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RPG Codex Review: NEO Scavenger

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RPG Codex Review: NEO Scavenger

Review - posted by Infinitron on Mon 8 June 2015, 18:23:59

Tags: Blue Bottle Games; NEO Scavenger

[Review by felipepepe]

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It was way back in March 2012 that I first heard about NEO Scavenger. Back then, it was "that post-apocalyptic browser game", a hex-based survival roguelike where you would try to survive for as long as possible – and likely die of hypothermia a few turns in. Now, Flash-based games aren't exactly known for being remarkable RPGs. And let's not pretend that the fact that its sole developer – Mr. Daniel Fedor – was a developer at BioWare for 7 years didn't lead to some frowned eyebrows.

NEO Scavenger has come a long way from the beta I played three years ago, first as a paid beta on Desura and then later through Steam Early Access. The full game was released in December 2014, and managed to become the surprise hit of the year, reaching the prestigious third place on our 2014 GOTY vote. And so it's well past time that we turned a critical eye towards "that browser game".

The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking

You begin by selecting your character traits. NEO Scavenger uses a classic Advantages & Disadvantages point buy system GURPS players will be familiar with – you have 15 points which you can arrange among 16 Abilities (which cost you points) and 8 Flaws (which award you points) in whatever way you desire. Each trait has a different point cost. For example, Electrician gives you some knowledge about electronics and costs only 1 point, while Strong (carry more weight, deal more damage in melee and create obstacles) costs 6 points.

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(Note: Previous versions of the game had a different system, based on slots. You could choose any 4 Abilities by default, plus one extra Ability for each extra Flaw you took. That led to obvious exploits, namely choosing minor flaws like Insomniac in order to take powerful abilities like Melee. It's a good thing that this was solved in an elegant way.)

These traits are all the character creation you'll get in NEO Scavenger – you don't even get to name your character – but they're fairly meaningful. They're nothing as drastic as choosing between a mage and a fighter or between a pacifist diplomat and a heavy guns lunkhead in a more conventional RPG, but the traits do impact heavily on your playstyle. A Botanist can gather food more easily and identify poisonous berries, a Medic can get detailed health status reports and identify pills, a tracker can spot the tracks of other characters on the world map and hide his own, and a Melee character can pack a punch in close combat. And as for the negative traits, a Fragile character is borderline useless in combat, and a Feeble one will be very limited in what he can carry.

Traits also offer different solutions to events, such as using Hiding to infiltrate a cult temple, or Eagle Eye to notice something you wouldn't see otherwise. There's even some occasional synergy between traits – an Athletic character will have the option to run from a certain dangerous event, but an Athletic and Tough character will have the amusing "Shred across the field like a fricking Olympian" option, which yields different results.

You are Number Six Five

As soon as you are satisfied with your character, the game begins.

You wake up in a cryosleep pod inside an odd laboratory, wearing nothing but a hospital gown, a wrist strap labeled "Philip Kindred" and an odd necklace. Before you can do anything, you hear a roar coming from the down the hallway, and must defend yourself:

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Here we see NEO Scavenger’s unique event interface. The game presents you with a small location image in the left-hand corner of the screen, a description of the event, and a list of your available options. These options may include abilities or items that you can use, places you can go or even dialog options. You select one of more of those, hit confirm and the game will show you the result. Although it may allude to more, it's really a very traditional CYOA interface. Considering NEO Scavenger was developed by a single man, I find this approach to be very elegant.

However, I must point out that a few interactions in the game stand out negatively, with results that can go far beyond what you bargained for. I don't mean that in a dialog wheel kind of way – where a certain dialogue option might lead your character to reply in a completely different way than expected – but rather how on rare occasions your character will suddenly gain a personality and act on his own volition. For example, if you begin the game by fighting the enemy at the CryoCenter, your character will automatically decide that it was a badass deed and download the security camera footage onto a tape that you can carry around and show to others. It feels contrived, because without the Hacking skill your character is quite technologically illiterate, and because it gives him a cocky personality that it isn't displayed anywhere else.

You gotta lose your mind in Detroit Rock City

Upon exiting the CryoCenter, you will be thrown onto the game's world map, a post-apocalyptic Michigan. Each time you play the game, the map will be different, at least in part. Key locations such as the CryoFacility will always be in the same place, but the terrain and city locations will be be randomly generated each time.

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Apparently, the world has gone to hell while you slept, and so you must set on a journey to find some answers. Why were you frozen? What's your name? What happened to the world? And where can you find some clothes?

Since you begin the game barefoot, wearing only a hospital gown and a strange necklace, you'll probably want to begin by finding an answer to that last question. NEO Scavenger features a robust survival system that requires you to regularly eat, drink, sleep, protect yourself from the cold, and treat wounds & diseases. The various bars on the left-hand side of the screen indicate your current condition, and you can bet that the body temperature bar will quickly drop if you waltz across the wastes half-naked during a rainstorm. To survive, you must find clothing, as well as food & water, tools, and weapons with which to defend yourself.

To do so, you'll traverse the map hex by hex, searching for places to scavenge, while hiding from hostile scavengers, mutants and other horrors. The game is turn-based, and on every turn, you can walk a certain distance, determined by your traits (an Athletic character can walk farther, a Feeble one less) and by the terrain. Plains are easier to cross, while traversing forests or hills will likely take a full turn each. The various terrain types have additional characteristics as well – standing on top of a hill allow you to see farther, forests allow you to hide with ease and to collect berries and wood, rivers, lakes and swamps allow you to collect water (that may or not be potable), and the various city locations and ruins offer places for you to scavenge.

There are various types of city locations on the world map, and each will offer a different set of scavenging opportunities. In ruins, you'll find mostly crumbling apartments and offices, which might contain loot, but whose ceilings might also fall down on your head and injure you. In small towns, you'll find abandoned houses, trailers and storage sheds, with less loot but also less danger. Big cities offer a wide variety of scavenging locations, usually in higher quantity.

Once you've found a place to scavenge, the game allows you to pick some tools to help you:

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Every item or trait you choose to employ has a different effect, and there's quite a variety of them available. For example, having a crowbar allows you to break into locked storage containers and also increases your chances of finding loot in every single scavenging location. A lighter or any other source of light will also increase your loot chances and also provide an extra safety bonus, making it harder for you to hurt yourself accidentally. Now, the downside should be that you become easier to spot, since you're making more noise and light, but in reality possessing these items is a no-brainer. There are a few mods that address this balance issue by making accidents much more frequent and by adding limited fuel to the lighter, which is a great idea IMO.

A common issue in all roguelikes is that the randomized world map, combined with the randomness of scavenging, can lead to problems in the early game, when you're desperately trying to find some clothes and the gods of the RNG fail to provide. Sometimes even your best efforts will end with your character freezing to death on your very first night. While this may be annoying sometimes, I never found it to be as big a deal as certain Steam discussion forum posters did, since there are traits that can help you scavenge more effectively, and you can always light a fire to keep you warm through the night – if you know how.

Welcome to DIY-Land

NEO Scavenger's inventory system is straightforward and efficient. You can carry one item in each hand, a backpack, some stuff in your pockets (if you actually succeed in finding pants and a jacket) plus something tied on your shoulders and/or neck. Every item has a weight - carry too much and you'll be burdened. Weight won't seem like a problem at first, but as you become hungry, thirsty or wounded your weight capacity will gradually decrease, which means you might have to abandon a heavy backpack somewhere along the way if you're not careful during your scavenging expeditions.

Items also have a durability rating. They deteriorate over time and with use, and quite rapidly too. Ever had a plastic bag rip apart while you were carrying your groceries in it? Just wait until your backpack tears open and all your items fall down in the middle of nowhere with no way for you to carry them. Or until your baseball bat snaps in half while you were delivering a formal complaint to the deformed skull of a mutant.

As I mentioned above, there's a wide variety of items available in NEO Scavenger, from the basic (t-shirts, shoes, plastic bags, water bottles) to the highly sophisticated (water purification pills, medical nanobots, laptops, GPS), along with a couple of rather dubious ones (clown masks and pop music DVDs). While I wish there was more cosmetic variety in the game (after a while you'll get tired of wearing the same olive green hoodie), I can't complain about the overall depth. The game offers many opportunities for item use, whether it's storing water inside plastic bottles, using the remains of a destroyed boot to create a makeshift shoe, hacking laptops for data files, or even tying a few soup cans together to make a trap which can alert you of intruders while you sleep.

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NEO Scavenger is one of the few games that allow you to store all your stuff in a sled or shopping cart, which offers a bit of a The Road experience. Of course, that includes the parts where you're forced to consider abandoning your cart to run or hide from enemies, providing those tough choices that a good roguelike requires.

To help you in your quest, the game features a robust crafting system. During your travels you'll find little paper notes with crafting recipes, but you can craft anything as long as you have the required items and traits.

The system is very intuitive. For example, to make a campfire you need a source of heat, kindling, and fuel. Using a lighter for heat is the obvious solution, but a character with the "Trapper" trait can use pebbles to start a fire, and anyone with a binocular or a rifle scope can use them to focus the sunlight on a few twigs to achieve the same. The game tags all items with set crafting proprieties (sharp, flammable, shaft, waterproof, etc), so you can kindle your fire with dozens of items - newspapers, plastic bags, rags, clothes, and even ammo or your sleeping bag, if you're desperate. And if firewood isn't readily available, you can burn your own backpack, your hoodie or even a revolver.

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Now, to be honest, the game wasn't really hard enough to ever drive me to the point where I had to do something like that, but it's a nice feature to have. Survival games are all about making tough choices, so I'm pleased that NEO Scavenger offers so many opportunities for them. However, it does miss out on a few crafting solutions that seem like they should have been possible, such as using rags to protect your hands and feet from the cold, or even the ability to repair weapons and clothing. There are a few mods that implement these mechanics, but it would be nice to see them in the base game as well.

Imaginary Battles

Combat in NEO Scavenger is very special - so much that even the mainstream gaming media devoted an article to it.

It is presented in a simple interface, with your actions and current status on the left, the enemy's on the right, and the current terrain characteristics in the middle. Just like in other events, you select commands, such as “Shoot”, “Kick” or “Walk towards”, and the combat log will describe what happened. There's a wide variety of combat actions that can be performed, depending on the circumstances and on your position, traits, and equipment.

For example, if the enemy is unaware of your position, you can shout to reveal yourself and then try to strike up a friendly conversation (or trick him into believing you are friendly), or you can remain silent and try to sneak up on him. On the other hand, if you are the one being ambushed, then your options will be restricted to searching for the enemy, taking cover, fleeing or [Stoic] just waiting. If the enemy is far away, you can slowly walk towards him or make a quick charge – but that leaves you more vulnerable and increases your chance of tripping and falling over. If you do fall over, you can try to get up, roll in any direction or even attempt to grab the enemy's leg to pull him down too. A character with the "Tough" trait can headbutt enemies, a "Strong" one can create obstacles, a "Trapping" one can set traps, etc. Even your equipment plays a part here - a character wielding a powerful weapon or maybe even just wearing a creepy clown mask can be a lot more persuasive in getting enemies to surrender or flee.

Of course, there's not a single frame of animation in NEO Scavenger, and combat is no exception. The combat log is all the feedback you'll ever get, apart from the occasional nasty status alert popping up on your status screen or the enemy's. While this may seem crude, it allows for actions that even AAA developers would find a challenge to animate, such as headbutting, leg tripping or parrying - all while wielding a frying pan and pushing a shopping cart.

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Actually, the most interesting aspect of NEO Scavenger's combat is how its mechanics are obfuscated. While you do get an accurate description of every action you can perform, the game never tells you how many hit points you or your enemy have, how much damage a weapon does, or to what extent a concussion or broken arm affect you. These things are only hinted at in a subtle way. For example, the game doesn't tell you how much damage you've dealt in an attack, but any person can understand that a knife attack that "tears open the foe's left arm" dealt more damage than one which "grazes the foe's left arm".

Everything else is up to your own judgement. You don’t swap your baseball bat for a machete because the game says it does more damage, but rather because you – the player – feel safer with it. Or maybe because you noticed that it kills things faster. It’s a very bold design decision in this DPS-driven era, and one that succeeds in transmitting a unique sense of tension, as you roll in the mud, tired and wounded, attacking another desperate survivor with a tree branch and wondering who will drop dead first.

This dynamic is, to me, the most memorable aspect of NEO Scavenger. When I spoke about it with Daniel Fedor on our forums, he had this to say:

I think some folks prefer stats, and stats definitely have their place. But I wanted to see how it felt hiding that stuff to make it more about judgment calls and play experience. That, and the absence of information makes us fill in the gaps with our own interpretations. Usually those are cooler than anything I could come up with!​

Just remember that it's a harsh world out there, where even drinking the wrong water can lead to your death, and the combat is just as brutal. Don't be surprised if an armed enemy scavenger kills you in one shot in the first turn of combat when you don't run into cover, or when a police officer call for support and a drone blasts your ass into oblivion. This isn't a power fantasy where you cast fireballs while break dancing with your staff, and combat is a question of opportunity and risk-reward calculation, not your default solution. Most of the time you'll be better off hiding in ruins and erasing your tracks. Then again, taking down that shotgun-wielding scavenger means that you get to take his shotgun...

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That said, sometimes the lack of feedback feels unsatisfying. Sure, ASCII roguelikes are all about a @ and a letter standing next to each other while the combat log goes crazy, but NEO Scavenger could benefit from the visual and audio effects graphical roguelikes can provide, if only to add some weight and to clearly differentiate a hit from a miss. Also, some aspects of combat make a lot of sense once you know about them, but may take you a couple of deaths to even consider. For example, you can only punch enemies who are right next to you, but some weapons have a much longer reach. It's obvious when think about it, but we are so used to RPGs abstracting out certain elements (such as melee combat range) that sometimes it can be hard to know what might actually "work".

And now it's time for a shocking revelation - winning a battle in NEO Scavenger yields nothing but bruises and whatever loot you might find. That's right, there is no combat XP in NEO Scavenger. Actually, there's no XP of any kind in NEO Scavenger. You will never level up, your character will remain the same throughout the entire game. There are only a few exceptions - three implants you can acquire that add new traits, and two "reputations" you can unlock by behaving in a certain way, which provide a few handy passive bonuses and new, powerful combat moves.

All of this reinforces the "meta" aspect of the game. NEO Scavenger isn't about leveling up your character, but rather about the player learning how to survive in the wasteland.

Mom, can I eat this?

But scavenging and fighting are only two aspects of any survival game. They are both just means to an end - keeping your character alive.

Since NEO Scavenger is a survival game, don't expect your character to be magically healed after every battle. Every scratch, bruise, fracture and concussion will still be there afterwards, slowing you down and demanding treatment. You'll have to bandage wounds, craft splints to immobilize broken bones, and deal with infections, poisoning, diseases and of course, vital needs such as warmth, sleep, hunger and thirst.

It's here that the game's tendency towards obfuscation rears it heads once more. You'll look at your character and see status effects such as "Severe Pain" and wonder what the hell that affects. There's no in-game elucidation whatsoever, no tooltip saying "-20% movement speed" or anything like that. In fact, after playing the game for almost 30 hours I'm still unsure what many of these statuses mean.

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I know that if I walk barefoot, I risk hypothermia and move more slowly, but finding a pair of boots is a rare feat in the wastes (as if the world was destroyed by Saci), so what should I do if I only have two right boots? Using a shoe on the wrong foot gives you the "Improper Footwear" status, which quickly leads to "Blisters on Foot". Is that better or worse than going barefoot? I think it's better, but that's just an educated guess. And the entire game is based on guesses like these.

When treating a deep cut, is it better to use a dirty bandage to stop the bleeding if there's no other option, or will that only lead to an infection? When dying of thirst, should you drink the stagnant water you found in the city or try the water from the marsh? Both alternatives are better than dying, but one - or both - might lead to an intestinal infection. And if you get infected, how do you fight it? Are antibiotics enough or do you need additional medicine? Are there even additional types of medicine in the game? Is eating spoiled meat that bad? And what about human meat?

This constant search for solutions, this blind struggle for survival, relying only on what you know – on common sense, not on in-game tips – is what really creates the tension in NEO Scavenger.

The wasteland has claimed your life

In any survival game that seeks to truly maintain tension, permadeath is almost mandatory. The choice between eating some potentially poisonous berries or enduring starvation for a few more turns while searching for safer food is an intense life-and-death dilemma under these circumstances, something that could never be achieved if you could just eat the berries and reload if they proved themselves poisonous. However, if a game is going to enforce such a harsh punishment for death, it should be designed in such a way that deaths are always fair, a result of a bad decision or of an incapability to provide an adequate solution to a challenge.

That's where things get a bit tricky in NEO Scavenger. Surviving battles, diseases, dehydration and starvation is not as straightforward here as in other games, since there's no status screen showing you your exact state. In other RPGs, it’s usually quite easy to stay safe by doing a bit of math – “poison ticks for 5 seconds/turns, each tick for 3 damage, I still have 18 HP so I’m ok” – but NEO Scavenger doesn’t offer that. Some would call this unfair, but I disagree. The game is forthcoming with information - you know you are dying of hypothermia and must find shelter and heat. It just doesn't tell you how many turns you'll last. If you die, it's still due to your failure to provide an adequate solution.

What really make NEO Scavenger unfair are its quests, and the dead ends and instadeath choices that come with them.

The game's main quest is almost as obfuscated as its mechanics and has a heavy S.T.A.L.K.E.R.-like atmosphere. As you travel the wasteland, you'll find old newspapers from which you can try to piece together the events that led to this apocalyptic scenario. And once night falls, your character will see only darkness – except for a glow in the eastern sky, a possible sign of civilization. The world map is huge (though disappointingly empty), and surviving the long walk towards the glow is the first major step in your quest to find out what happened to the world and to yourself.

During this quest you'll face various CYOA-like events, and that's where things get complicated. In tight situations, having the right skills/items and making the correct choices will allow you to survive unharmed – and maybe even get some bonus loot – while a less stellar performance might leave you severely injured, with broken ribs, or even diseased. That's all well and good in a survival game like this. What isn't so good is how making the wrong choices can (and will) outright kill you. For example, at one point midway through the storyline, a character asked me to take one of three trials: Light, Water or Fire. A wrong choice in this event can lead to your death:

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This would be mildly annoying in a regular RPG, a stupid obstacle that forces you to reload. But in a roguelike with permadeath, it's hell. Choose the wrong answer? Your character is erased and you’re thrown back to the main menu. Better start all over again and pray that next time you get it right.

The writing in most of NEO Scavenger's events and quests is atmospheric and efficient, managing to compensate for the lack of any presentation besides a small, static image on the left-hand side of the screen. But while some events are interesting and even thrilling, many of them feel unsatisfying and tacked on. I was especially disappointed that not even once did I ever have to fight as a result of a CYOA section. Not only does that feel like a waste of potential in terms of quest design, but provoking a dumb fight and having to battle impossible odds would still be a much more satisfying death than reading that "stuff happened and then you died".

To make matters worse, various traits such as Hacking, Mechanic and Eagle Eye do not only offer different solutions to some quests, but can sometimes lead to widely different paths – or nowhere at all. For example, there was a point in the game where I managed to successfully track down an important NPC and talk to him to learn about my past, only to reach a dead end. He wouldn't share the information I wanted, and was put under police protection after the conversation ended. My character was perfectly healthy and well-equipped, but I had to start over again with a different set of traits and choices to try and get more information.

NEO Scavenger's non-linear metagaming possibilities slightly alleviate these issues. Regular advancement in the main quest usually yields you nothing but a bit of loot and some information that hints at what you should do next. So if you went to place X, completed a small quest chain there, and learned that you should then go to place Y, you can just go directly to place Y with your next character. The main quest is hard to piece together, but is actually quite short, featuring no more than a couple of locations and events, plus the challenge of surviving the journey from one point to another. Once I had beaten the game and knew what had to be done, I was able to start a new one and speedrun to the ending in less than 15 minutes. However, there is a dialog sequence at the end where you can only ask about things you experienced directly with your current character – a decent incentive to complete all the quests in the game with the same character. There's also a second, very challenging ending.

Still, the CYOA instadeaths are a major frustration - they force a hecatomb approach, where you’ll sacrifice dozens of successful and well-equipped characters to the game’s main quest and see what it gives you in return. Sometimes you might get a hint about what the best course of action is, but too many times you'll find yourself having to choose blindly – and lose your character in the process.

Mods will fix it


The real joy in NEO Scavenger comes from exploring the world, finding new items and crafting your own. While the base game contains a decent amount of stuff to find, enough to keep you entertained for hours, it's not as diverse as it could be, especially when compared to other roguelikes. There are only a handful of guns, coats and events to find, so after a while things get a bit samey. Luckily, the community has developed some great mods that add more content to the game.

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Two mods that I strongly recommend are Mighty (mini)Mod of Doom and Extended NeoScav v4.3, each adding new weapons, clothing, encounters, traits, events, locations and a few interesting balance tweaks that I mentioned in the review. My favorite is Extended NeoScav, which makes the game much more diverse, adding stuff like bicycles (so you can graduate from hobo to hipster), multiple new loot locations (allowing you to loot markets and gun stores), dependencies such as Alcoholic, and even new combat moves. NEO Scavenger's minimalistic presentation allow modders to quickly add features that even AAA devs can't seem to do, such as grappling.

TL;DR

NEO Scavenger is a refreshing game that boldly discards many RPG conventions to create a truly unique experience. The process of learning how to survive, battle and thrive in the wasteland without the safety of precise number crunching is deeply satisfying, as is the process of slowly deciphering its mysterious factions and bizarre phenomena, thanks in part to the game's sparse but competent writing.

However, once you’ve mastered the art of survival and decided to tackle the main quest, NEO Scavenger's difficulty curve reaches a frustrating plateau of trial-and-error guesswork that will force you to restart the game many times, scavenging for basic items and crossing the huge, exceedingly barren wastes, again and again. Reading reviews from other, less prestigious publications shows that many gaming journalists never actually finished the game (one didn’t even reach Detroit!). They just focused on the game's novel survival aspects, fighting the elements, building shelters, battling mutants and enduring diseases. While I don’t agree with their methods, after finishing the game I have to say I agree with their overall conclusion – that is what NEO Scavenger should be played for.

Everyone should give NEO Scavenger a try. Explore the wasteland, eat poisonous berries, kill a mutant with a frying pan, wear a shoe on the wrong foot, become a cannibal and die of hypothermia. It's a fantastic experience, well worth your time. But very few will enjoy the lengthy and repetitive process of sacrificing dozens of characters to piece together its obscure story, and even fewer will enjoy its unremarkable outcome.

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