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Y’know, maybe we’ve had things a little too good in our post-apocalyptic wastelands of recent.

In every Fallout game you start with a PipBoy, some sort of weapon and at least light armor, and by the end you’re a walking monstrosity of doom.  Mad Max takes away your nice car and leaves you to die, only for Chumbucket to immediately give you a new set of wheels out of the kindness of his fanatical heart.  Wasteland 2 sends you out to fend for yourself as a raw recruit, but at least you can start with party members backing you up.

Blue Bottle Games’ NEO Scavenger says that’s nice, now try a real challenge:

[Y]ou must survive in the wasteland long enough to figure out who you are. Each turn you must decide where to go, how to scavenge for supplies, and how to deal with anything and anyone you encounter. And with each passing minute, the pit in your stomach grows, your dehydration worsens, your muscles tire, and your body temperature drops in the cold autumn air. Choose your starting abilities carefully, because they and your wit are the only tools you have in the apocalypse!

Bolding mine.  You wake up in a cryotube, wearing nothing but a hospital gown and tag, and from there what you can do is determined by the skills you chose and the risks you decide to take.  In NEO Scavenger, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch … even when it looks like that’s the case.

There’s no “karma system,” either: everyone and everything you meet, with rare exception, is just as desperate to survive as you are.  Some have plots afoot, and you’re most likely either the target of it, or just in their way.  No one’s going to run up and randomly give you gifts for being a decent human being.  Instead, they may take advantage of your better nature.  You’re left to weigh the benefits between doing good or being pragmatic on a case-by-case basis, as the former might get you something nice … but can just as easily backfire in horrible ways.

Character creation is simple: you have twenty points to put into traits and skills, such as Eagle Eye or Medic, each of which costs between one and four points.  You can also take negative traits, like Myopic, to increase your point total.  There are no “levels” to skills, and about the only way you’ll improve your physical traits will be through rare opportunities for augmentation.  Very expensive augmentation.

Once you’ve committed to a character build, the game begins with you having just woken from cryosleep.  Already, you have a life-or-death crisis on your hands, with a series of options for resolving it determined by the skills you’ve picked.

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There are two kinds of game environments in NEO Scavenger, skill-based and overmap.  Skill-based events are scripted, with a fixed series of linked locations and events, similar to a pick-your-path adventure with multiple possible endings.  Whether or not you get a particular option for resolving a given situation is gated by your character build; if you didn’t take Medic, for example, you may not recognize a plague victim as they approach.

As you can see in the screenshot above, the player is responding to what seems like an imminent attack by using their Botany skill, dragging it from the options to the action panel before confirming that’s what they want to try.  Sometimes there’s additional scripted stuff, like the broken window the player can select to try and escape through.  Various inventory items may trigger even more options.   

On the overmap, nothing is scripted except the locations of certain key areas.  The world is broken into hexagons, which should be immediately familiar to veteran board-gamers.  By clicking on an adjacent hex, you move there … assuming you can.  Any action you take that would consume time—moving, crafting items, hiding your tracks, resting up, what have you—costs Move Points.  Keeping yourself healthy, warm, and well-shod will improve your Move; failing that, you’ll go a lot slower.

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When you’re out of Move, or just done with whatever you’re about, clicking End Turn lets the world’s non-player characters move and do what they need to survive.  Which, as often as not, amounts to fighting and looting one another as readily as they would you.

If the hex you’re in has any signs of pre-apoc habitation, you’ll be given the option to “scavenge.”  Having a crowbar, light source, or both, dramatically improves your odds of finding anything valuable, which is more likely the further you are from any place currently inhabited by a lot of people.  Additionally, those little crates on the overmap represent stuff freely available without having to scavenge, though you won’t know what until you go there.  Wilderness hexes like hills, open grassland, and forest also allow you to forage for sustenance.

Every decision you make, no matter how innocuous, has consequences, yet at the same time those consequences have reasons behind them.  If you don’t find or make some shoes, all that walking will blister your feet, cutting down your movement.  If you insist on wearing nothing other than your initial hospital gown, and then don’t essentially live next to a bonfire, you’ll freeze to death.  Illness and starvation are ever-present dangers.

How you take and inflict damage is also highly granular, with realistic consequences.  You don’t just snap into a stimpack and get all your health back from fighting off a pack of dogs—you’ve lost blood, you’ve had bones broken, you’ve got open wounds that need disinfecting.  Pain alone can cripple you.  There’ll be days you don’t dare crawl out of your shelter, for fear anything could finish you off until you mend a bit.  But hunger and thirst may still drive you to desperate measures (in fact, they certainly will at some point).

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So what’s the upside to this cruel and merciless result of mankind’s folly?  Just for starters, a curiously refreshing mix of primitive, current, and futuristic technology (hey, a tablet computer! now go find batteries for it!).  Newspaper scraps that fill you in on how everything went down.  Enclaves of humanity surviving, even prospering, each weird, wild or wonderful in their own way.  You’ve got a history of your own to discover, too, with more than a touch of supernatural strangeness dogging your steps.

It’s also highly replayable, even after you discover the Big Secrets and memorize the best ways to get through various set-pieces and obstacles.  Aside from key locations, most of the map (set in Michigan) is randomized at game start, and it’s in these locations you’ll scavenge for what you need to survive.  Adaptation to the resources made available will shape each playthrough.  Meanwhile, there are numerous sub-plots and secret tricks to uncover, most of which aren’t critical to the main story.  Even with 136 hours of play time invested, I know I haven’t seen everything.

NEO Scavenger is a fair yet unforgiving game in the old-school model, one that’ll have you snorting at how easy those Vault Dwellers have it.

This game was purchased by the reviewer and reviewed on the PC platform using Windows 7.  It can be purchased on Steam, or directly from Blue Bottle Games.

7.5
 

Very Good

Summary

An excellent post-apoc strategy RPG, for gamers who love a challenge.


Scott Malcomson

Staff Writer

Old enough to have watched the first moon landing live on TV, I've been gaming since the days of ApVenture and the Zork series. My last console was an Atari 2600, and my first PC was an Apple IIc (in glorious monochrome!). If you want to understand the kind of person I am, it might help a bit to play Ultima IV.