There was a time period not so long ago when indie horror titles were rare and exciting, and it was a nice treat to see such a game become a huge success talked about by everyone. One particular game from that era that is particularly relevant in this case is Slender: The Eight Pages, a viral horror title from 2012 that sees you wandering around the woods in the dark hunting for various items before you get murdered by a powerful and elusive monster. What does that have to do with Expedition Zero? Well, let’s just say that the devs have probably played the aforementioned game a fair bit before starting their development work.
Expedition Zero is a first-person survival horror game that tasks you with escapist a locked compound infested with a mysterious disease. The game comes to us from Enigmatic Machine, a new developer based out of the Czech Republic, and was published by tinyBuild. As you might expect from a survival game, you have to keep yourself alive in a harsh environment, while also trying to complete the objective that the game gives you to reach the end, and by “reach the end” we mean to cure the plague so you can get out of the quarantine zone without being filled with more holes than Swiss cheese.
The storyline is pretty bare-bones, with most of the information you can gather about what is going on coming from snatches of dialogue and some in-menu text. You start the game off by saying something about “they left me for dead”, and figure out that you’re trying to escape by a conversation with a random dude who sells you stuff. Other than that, there are very few clues as to what is actually going on in the world at large, outside of the fact that you know something suspicious must have been going down at some point due to the abandoned building and military outposts that dot the landscape.
Gameplay-wise there’s thankfully a fair bit more going on in Expedition Zero than you’d have found in Slender: The Eight Pages. You still have to wander around some creepy woods in the dark avoiding a monster, but things have been improved by giving you a rifle, a prybar, and a hatchet to defend yourself with. You also have to do your best to keep finding helpful resources, such as bullets and healing items, so it’s not just a case of running away from the monster and trying to get to your goals. If the shadowy bugger turns up, you can shoot them a few times with your rifle to scare them off, which makes them much more manageable than Slender Man ever was.
Your main goal is to find several samples for the merchant who has promised to get you out of the zone. These are scattered all over the first and require you to complete various puzzles or combat scenarios in certain cases. Each time you pick one up, the monster shows up to try and murder you, but since looking at it doesn’t give you a game over, you can at least form some sort of strategy to deal with it, rather than having to run for your life and hope that the thing doesn’t teleport towards you. It’s also nice that you’re given a radar after your first sample so it’s much easier to find the remaining ones.
Most of the time, having a monster in a game like Expedition Zero who can be scared away with a rifle would remove all of the threat of the monster, but I have to admit that I found the monster relatively effective. Not the regular enemies, of course, those are zombies with some of the dumbest AI I’ve seen in a game before. Those guys will just stand there and let you wail on them with your crowbar until they die. The main monster swings between trees and lamp posts, occasionally throwing you into the air and slamming you into the ground to cause damage. He can be hard to hit, and it takes more than one of your precious bullets to actually dispel him, so he still has quite an intimidating presence.
That creepy feeling is also present in the game overall. Whether you’re exploring one of the 50 abandoned shops or the forest itself, there’s a very eerie atmosphere that you just don’t find in a lot of indie horror games. The sounds of strong winds blowing through trees and the crunch of your feet as you walk are your only companion until they’re not. It’s incredibly creepy to constantly hear the monster screaming close by, but to have no idea where it is. You keep swinging your rifle around the sky, trying to find where the monster is hiding, or sprint off into the woods to try and get away from it.
There are some other elements to the survival aspects of the game that help to keep you on your toes. You have a weight limit and a size limit, so you have to be careful with how much stuff you’re carrying, and how heavy it is. However, you need to keep items on you because you occasionally come across these 3D printers that contain important upgrades, and without the resources to craft these upgrades, you’re going to find it harder and harder to survive. Luckily, the crafting resources only come in three flavors, and everything you find can be broken down into these three, stackable, resources.
There’s often a downside to some of the upgrades you can find as well. For instance, you can get an upgrade that increases your running speed, but it costs you battery power to use it, which you can only recharge at your sled or random charge points around the world. There are also several upgrades for each of your slots, so you can’t equip the gas mask to make it through environmental hazards, and the head-mounted torch at the same time, so you have to get used to swapping upgrades at an intense pace.
Another survival element in Expedition Zero is your exposure level. Because you’re in the wilderness, it can get pretty cold, so you have a cold meter that is constantly going down. The only ways you have to restore it are by heading back to your safe house, or by starting a fire for warmth. As you get closer and closer to freezing to death, your screen becomes harder and harder to see, but you can get an upgrade to make your cold meter go down much slower.
The graphics and sound of the game are pretty much what you’d expect. It’s all a bit janky-looking, and it certainly won’t hold up to a triple-A experience, but that’s hardly surprising. The game looks fine and it’s pretty easy to tell what everything is supposed to be from either sight or sound. Actually, having said that, the translation of the game does sometimes cause issues. At least once, the game managed to completely misidentify a deer as a wolf, yet I found no such errors in complex diary entries, which is a bit weird.
Overall, if there’s something that lets Expedition Zero down, it’s the bug and sort of the control. So, it should be pretty clear from the fact that on day one the devs had to push out 4 different bug fix updates, that the game is pretty buggy. I had to completely restart from the beginning (hence the lateness of this review) because my saves kept bugging out, and at one point it was impossible to get into the forest for the first time. While this does show that the devs are very active in trying to repair the game, it’s clear that there are a lot of issues around every corner.
The other major issue, as I mentioned, is the controls. They mostly feel fine, but trying to hit the swifter enemies is an exercise in frustration, and there’s a lot of the combat that doesn’t make much sense. Since ammo is so scarce, you’d think it would be powerful, but it takes 4 bullets to kill a zombie, while 2 smacks with the crowbar will also do it and don’t waste any ammo. I suppose that’s more of an issue with balance than controls, but in general, you have to get used to the controls over time, which is a bit of a shame for a game that actually managed to do something interesting with a concept similar to Slender: The Eight Pages.
TechRaptor reviewed Expedition Zero on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.
- Creepy and intense atmosphere
- Surprisingly interesting survival and upgrade mechanics
- You're not powerful, but the monsters are still a genuine threat.
- Very janky in places
- Bugs all over the place