Neo Scavenger is one of the least accessible games I have ever played. It eschews lucidity in favor of dropping the player tutorial-less in a ravaged world where they must comb the wasteland—presented as a deceivingly lush hex map—in search of supplies to keep themselves alive and for information about who they are and the fall of civilization. It holds a special kind of animosity against the player, bombarding them with inventory screens, an array of multi-colored stat bars and confusing combat scenarios from the beginning. Mystery and punishment lie at the heart of the game. The world and its enigmatic narrative encourage exploration and risk taking while its cryptic systems punish players for being too bold or careless. Survival RPGs have become exceedingly popular over the past few years, the subgenre now crowded with a slew of games that are derivative of their forerunners (Minecraft, Sir, You Are Being Hunted and Don’t Starve) in largely unimpressive ways. Neo Scavenger doesn’t escape being derivative—few games do—but its unabashed sadism and mysteries make it more worthwhile than the majority of its kin.
The true antagonist in Neo Scavenger is not any of the enemies you occasionally fight but instead an environment that is out to get you. You’re more likely to die from drinking diseased water or an infected wound than you are being bludgeoned by one of the monsters roaming the map. Each game begins with the player wearing only a mysterious amulet and a hospital gown, having just woken up in a cryopod, venturing out into the wild. You must race to find clothing and a sleeping bag before you fall ill. If you don’t find either of those items before it rains, you’ll likely die of hypothermia or freeze to death in the middle of the night. It’s common to have 5-10 minute sessions where you die, not because you made poor choices, but because you were dealt a bad hand by Neo Scavenger’s procedural generation. While this can be frustrating, it also represents the game’s commitment to making the player earn the right to survive for as long as they do. It’s a meticulous, complicated game, one that expects you to consult wikis for crafting recipes and learn how to succeed through many deaths.
Neo Scavenger, then, appeals to stubborn mentality and a refusal to back down from a stacked challenge. There’s also a darkly humorous story running through the game that’s communicated primarily through newspapers you find as you scavenge desolated cities and swampy forests; side quests and eerie dream-like sequences also flesh out the narrative. Unfortunately, there’s a tension that exists between this story and the game’s roguelike tendencies. It is infuriating to get invested in the game’s world, collecting snippet by snippet of the story, only to be killed by Cholera and have to start all over again. These two elements, which should blend together, are so at odds with one another that it creates a large and unsatisfying disconnect between them rather than another reason for you to hit “New Game” as soon as you perish.
The hex map is filled with branching narrative mini-sections that allow you to use perks you choose at the start of the game. Early on you’re confronted with a giant wolf monster stalking the halls of a hospital. If you specialize in melee combat, you can try and take him down yourself. If you’re a medic, you can flush a cryopod and use the pod’s poor inhabitant as bait to distract the beast. Or, if you’re a smart coward, you can simply hide and hope for the best. Neo Scavenger shines in these moments, showing you that the specializations you choose matter in a way that will determine the outcome of life or death situations.
This is more than can be said for the turn-based, mostly textual combat, which is frustrating and often downright hilarious. If you’re forced to melee your foe, you have to get close to them. The distance between the two of you is measured in numerical spaces; this means many a turn will be spent awkwardly charging toward your opponent and them doing the same until the two of you are close enough to whale on each other. It’s not uncommon for characters to trip over themselves in combat, struggle to get back up, and even fall unconscious. It’s a tedious affair. You can also try to call a ceasefire with opponents or even talk to them, but often they’ll ignore you for a turn and then attack you the next, initiating the combat sequence all over again. Fighting with weapons isn’t that much better either since the AI’s actions are still often more unpredictable and surreal than a Buñuel film.
Whether the combat system’s awkwardness is brought about unintentionally or otherwise, it actually works to the benefit of the game. It’s often smarter to avoid fighting all together if possible since the most appealing part of Neo Scavenger is exploration. There’s something to be said for this approach, especially when the majority of games taking place in an apocalyptic setting, like The Last of Us, center around brutal, gore-drenched gunfights even when they purport to be about the cost of survival. Neo Scavenger goes in a different direction, focusing on the minute details of staying alive in the wild, on scavenging food and sterilizing water, and even the boredom of surviving. Plainly speaking, Neo Scavenger, is a game that just isn’t thrilling, but it’s also a game that doesn’t aspire to be. It’s more like Farming Simulator and Wasteland 2 than it is either Fallout 3 or Metro 2033, something engineered solely toward a specific audience without accommodations for anyone outside of that niche.
Some would call that a fatal design or praise it for being for “hardcore gamers” only, but neither extreme reflect the truth of Neo Scavenger: a competent game that’s unapologetic about its expectations of the player, but at the same time one that diminishes its quality by not providing options that would allow them to investigate the richness of the world at their own pace. Minor fixes that would be kinder to newer players, like an easy mode with multiple save slots or even an exploration mode where the player is allowed to take in the story as they explore the world unafraid of whatever dangers might rob them of their progress, would open the game’s better qualities up to a larger audience. As is, Neo Scavenger hides some of its best treasures behind a layer of unwavering antagonism that’s tough to break through. It is ultimately a lesser game because of its fidelity to such an unforgiving design philosophy.
Neo Scavenger was developed and published by Blue Bottle Games. It is available for PC and Mac.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.