crazy acrobatics when you hit the instant-kill button. Ranged combat is obviously the best way forward, but using a bow leads to getting swarmed and using a gun attracts more zombies because of the noise, lengthening every encounter. You can’t run away because the zombies are always faster than you, even when using the fastest character available, so you have to suffer through every encounter or die and be thrown back to god-knows-when the game last checkpointed. And don’t get me started on Molotovs and explosives, which are near-impossible to aim and inevitably just hurt you, since the enemies are usually fairly close to you when the item hits. Nothing about combat is satisfying, there’s no sense of reward for surviving a battle, and it’s just an infuriating experience every time.

Don’t worry though! There’s plenty of other poorly designed mechanics we need to talk about too. The inventory system, for starters, is a joke. The game doesn’t pause when you open it up, leaving you wide open to attack unless you’ve cleared the area or are hiding in a safe zone. You can carry a seemingly infinite number of bulletproof vests and helmets, but only three Molotovs at a time, which makes no sense. And trying to actually find anything in there is a nightmare, since it’s all randomly thrown in when you pick up an item. You could spend a few minutes moving the items around in your inventory, but then you’d get eaten by zombies, and frankly I have better things to do than wonder in which block my Dead Cat item belongs.

Combining items to make new ones frees up some space in your inventory, but with recipes hidden around the islands and my patience wearing thin for having to travel anywhere not completely necessary, I realised you can actually brute force most of the combinations without knowing what you’re making. Selecting a combinable item and choosing “combine” shows you all the items that it can be combined with, half of which can be broken down again if you’re unhappy with the result. Brute forcing combinations earned me the machine-gun and most my high level armour, way before the recipes were supposed to be found, making the game ever so slightly easier. Choosing which item to combine with can sometimes be fiddly however, since the game chooses to forget that pressing Up on the D-Pad means “move the cursor up” and not “move the cursor right”, but that’s only annoying if a zombie spawns next to you and starts attacking you, which it will.

But there’s more! Don’t go out at dark, because a different kind of zombie starts attacking you, harder to kill and infinite in number until the sun rises again. You can scare them away briefly with a flashlight or by having a burning stick of wood as your melee weapon, or you can just stand next to a light or campfire so they don’t spawn at all and wait until sunrise before moving on. But don’t stay still for too long, because a thunderstorm might start up and you’ll get repeatedly hit by lightning. And watch out for rain, because your campfire will be dowsed. Oh and look out for fog, which drastically reduces your vision. You could hide in a safe zone, but before you can do that you have to clear it out, which means a long fight against about fifty zombies coming at you from all sides, and you can still get hit by lighting despite being under a roof so it’s not as safe as it first appears.

And I haven’t even talked about your needs! Your puny human body needs food, water, and sleep to survive, or else their ability to fight and run diminishes. You can eat roots and fruits that grow on the island, except fresh fruits cause diarrhoea, so don’t eat too many of them. You can also hunt some of the wildlife living on the islands, providing you with meat that needs to be cooked at a campfire, until, of course, they all get zombified later in the game. Or you can fish, but you should only do that at sunrise or sunset, or else you won’t find anything. You can only drink water from natural wells on the islands, which dry up after three uses, either from drinking straight from the well or storing water in bottles for later, and are only refilled after a storm. And you can only sleep in safe zones which, as mentioned previously, need to be cleared out first.

There’s far too much to remember in How To Survive, and rather than making it more of a challenge, it just becomes a collection of minor annoyances that prevent you from getting anything done. Yet if you cut out half of these annoyances, leaving just the core gameplay, then it would be an incredibly dull affair that lasts for a few short hours. Instead, it’s a continuous slog that goes on too long, with the player struggling to find any sense of accomplishment in the fact that they have managed to not defecate themselves while picking up the skinned and gutted remains of a cat.

There’s not even good graphics to fall back on. Character models look blocky, the environments are a mess of greenery and water that are neither appealing nor interesting, and it has an aesthetic that harks back to the PS2-era. The visual cues for items hiding in the grass, nothing more than small red bloodstains, are so often hidden by actual bloodstains that it’s better just to hammer the A button and hope you pick something up. The only areas of the game that looks halfway decent are the animated survival guides, and even these come across slightly fuzzy since they’ve obviously been lifted from the original game and dropped into this updated version without a care about resolutions. It’s not an ugly game, but to say that this is an update for the current-generation, it certainly doesn’t look the part.

And then there’s the sound design, which is so god-awful that the designers themselves turned down the volume of each area to 50%. The music is practically non-existent, more a collection of awkward, hesitant noises that try and convey unease but are drowned out by the constant shrieking of zombies. The voice acting is awful, even down to your character’s cries of pain, which are so unconvincing it’s a wonder why they bothered to leave them in. It feels so much like the audio was an afterthought, left until the last minute when the developers realised they couldn’t release a game in complete silence. There is nothing nice I can say here.

Should you buy How To Survive: Storm Warning Edition? If you’ve played the original version, actually managed to enjoy it somehow, and didn’t catch the DLC, then probably. Additional content includes three new islands in the story, two new game modes, and apparently all the weather effects that I despised, so if you feel like constantly getting screwed over by random events, then go right ahead. If you didn’t pick it up first time round, then this “definitive edition” definitely won’t be worth it. It’s a broken mess of a game, layered with annoying design decisions that infuriate more than they create a real sense of challenge. No number of variations on the basic formula of the game, be it challenge maps, perma-death mode or everyone’s favourite Horde mode rip-off, can make this game worthwhile buying. Avoid this game. Please.

  • When it doesn't crash, it works
  • Combining items is a nice idea
  • Story is weak and filled with awful characters
  • Combat is broken
  • Too many poorly designed systems
  • Bland graphics and awful sound design
  • There is literally a quest where you stuff the remains of a cat

How To Survive: Storm Warning Edition is not a good game. It's aggravatingly obtuse, looks like crap and handles like the shuffling undead you're supposed to be killing. It tries so hard to be Dark Souls or similar, but it never feels rewarding in the same way, just cheap and annoying. If you're looking for a reason to fill a swear jar, then playing this game for a few hours should provide you with plenty of opportunities to throw some money in there. Otherwise, just leave it well alone.

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