There’s a part of me that really wanted to like How to Survive – and as it turns out, on a base level I do like it quite a bit. Mission accomplished! I’ve always had a soft spot for games that erect their memorable experiences as much from planned encounters as they do from things that randomly happen to one player but may never come close to occurring for another, and How to Survive is definitely a well-made and often hilarious bastion for exactly that sort of fluky and ever-fluctuating fun.
On the other hand, the zombie genre is tired – everybody knows this, and no matter how tongue-in-cheek your zombie-themed piece of consumable media may be, there are so many others available that it’s absolutely essential to do something unique. Though not a champion in this regard, How to Survive finds success where other zombie romps have failed and offers an impressively good time in the process.
The premise of the game is familiar but not terribly so, centering around the trials and tribulations of three strapping youngsters who find themselves determinedly stranded on a remote enclave, with little or no means of escape. Before long, our actually-pretty-likable protags begin finding the antediluvian writings of mystery man Kovac, and it’s a good thing too – Kovac’s journals act as periodic tutorials, and essentially teach you the basic mechanics of the game. In other words, they show you how to survive. Lightbulb!
In case you hadn’t picked up on it yet, How to Survive’s island locale is completely and utterly overrun with undead, and as I progressed through the game’s early stages I found myself feeling more and more capable of not only just surviving, but fending off enemy hordes in increasingly creative and amusing ways. It’s pretty basic stuff at first — you’ll be taught how to fight, craft weapons, and gain experience to level up — but even after a few hours I felt as though I was pursuing and applying the skills or items I wanted or thought would be useful, not just what I felt the game was instructing me to do. This is always a good sign.
Once I had a feel for the basics of progression within How to Survive’s world, the magnitude of surviving sans cleverly hidden assistance or constant tips from Kovac really began to sink in. Getting by in How to Survive depends on a multitude of factors – you have to eat, avoid disease, and of course, evade death via violent zombie flagellation to the best of your ability. It may sound like a simplistic triangle, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. For example, you can’t just grind out a few hours of meat-harvesting and assume you’ll be set for the rest of the game. Zombies be smarter than that, fool! The scent of the fresh fodder will have walking corpses pursuing you like a dog on its tail, and you may actually lose food or resources if you have to abandon camp or fight for your life.
Not only that, but most animals on the island are infected with malignant and poisonous parasites, meaning any meat harvested must be immediately cooked anyways. Of course, this throws the zombs off of your trail, but it’s not as if you can carry around hunks of cooked meat forever and expect them to keep. Hence the delicate balance I mentioned earlier.
It’s not all just about being on the defensive or stealth tip, though, and despite my tendencies towards covertness over confrontation, there are times when the only two options are to kick some rotting, undead arse, or damn well die trying. Not surprisingly, you gain access to better weapons over time, and aside from guns or melee objects that are simply more powerful, there are some fun tricks to toy with as well. Headshots become a viable strategy partway through the game, and though they take a bit of time to prepare, the one-and-done results are often worth it in tight situations. Later in the game I was blessed with the ownership of incendiary weaponry, an awesome addition that I only wish had presented itself sooner.
And that, in some ways, explains my one quip with How to Survive in a nutshell. I wish it had given me more time. By the time Kovac is out of your hair and you really start hitting your stride, the story comes to an end, and much of the game’s sandbox potential feels wistfully untapped. One of its greatest strengths as you move further into the game is the random generation of enemies, and it often leads to hilarious and even terrifying encounters where you have to survive with what you have access to in that particular moment. Zombies don’t care whether you have an awesome hand axe that can slice them like a stick of butter; the fact is, you left it back at camp while you went searching for supplies, and now your brains are up for grabs. These moments bring the world to life, and it’s more a testament to its quality than anything else that I wish it had gone the extra mile as a full-on, open-island sandbox (that doesn’t lose appeal after the story concludes).
At its core, How to Survive is a fun zombie game, and you should play it expecting exactly that. If your expectations have you yearning for nonstop scares or full-on immersion within a terrifying island outbreak, you may be disappointed. If you keep your expectations in check, though, you’ll no doubt have a good time, and experience a healthy dose of the aforementioned emotional frills in the process.
This review is based on the PS3 version of the game, which was provided to us.
As a fan of the zombie genre, you should play How to Survive. It's as much a fight for your life as it is a campy undead romp, and despite any reservations about it being overly silly, there's a lot of great content to be experienced. As long as you don't expect to shed fervid tears or literally wet yourself in fright, you're unlikely to be disappointed.